Moonmist [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Moonmist
[This review contains many major spoilers for Moonmist. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

The day arrived at last when Dante and I had played all the Infocom Zork (and Zork-esque) games, a list that numbered nine. When we set off down this path, I had decided to tack on one more game to put our agenda at an even ten items, and the game I picked was Moonmist. This was a bit random, but it was one of the Infocom games I’d never finished myself, and I’d stumbled across mention of it as one of the earliest video games to include a gay character. Since Dante is genderqueer and an LGBTQ+ activist, this piqued my interest enough to make it our tenth foray.


Let’s address the gay character thing first — it won’t take long because there isn’t much to see. Her name is Vivien Pentreath, a bohemian artist whom the game describes as “a tall, tawny-haired woman of vintage beauty and uncertain age” who speaks in “an attractively low voice”. We don’t get to learn much about Vivien, as the game is quite spare in its descriptions of nearly everyone and everything, and in fact in two separate playthroughs Dante and I learned virtually nothing more about her than what I just listed. We got to the end of Moonmist and thought, “Where was the gay character?”

Well, it turns out that Moonmist is actually several games in one. At the very beginning, the game innocuously asks you your name and your favorite color. We said red for the color, and our interlocutor brightly replied, “Jolly good! The spare bedroom is decorated in red!” Just a bit of personalization, we thought. But craftily enough, that one choice in fact dictated numerous things about the plot of our playthrough — the identity of the murderer, the nature of the hidden treasure, the location and contents of clues for us to find, and so forth. Dante and I played through the red and yellow variants of Moonmist, and for the reasons I’ll talk about below, weren’t interested enough to keep going with the other versions.

That meant that we didn’t get to explore the blue plotline, which heavily implies that Vivien was in love with a woman named Deirdre, who in every plotline seems to have been the victim of a mysterious death. In Moonmist blue, Deirdre’s death was a suicide and Vivien pretends to be her ghost in order to get revenge on the character Lord Jack Tresyllian, Deirdre’s lover at the time of her death. Now this was 1986, so Vivien’s queerness was pretty deeply submerged, especially since this was an introductory level Infocom game, and therefore aimed at least partially at children. But it’s fair enough to call her a gay character, in the blue playthrough anyway. In the games we played, she was pretty much just wallpaper.


Also, like many of the characters in this game, she is tall. Lord Jack is tall. Montague Hyde is tall — his description calls him “a tall, foppish art and antiques dealer”, and he and Vivien together are a “tall graceful older couple,” which certainly puts a coat of heteronormative paint on her at the very least. Then there’s Lt. Ian Fordyce, “a tall blond.” His girlfriend is Iris Vane, about whom the game says, “Her height and figure would make her a perfect high-fashion model.” So, I’m guessing… tall?

All that would be amusing enough, but there’s one more character, the PC’s close friend Tamara Lynd, whose engagement to Jack, sightings of a ghostly “White Lady”, and recent survival of a murder attempt drive the plot. Here’s what the game says when Tamara appears:

Someone comes running out of the wing to greet you. She’s a beautiful red-haired young woman of average height. You recognize her as your friend, Tamara Lynd.

Poor Tamara — she must feel dwarfed in such company. Well, at least she can commiserate with the butler, Bolitho, “a short white-haired gentle man.” Do the characters’ heights figure into the mystery? No they do not. Well, at least not in the red and yellow versions. Authors Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence are just oddly obsessed with making sure we know how tall (or not) everyone is.

That opening scene also gave us the most bananas Infocom bug I’ve ever seen, even weirder than Zork II‘s mysterious blast of air. After being greeted by Tamara, we moseyed into the foyer with her, and tried this:

>ask tamara about white
[Which white do you mean, Bolitho or the White Lady?]

[Which vyou're drvrtlike lek omeuohl was about gdkglm imyxl do you mean,
Bolitho or the White Lady?]

Uh, say what? All I can think is that some kind of funky text compression must have been happening inside that cramped z-machine, and an unexpected disambiguation scenario made it barf out some gibberish we were never supposed to see. It was hilarious.

Cover image from Moonmist

Also good for comedy: the game’s use of the PC’s name. While our selection of favorite color changed vast elements of the plot, our selection of name mainly just let every character address us by first name. This wouldn’t usually be so funny, except for the fact that, inspired by all the Zorks we’d finished, Dante chose the name “Lord Dimwit Flathead.” So, for example, after Tamara rushed out to see us, the game says:

“Dimwit!” she cries with outflung arms.

Other amusing moments:

>ask tamara about white lady
"I've told you all I know in my letter, Dimwit."

>ask jack about punchbowl
"You know as much as I do, Dimwit."

