Wishbringer [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Wishbringer
[This review contains many major spoilers for Wishbringer, medium-level spoilers for Beyond Zork, and some details that might technically be considered spoilers for Trinity and other Zork games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Brian Moriarty is responsible for only three Infocom games, but what a trio it is. There’s Trinity, often hailed as the best game in the entire catalog, and pretty much always in the consensus conversation about the cream of Infocom’s crop. There’s Beyond Zork, which in many ways is a hot mess but which was also one of the most ambitious Infocom titles ever, in the ways it attempted to improve the text adventure interface and marry the IF tradition to the emerging CRPG. Then there’s Wishbringer, Moriarty’s debut and a charming work of quasi-Zorkian lore that mostly succeeds in its attempt to provide a friendly doorway into the world of interactive fiction.

>CONNECT THE GAMES

What I didn’t realize, at least not until playing Beyond Zork and Wishbringer in close proximity, is how many threads tie them together. It first occurred to me when we encountered the umbrella. You know the one — its handle is carved like a parrot’s head, I assume in homage to the one in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. Trinity gets cred for the way it references Travers, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, and others, but this particular Travers reference predates Trinity by a year. I saw it in Wishbringer and thought, “Is this umbrella in every Moriarty Infocom game?” Yep, sure is.

That’s nothing, though, compared to the ties between Wishbringer and Beyond Zork. Look at this:

  • A Magick Shoppe where “a concealed bell tinkles merrily.”
  • For that matter, funky spellings like “magick” and “shoppe”
  • Hellhounds and eldritch vapors
  • A lighthouse
  • A cat that you can pick up, but which squirms out of your arms in a few turns
  • Anthropomorphic platypi belonging to royal courts
  • A whistle connected with transportation
  • Connections from the fairy tale in the Wishbringer documentation — fields of Frotzen, a coconut of Quendor, hungry Implementors
  • A horseshoe for luck
  • Chocolate in your inventory

Dante and I played these games out of order, but having played through Wishbringer it became clear how much Beyond Zork was in part a project to solidify the connections between Moriarty’s first game and the Zork universe. That said, Wishbringer is clearly a Zork game even without those connections forward. For one thing, it’s got the grues. By this point Dante and I had dressed up like a grue, repelled grues, even become a grue. Wishbringer let us comfort a baby grue and get milk out of a grue fridge — a fittingly adorable grue variation for this beginner’s game.

Even more on-the-nose was the “shimmering trail” to a location called “West of House”, complete with mailbox and leaflet. In keeping with the game’s less-austere tone, this mailbox pops out of the ground and follows you around, like a mute echo of Planetfall‘s Floyd. The game’s messaging is a little muddled around this Zorky callback, though. When we first walk the path, we get a “shock of recognition” upon arriving West of House — seemingly we’ve been here before, and perhaps this mail clerk is even the Zork adventurer somehow? When we leave, though, it says:

As the house disappears into the distance, you get the distinct feeling that, someday, you will pass this way again.

Which is it, Wishbringer? Were we there before or will we be again? I guess, given the number of games that have quoted that location, both could be true. In fact, Zork Zero, both a future and a past game depending on your perspective, even had its share of ties to Wishbringer — an ever-burning candle, some granola mines, and even the trick of transforming a landscape, at least in its prologue.

>EXPLORE LANDSCAPE. G.

That transforming landscape trick is one of the best things Wishbringer does. Experiencing a landscape, then re-experiencing it after a fundamental change, is a powerful technique in IF, and a fantastic way to create emotional resonances for the player and the character. Steve Meretzky would later take this approach to its apotheosis in A Mind Forever Voyaging, but Moriarty lays wonderful groundwork here.

The cover of Infocom's grey box for Wishbringer. Two hands are cupped around a bright purple light. Text above reads"Through strange, savage zones your way will be shown by the magical stone called WISHBRINGER".