[Congratulations, Lord Dimwit! You've won the game!]

More unintentional comedy sprang from some uses of the game’s default object description, “You look over the [object] for a minute and find nothing suspicious — for now.” Fair enough — it gets the air of melodramatic mystery across. However, sometimes Galley and Lawrence apply it a bit too broadly:

>x sea
You look over the ocean for a minute and find nothing suspicious -- for now.

I’m watching you… OCEAN.


When it isn’t provoking inadvertent laughs, Moonmist often generates quite a lot of frustration due to its shallow implementation. For one thing, the game makes the very odd choice of frequently eliminating room descriptions, providing them instead in its feelies. Infocom was always trying to come up with new angles on copy protection, to somehow make the game dependent on its printed matter. Often this works out to entering some kind of code, as in Sorcerer‘s infotater or The Lurking Horror‘s ID card. Sometimes games hide key information amongst a bunch of fun fluff, as in Zork Zero‘s Flathead calendar or Beyond Zork‘s “Lore and Legends of Quendor” handbook.

Moonmist, I’m sorry to say, takes this whole notion a step too far. The feelies include a tourist brochure of the castle that describes each room, but the game decides that since you’ve got those descriptions in hand, it doesn’t need to provide them. Sure, this accomplishes the usual necessity of providing key mystery-solving information in the feelies only, but it’s also incredibly disruptive to immersion. The overall effect is of wandering around a mostly blank landscape, and having to flip back and forth between the game and a document to get a sense of what’s there. Not only that, the game fails to implement many of the objects listed in the brochure’s descriptions, breaking mimesis even further.

Even when it’s not leaning on its feelies, Moonmist doles out its text quite parsimoniously, especially when it comes to conversation. All those tall NPCs rarely deign to divulge much, providing stock “dunno” responses to most queries, and generally remaining rather terse even on subjects they’ll respond about. (Though, the fact that they kept calling us “Dimwit” lightened the annoyance a bit.)

Objects, too, tend to be rendered with sparse brushstrokes. Most of them lack descriptions at all. They just don’t yield anything suspicious — for now. Generally, when an object doesn’t provide that default description, it’s because that object somehow matters to the plot, or rather a plot. Quite often we would find empty hiding places for things, because we weren’t in a plot branch that used the hiding place. For example, observe the difference between these mounted animal trophy heads in the game room (which, as Dante pointed out, has multiple senses of the word “game”):

>x buffalo
You look over the stuffed buffalo head for a minute and find nothing suspicious -- for now.

>x rhino
You can see nothing special inside it.

You can bet that there is something special inside the rhino’s head in some other favorite color’s plot configuration, because otherwise Moonmist would not have bothered with implementing that object as a container. This kind of thing makes for a number of moments which feel like they should be interesting discoveries, but instead land completely flat.

Screenshot of the first few moves of Moonmist, including us naming our character Lord Dimwit Flathead


“Flat” was the adjective that kept coming to us as we explored the game. Even when something dramatic is supposed to happen to enhance the plot, Moonmist tends to handle it with a small non-interactive infodump. For example, discovery of the ghost in the red plotline happens when the PC spends a moment in a certain outdoor location. Here’s how it went for us:

(You open the door and close it again.)
(You are on the path.)
This is an area behind shrubbery by a steep cliff overlooking the sea. In the dim light, you can barely see a path leading north along the cliff. A priest hole and a lever are on the outer wall.

>turn on lantern
Okay, it is now on.

You start to follow the path, but it's too tricky in the dim light, so you turn back.

Out of the dark comes a figure with long blonde hair, dressed all in silvery white and glowing with an almost unearthly light. The ghost approaches you, her cold eyes shining. In a moment, she sees you and freezes.

>ask ghost about deirdre
She says, "Please don't speak, just listen! I'm really Deirdre, and I'm alive. Jack tried to murder me, and I think he murdered Lionel! He pushed me down the well, but an underground stream carried me quickly to sea, where I was rescued by a yacht.
I have come back to Tresyllian Castle in disguise -- both to frighten him and to find some proof of Lionel's murder. And to incriminate Lord Jack for my own 'murder' by planting the tiny red jewel from my necklace in the clothes he wore that night -- but then I lost it in the drawing room."
She goes on, "But now that you're on the case, I can leave the country with the yacht captain. Find proof of Lionel's murder, and we both can rest easily!" She races off down the path.

(Congratulations, Lord Dimwit! You've identified the ghost!)

Plop. That “don’t speak, just listen” told us that it didn’t really matter what we said to Deirdre — as long as we addressed her in any way at all, everything was going to come spilling out. It’s pretty easy to be a detective when the victim runs up to you and gives you the solution to the crime. We identified the ghost, I guess, but we felt pretty flat afterwards.

In fact, some of the game’s mystery infrastructure felt like it had never been filled out at all, so instead of finding clues we found placeholders labeled “clue”. Really:

>look under punchbowl
You find the first clue underneath, so you take it.

“The first clue”? Not something like “a neatly folded piece of parchment paper”, just… “the first clue”. At moments like this, Moonmist really feels more like a board game than an interactive fiction. Rather than trying to immerse the player in a fictional world and an unspooling story, the game lays its mechanics completely bare and marks them as mechanics, just to make sure we know where we are in its structure.

That’s pretty much how it went for our whole traversal of the red plotline — squinting to uncover rare descriptions, interspersed with occasional anticlimaxes as the game popped up plot fragments like targets in a pinball machine. We got to the end and said, “Okay then!” Out of curiosity, we then decided to play through the yellow variation, only to run across one of those puzzles whose solution is so unintuitive we would never have come up with it sans InvisiClues. After that, we both felt done with the game, uninspired to plod through the other two branches.

I suspect that the version 3 z-machine bears some of the blame for Moonmist‘s shortcomings. Stuffing even one full mystery plot into that 128K is a pretty tall order — 4 is just too many for such a small format. Still, the idea of a mystery that can go a bunch of different directions when you replay it is a fundamentally cool idea, even though the authors and the technology really couldn’t support it in a way that felt satisfying. Give Moonmist credit for stretching, even if its reach ultimately exceeded its grasp.

Also to Moonmist‘s credit: the general concept of a kooky old house with tons of embedded secrets is a great IF setting, and this game did it before it was a chestnut. Hollywood Hijinx is cut from the same cloth, and released almost the same time. Plenty of other games have followed suit, but Moonmist was a pioneer.

Maybe this game was just ahead of its time, simply a more expansive and ambitious attempt than the state of the art could maintain. It didn’t land very well with us, but a more updated version might. I wonder if Rian Johnson would ever be open to an IF Knives Out game? With the proper writer attached, I’d play that in a heartbeat.

A Party To Murder by David Good [Comp02]

IFDB page: A Party To Murder
Final placement: 28th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I will say this for it: A Party To Murder is the best ADRIFT game I’ve ever played. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much. Even if it were written in a first-tier IF language, APTM would have some problems to overcome, but as it is, it’s hopelessly lumbered by the terrible, terrible ADRIFT parser. We’re talking about a mystery game here, reminiscent of Suspect — you play a guest at a party where a murder is discovered, and you must extricate yourself from suspicion. A mystery game, okay? You might think that, in a mystery game, you’d be able to SEARCH things. Not this one — it doesn’t recognize SEARCH, LOOK IN, or LOOK THROUGH. Worse, with the latter two it parses them as LOOK rather than just admitting that it doesn’t recognize them. Same with LOOK UNDER and LOOK BEHIND. Hint: ignoring prepositions doesn’t make them go away, it just makes your response more likely to be wrong.

Perhaps, in a mystery game, you might want to SHOW things to NPCs. You can’t here. Even if you hold a completely damning piece of evidence and want to show it to the person whom it damns, all you get from the ADRIFT parser is “I don’t understand what you want me to do with the letter.” Maybe, in a mystery game, you might even want to TELL someone about something. In this game, you can’t. All these very basic verbs, absolutely standard with any first-tier system, are unavailable in ADRIFT, and their absence absolutely slaughters this game. In fact, from a very early stage, whenever I encountered one of the game’s many containers, I got in the habit of trying to GET ALL FROM it, because that was the only reliable way I could get the game to tell me whether there was anything inside. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly feeling immersed in the story while doing so.

As I said above, even if all these problems were resolved, APTM still wouldn’t be a great game. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the game seems to operate on its own inscrutable logic rather than any sort of recognizable sense of cause-and-effect. For instance, there’s a portion of the game where access to a useful item is being controlled by one of the NPCs. The only way to persuade this NPC to let you have the object is to perform a long series of apparently arbitrary tasks, and the NPC doesn’t really indicate that it wants these tasks performed. The only way I found out was via the walkthrough, and I’d be surprised if anybody figured it out any other way.

Of course, by that time I was going straight from the walkthrough anyway, because in my initial playthrough of the game, I never found that NPC at all — it seems she only appears after a particular item has been discovered, even though that item is more or less unrelated to her absence. Oh, and that item is only accessible by using an object whose primary logical use is unimplemented in the game. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t name what that object is, but just for example, if you found a knife, and the game didn’t understand the word CUT, you might think that knife was a red herring (and that the game was lazily implemented). Wouldn’t you be surprised to find out from the walkthrough that even though CUT isn’t implemented, you still need the knife to, oh I don’t know, scrape the mud off a stone tablet or something? Something analogous occurs in this game.