Cleverly, the game’s design forces us to cross Festeron before it transforms, so that we can’t avoid seeing a variety of different locations that will then take on a different cast in Witchville. I wonder, though, if the time limit in the early game serves this design very well. With Mr. Crisp and the game itself urging us to hurry hurry hurry, we’re led to not only take the most direct path, but to rush through locations without noticing their features.

I think I’d rather the game had made the Magick Shoppe a little harder to find, so that we must traverse and pay close attention to more of Festeron, and therefore feel the creepiness of its change all the more strongly. In addition, sometimes a message in Witchville will clearly reference a change from Festeron, but if the player hasn’t visited that location prior to the switch, that message pretty much goes to waste. An example is the broken speaker in the church when you pick up the candle.

I shockingly failed to mention in my Spellbreaker review that it was the very first Infocom game that Dante and I played in this entire project that didn’t force us to restart. Hooray for Lebling and his excellent design, breaking away from one of the most tedious IF traditions! I mention this because Dante and I voluntarily restarted Wishbringer due to the time limit discussed above. It wasn’t that the game became unwinnable without this restart, but that we wanted to experience more of Festeron so that we could better appreciate Witchville.

We volunteered for something else, too. Wishbringer, as I said, is a game for newcomers to interactive fiction, and therefore tries not to be too forbidding in its puzzles. Consequently, many of the game’s puzzles can be solved either the old-fashioned way, or alternately via the magic(k) wishes of the title stone. Dante and I, playing our ninth Zorky game, felt like experts at this point, so we set out to solve the game without using any wishes at all.

It’s a sign of Wishbringer‘s craft that this path felt challenging but not daunting. We were able to complete the game in nine sessions, ranging from 30 to 90 minutes each, and the one time we got really stuck it was our own fault, because we’d failed to take a pretty obvious action. (For the record, we didn’t read the love note once it was out of its envelope.) Once we got over that hurdle, it was pretty smooth sailing to the endgame.

>WISH FOR MULTIPLE SOLUTIONS

I don’t have the greatest sense of how various tropes and techniques developed in 1980s interactive fiction outside of Infocom — for that you’d have to turn to Aaron Reed or Jimmy Maher. But at least within the Infocom canon, Wishbringer was the first to thoroughly integrate a sensibility of multiple puzzle solutions. Sure, these date back as far as Zork I, though that game’s version of “multiple solutions” generally involved one that made sense and one that was a cutesy (or nonsensical) magic word. Its commitment to multiple solutions was as haphazard as the rest of its aesthetic.

Wishbringer, on the other hand, puts multiple solutions at the core of its design, and the result is a world that not only feels more welcoming to beginners but also feels richer and more real. After all, we don’t have wish-granting stones in our world, but we generally do have multiple approaches available when confronted with a problem, so when a game world offers multiple paths through the same barrier, it’s easier to believe in that world, even when some of the paths are magical. Let’s not forget — some of the problems are magical too!

Even better, just as the protagonist has multiple ways of solving problems, so too do the antagonists have multiple ways of causing problems. Wishbringer is the rare mid-80’s game in which enemies learn from their mistakes. Find a hole that lets you out of the prison cell? Well the next time you get thrown into that cell, that hole has been patched with concrete. Escape again? Nevermind — they’ll just throw you into the ocean.

The opening screen of Wishbringer, including a prompt preceded with "Okay, what do you want to do now?"

Playing a beginner’s game as experts, it was hard for Dante and I to judge just how easily an IF newbie would accustom to it, but we could certainly see that Wishbringer was doing its best to be welcoming. Even beyond the multiple puzzle solutions, there’s friendly text like “Okay, what do you want to do now?” before the first few prompts, gradually tapering off so that it doesn’t become tedious. There’s also this friendly death message:

Looks like the story’s over. But don’t despair! Interactive fiction lets you learn from your mistakes.

We looked at each other after our first time seeing this message, and agreed with a smile that for accuracy’s sake, “lets you” should probably be replaced with “often forces you to”.