See what I mean about inscrutable logic? In addition to logic problems, there are certain implementation errors as well. For example, most of the game consists of a flashback, but typing X ME while still in the frame story depicts the PC as if the flashback was already happening.

So after all this, what makes APTM the best ADRIFT game I’ve ever played? Well, for one thing, despite the occasional glitch, it does have a decent depth of implementation. Most first-level nouns are described, and the setting is rather richly detailed. I spent an inordinate number of hours with Suspect when I was younger, and at times this game brought back pleasant memories of that experience. The writing gets its job done with a minimum of errors, and the NPCs are coded to handle a reasonable number of inquiries. In fact, a couple of times during the game I asked an NPC about a somewhat extraneous topic, and was happily surprised to discover that the response had been implemented.

Another point in favor of the NPCs is that they will sometimes react sensibly to strange actions on the player’s part; for instance, walking into the teenage daughter’s bedroom while she’s making out with the neighbor elicits angry responses from both of them, escalating in intensity the longer the PC hangs around. Snooping around the objects in the house, though it’s necessary, also provokes suspicion from some of the NPCs. Then again, nobody gives you a second glance when you walk through the house carrying an 8-foot ladder, so this realistic implementation is really rather patchy. Overall, APTM would be a seaworthy craft, but between the logic holes in its hull and the tsunamis of ADRIFT inadequacy, it sinks dismally fast.

Rating: 4.6

Mystery Manor by Dana Crane as Mystery [Comp01]

IFDB page: Mystery Manor
Final placement: 43rd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I played this game on Halloween. I was alone in the house. The lights were off. There was a full moon outside. I was experiencing an eerie lull in the trick-or-treating. I could not have been more primed to be creeped out, frightened, and made into a paranoid wreck. Sadly, even when conditions are perfect, this game falls far short of effectiveness in the creep-out arena. The only thing that’s really scary about it is its writing. Observe, IF YOU DARE:

A swirl of icey air rushes past you, with bringing the sound of a womans screams. Just as you are about to make a run for it , the bloody decapitated body blocks your way. Holding her head in front of your face, so she may get a good look at you, the bloody head whimpers, “You are not the one” with that the ghost flees with a ear piercing scream.

Hmm, let’s see. “Icey” instead of “icy”. “With bringing the sound”? “Womans screams” instead of “woman’s screams”. Bizarre space before the comma (following “run for it”.) “The” bloody decapitated body? It was never mentioned before this. “Holding her head… the bloody head whimpers” — very funny misplaced modifier. “With that” should begin a new sentence, and there should be a period after “the one”. “A ear piercing scream” instead of “an ear-piercing scream”. And that’s just three sentences! It’s too bad this game didn’t give out points every time I spotted an error, because if it did, I think I’d have earned 524,000 points out of a possible 200, earning me the rank of Gibbering Grammarian.

Oh, or how about this: forget the writing errors — what if the game gave out points every time I spotted an implementation error! Man, I’d have scored big-time during scenes like this:

You are in the dining room [...] The room is dark, lit only by
reflections from lightning outdoors.

This is a nostalgic oak dining table. The surface reflects the
overhead lighting. It has a beautiful oak finish.

So the table’s surface reflects the overhead lighting, even when there is no overhead lighting! Oooh, spooky! Elsewhere, a whiskey bottle contains more spirits than just the alcoholic kind:

You open the bottle of whiskey.

I don't think you'll get anything out of the bottle if it isn't
opened. Your mouth is dry, palms moist.

The bottle of whiskey is already open!

I don't think you'll get anything out of the bottle if it isn't
opened. Your mouth is dry, palms moist.

I keep opening it, but some invisible force stops me from drinking it! Don’t look now Scooby, but I think that whiskey bottle is… HAUNTED! Too bad, because I could really have used a belt at that point.

Then there were the numerous problems that were probably ADRIFT‘s fault rather than the game’s. There’s the famous “Nothing special” line whenever you EXAMINE <any word the parser doesn’t know>, including EXAMINE PARSER. Always a pleasure. There are the pop-up graphics that I think failed to pop up. (I’m guessing this based on the fact that I had files like “UfloorPL.bmp” in my directory, yet X UPPER FLOOR PLAN yielded no graphics.) There are the “cannot draw map — too complex” errors that the mapper gave me EVERY SINGLE FREAKING TURN after a while. There’s this sort of interaction:

It is a large stainless steel refrigerator, with magnets strewed
about the surface. You don't notice any kind of fingerprints or
smudges on it. The refrigerator is closed.