Even so, we found Wishbringer a charming experience, and a very pleasant end to our journey through Infocom’s Zork titles. As cat lovers, we especially appreciated that the point of the story is to rescue a cat, and in an even more satisfying way than Beyond Zork had allowed. With nine games down, we had only one remaining in our list, and it would be a new experience for both of us, given that I’d never played it to completion. Moonmist awaits!

The Erudition Chamber by Daniel Freas [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Erudition Chamber
Final placement: 4th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Even though puzzles with multiple solutions tend to get a lot of respect, we still don’t see all that many of them. That’s because creating an interesting puzzle with one solution is hard enough; creating one that can be solved in at least two different ways, each challenging and interesting, is that much more difficult. The task that The Erudition Chamber sets itself is harder still. This game lays out four different puzzles, each of which can be solved in any of four different ways. To add yet another layer of complexity to the picture, each of the four solutions belongs to a particular category of approach. There are the Warrior solutions (brute force), the Artisan solutions (clever jiggery-pokery with mechanisms), the Alchemist solutions (changing the form of the obstacle), and the Seer solutions (finding a way around the problem so as not to have to deal with it at all.)

This sort of thing is tough to do, and for the most part, EC pulls it off. I say “for the most part”, because there are still some flaws. For one thing, some of the puzzles seem designed to lend themselves much more naturally to one approach or the other — a puzzle designed by an Artisan, in the game’s terms, will still require even a Warrior to think a lot like an Artisan in order to solve it. Another imperfection is that sometimes, the categories aren’t really as distinct from one another as they should be, especially between Warriors and Alchemists. After all, breaking something and changing its form aren’t really always all that far apart.

Still, the game succeeds more often than it fails, and in some ways it felt like a fun, interactive “What Sort Of IF Player Are You?” quiz. I ended up 3 parts Artisan, 1 part Warrior, which may be a reflection of having played lots of IF. When I can see that a machine has been implemented, my inclination is to play around with that machine until it does the thing that it’s supposed to do, even if perhaps easier or more obvious solutions are available. I think that inclination may be the result of conditioning inflicted by dozens of Myst clones and their IF cousins. The Erudition Chamber is also reminiscent of Sean Barrett’s game Heroes, from Comp01, though from a significantly different angle. Where Heroes takes the player through the landscape several times in the role of different characters (Adventurer, Thief, Mage, etc.), and only lets us see what the particular character would notice, Erudition Chamber makes all aspects of the landscape available at once, and thus lets the PC create character on its own.

This game’s approach has the advantage of being more open-ended and available to mixed approaches, but the downside is that it is necessarily more bland than if it had been written with a more specific character in mind. In addition, there’s a frame story that doesn’t make a lot of sense and really adds nothing of value to the game. EC would have been better off chucking the whole time-manipulation and alternate history business, and focusing instead on the student as a novice who now must choose a path, or set of paths.

The other problem with the game is its writing, which needs a major round of proofreading. Spelling errors, for instance, are a pet peeve of mine, and games that have such errors in their very first room description (“Chisled stone steps”) annoy me even more. There are quite a few mistakes that could have been found simply by running the game’s text through a spell-checker, and there’s really no reason not to do this. Other problems, such as the numerous comma splices, would have been caught by the careful attention of a proofreader or editor.

Troubled prose like that always weakens a game for me, and it’s a pity, because this game is pretty strong in lots of other areas. I found no bugs, which always pleases me, especially in a comp game. It’s certainly a quantum leap in quality over Freas’ last work (Greyscale), and I feel encouraged that his next game may take the ingenuity shown by Erudition Chamber and combine it with the level of polish needed to make the gameplay experience as enjoyable as it should be.

Rating: 7.9

Scavenger by Quintin Stone [Comp03]

IFDB page: Scavenger
Final placement: 3rd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, here’s what’s not good about this game. First of all, the setting and characters are quite clich├ęd. It’s your standard-issue post-apocalyptic world (a nuclear war apocalypse, even), with bandits, scavengers, armed provisional-government thugs, and frightened orphans, all straight from Central Casting. The author mentions that the setting originated with a MUSH that then morphed into an Unreal Tournament full conversion mod, and this makes perfect sense — it feels more like an excuse for a background than a fully realized fictional world.