You open the refrigerator.

It is a large stainless steel refrigerator, with magnets strewed
about the surface. You don't notice any kind of fingerprints or
smudges on it. The refrigerator is open.

Yes, I know it’s open, but what’s inside it? Apparently the ADRIFT parser searches on keywords and just ignores those other tiresome words that might happen to surround the keywords, thus neatly avoiding pretty much the entire concept of prepositions. My favorite extreme example of this tendency (from this game anyway):

Take what?

“Hey man,” says the ADRIFT parser, “I don’t care what else you say — as long as you type “GET” anywhere in there, I’m going to ask, ‘Take what?’ Um… not that I’ll be able to handle it if you actually answer me.” Okay, one more example then I promise I’ll quit:

You can't lie in the bed.

You can't lie on the bed.

You lie down on the ground.

I don't understand what you want me to do with the bed.

You stand up.

You stand on the bed.

Yay! Endless hours of fun. Not the sort of fun that the game seems to expect me to be having, but still. The endless well of humor from a terrible game was just the thing to lighten up a potentially scary Halloween night. Too bad that sort of thing doesn’t factor into the rating.

Rating: 2.3

Film At Eleven by Bowen Greenwood [Comp01]

IFDB page: Film at Eleven
Final placement: 10th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Like a miniature version of Dangerous Curves, this game takes us into a town where trouble’s brewing at City Hall, NPCs abound, and it’ll take a little trickery to crack the case before time runs out. Of course, there are significant differences. Instead of a downtrodden private eye, the PC here is the rather incongruously named Betty Byline, a television reporter on her first big assignment. The character’s name is strange, not just because television reporters don’t really have bylines, but because it signals a sort of cartoony, Archie-comics wholesomeness that’s notably missing from the rest of the game. It’s not as if the mayor is named Vinnie Veto and the bartender Sammy Scotchensoda. Thus, Betty finds herself a silly-name character somewhat misplaced in a more realistic world.

Another difference from Dangerous Curves is that the setting isn’t 1940s Los Angeles but rather a tiny little burg with the ill-chosen name of Pleasantville. The name will inevitably conjure up images of the 1998 Tobey Maguire/Reese Witherspoon movie, but it’s unrelated — pretty much everything’s already in color, making those images an unwelcome distraction. The game tells us that Pleasantville is a small town, and it ain’t kidding; pretty much everything significant in the town gets encompassed in a little over a dozen locations. This is appropriate, though, given that Film At Eleven is a competition game. In fact, the similarity to Dangerous Curves had me worried for a minute there, given that you could spend two hours in that game and not even come close to seeing all the locations. Instead, the smalltown setting makes the game’s scope perfect for the 2-hour rule of the competition.

Something else that helped me reach a solution in under two hours was the game’s generosity of design. There’s a time limit, but it’s not terribly tight — I had no trouble getting to the solution well before time ran out. Of course, this may be due to the fact that the puzzles weren’t terribly difficult, being mostly of the “give x to y” or “show x to y” variety. I don’t say this as a criticism — I’m all for easy puzzles. They keep me moving through the story while providing reasonable pacing, and help me to feel that I’m letting the PC be moderately clever without my having to be Sherlock Holmes (or Peter Wimsey, to reflect my current reading jag).

They especially help in competition games, where I don’t really have the luxury of spending a week letting the puzzles percolate. I didn’t have to refer to the walkthrough in order to complete this game, and that’s a refreshing change. However, I did look at the walkthrough after I’d finished, and discovered that to its credit, Film At Eleven provides multiple solutions to several of its problems. Such flexible design does quite a bit to enhance the pleasure of the IF experience.

That pleasure wasn’t completely unmitigated, sad to say. Aside from the poor naming choices I discussed above, the game is also lightly laced with misspellings and formatting errors. Quotes occasionally appear without quotation marks, linebreaks sometimes went missing, and spaces between words are MIA once in a while as well.

Moreover, several of the puzzles turned on the fact that the NPCs were unrealistically unobservant. For instance, I found myself able to smuggle rather large items through rooms occupied by people who might reasonably have had something to say about the theft. Even when a puzzle wasn’t at stake, I found it rather frustrating when I’d show an important item to someone who should have been surprised to see it, and they’d nonchalantly shrug their shoulders. Still, these quibbles aside, this was a solid game, and I enjoyed it very much. Betty Byline’s adventures gave me a pleasant evening’s diversion, and I felt a rush of vicarious triumph when I’d finally helped her reach that first big scoop of her career.

Rating: 8.9