Secondly, there are some moments of shaky design, particularly a “learn-by-dying” puzzle that occurs near the midgame. Now, I’ll certainly acknowledge that the game includes some important details that hint toward the solution, and it could be argued that it’s possible to solve this puzzle without dying first, but to do so would still take a pretty remarkable amount of foresight, not to mention willingness to give up an item that you might need later. Finally, Scavenger isn’t a two-hour game, or at least it wasn’t for me. Maybe somebody who was a sharper puzzle-solver, or relied more on the hints, might have solved this game in two hours, but I found myself only about two-thirds of the way through once time ran out. Since I was at least past the halfway point (and perhaps further than I thought, depending on how fast the points mount up in the endgame), I’m not as indignant about it as I might be, but the fact remains that if I’m not able to finish the game within my two-hour playing slot, my playing experience ends up unsatisfying.

Right. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what’s good about this game: everything else. With just a few exceptions, the implementation is nothing short of outstanding. Almost everything I ever wanted to examine was described, and described well, which created a great sense of immersion. Despite the fact that the basic concepts of the setting are rather hackneyed, the actual writing is strong, with exposition cleverly worked into object and room descriptions, and some very nicely judged details included. The writing not only creates a vivid sense of place, it’s also pretty much entirely free of spelling and grammar errors, with just a few typos marring the prose on occasion.

Scavenger‘s parser is similarly well-crafted. I remember several fantastic moments where I tried a non-standard verb that made sense in the situation, and the game handled it beautifully. It’s not perfect — for instance, I had a flashlight that the game wouldn’t let me point at objects — but those lapses were much more the exception than the rule, and that completeness made Scavenger a real pleasure to play. The hint system was quite good too, a context-sensitive setup that doled out gentle nudges ramping up reasonably gradually to outright solutions. The context-sensitivity failed at a couple of points, offering hints for puzzles I’d already solved, but the system came through where it counted: I always had a hint available when I needed one for the puzzle I was stuck on. Altogether, this is a very professionally implemented game. The credits list no fewer than eleven testers, and their influence shows through again and again.

Along with implementation, design was another of Scavenger‘s strengths. First of all, casting the PC as a scavenger, somebody who survives by exploring unfamiliar territory and taking everything that isn’t nailed down, is a brilliant way of working basic IF conventions into a coherent fictional concept. When encountering the game’s puzzles (most of which were quite good, sometimes involving multi-stage solutions, every step of which made sense), every action I took to solve them felt perfectly in character, which makes for a great IF experience. Objects are sometimes useful in more than one place, and conversely, places sometimes show potential to have more than one important facet — whenever a game can pull this off, its reward is a much stronger sense of realism.

In addition, the basic structure of the game includes a rewarding multiple-solution setup, involving a selection of resources during the prologue. Scavenger presents you with a store where you can buy certain items that may be useful on your journey, but you can’t buy them all. The way you solve subsequent puzzles will depend on which resources you’ve chosen, and alternate solutions are available even when you don’t have the item that facilitates the more obvious choice. The other nifty feature of this limited-resource arrangement is that the game makes sure that most of these resources must be used up fairly early (for example, a grenade that must be thrown to remove an initial barrier), thereby eliminating the combinatorial explosion that their presence would cause in later sections of the game. I think this multiple-solution design will make for great replay value, though of course I can’t say for sure since as of this writing I haven’t even managed to play through the game once.

One more design note: on several occasions, Scavenger gently shepherded me in the direction of the plot, always doing so in a way that made perfect sense for my character. Every time this happened, I smiled with appreciation. In fact I was smiling a lot during Scavenger, and my notes are full of little comments that read “VERY NICE” or something similar. It would have been improved by a few puzzle tweaks, a more original setting, and either being released outside the comp or streamlined to a more reasonable two-hour size, but I can still enthusiastically recommend it.

Rating: 9.1