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.


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.


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.


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!

Enchanter [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Enchanter
[This review contains lots of major spoilers for Enchanter, plus spoilers of various sizes for lots of Zork games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Having finished all the Infocom games with the word “Zork” in their names, Dante and I turned our attention to the game we glimpsed when Zork III‘s Scenic Vista let us see the future, the game that would have been called Zork IV but instead became Enchanter. Infocom made a great call by keeping the Zork brand off this game, because its primary mechanic fundamentally separates it from the original trilogy.

That basic mechanic — spellcasting — is dynamite. Instead of accumulating more and more objects, the PC of this game accumulates skills, sometimes even superpowers. Sure, some of these skills are comically puzzle-specific, but even so, every new spell added to the spell book makes the PC feel more capable and powerful. Rather than just some wandering kleptomaniac who knows how to put rod A into slot B and goes around doing various versions of that again and again, the Enchanter protagonist feels like an organically growing and improving being.

That sense of growth and improvement works well in tandem with the plot, too. That’s right: plot. There’s more story in Enchanter than in all the original trilogy games put together. Yes, wisps of story had started to appear with the Wizard of Frobozz and the Dungeon Master, but this game gives us a full-fledged quest plot with dramatic stakes, not just a shambolic treasure hunt.

As plots go, it’s fairly rudimentary and rather logically flawed — we’re really placing the fate of the realm in the hands of someone with almost no skills? Okay, I guess there’s a prophecy or something, but it’s all a little pat and strains credulity. (Comp99’s Spodgeville Murphy ably parodies this notion with its line, “Another champion must be sought; an idiot unskilled in anything but adventuring…”) Still, compared to the Zork trilogy, a plot framework like this is a quantum leap forward. And having established that the PC starts with very few skills makes the skill-building experience that much more exciting and rewarding.


So Enchanter distinguishes itself from Zork both by its level of character specificity and its level of narrative drive, and it’s clearly well aware of the comparison, because it plays up the contrast to hilarious effect via its inclusion of the adventurer NPC. He’s the source of most of the game’s best jokes, and we were exactly the right audience for them, having just played through five Zork games. Some of our favorite lines:

  • The adventurer stares at his possessions as if expecting a revelation.
  • The adventurer pulls out his map, a convoluted collection of lines, arrows, and boxes, and checks it briefly.
  • The adventurer asks for directions to Flood Control Dam #3.
  • The adventurer waves at you and asks “Hello, Sailor?” Strange, you’ve never even been to sea. [Even better, if you respond to this by giving him something, say your loaf of bread:] A wide smile comes over his face as he takes the loaf of bread, as though your action resolved for him some great mystery.
  • The adventurer offers to relieve you of some of your possessions.
  • [If the enchanter follows you onto the illusory stairs, which support you but not him:] The adventurer seems to have dropped out of existence. In a voice that seems to recede into the void, you hear his final word: “Restore….” You muse about how a mere adventurer might come to possess a spell of such power.
  • The adventurer attempts to eat his sword. I don’t think it would agree with him.

So this is clearly the Zork adventurer, and even the way you acquire him — from the other side of a magical mirror — has a wonderful resonance with the teleportation mirrors of Zork I. But in case you thought perhaps he’d warped in from another universe or something, the details of the Gallery location dispel that idea immediately:

The east-west corridor opens into a gallery. The walls are lined with portraits, some of apparently great value. All of the eyes seem to follow you as you pass, and the entire room is subtly disturbing.

>examine portraits
The portraits represent a wide cross-section of races. Elves, gnomes, dwarves, wizards, warlocks, and just plain folk are all here. Some of them are known to you, such as Lord Dimwit Flathead of the Great Underground Empire, depicted here in excessive detail, and the Wizard of Frobozz, shown in a typical pose of anguished bewilderment.

The adventurer himself has a satisfying reaction if you happen to catch him wandering into this location:

The adventurer stops and stares at the portraits. “I’ve met him!” he gasps, pointing at the Wizard of Frobozz. He doesn’t appear eager to meet him again, though. “And there’s old Flathead! What a sight!” He glances at the other portraits briefly and then re-checks his map.

The cover of the Enchanter folio package

So while the contrast between the enchanter and the adventurer makes it clear that Enchanter isn’t Zork IV (despite what the Scenic Vista suggests), it is an extension of the Zork universe. Dante and I, having skipped around in time a bit, had already seen the union of spellcasting-Zork and treasure-hunting-Zork in the later games, and in fact some of our discoveries here helped explain throwaway references in those games, such as Beyond Zork‘s casual mention that “Aggressive ad campaigns and the deregulation of ZIFMIA spells have made Miznia’s Jungle Skyway the fifth biggest tourist attraction in the Southlands.” In Enchanter, Zifmia can only summon beings of great magical power or beings you can see, but apparently later the rules loosen up enough that it can be used for casual travel. The idea that spell restrictions are largely the product of bureaucratic regulations is a funny one, considering that they’re really the product of technical limitations and the necessity to constrain combinatorial explosions in game design.


If only Infocom had done a little deregulation of their other limits. For whatever reason, designers Marc Blank and Dave Lebling decided to impose three different timers in this game: one for hunger, one for thirst, and one for sleep. That’s on top of the never-stops-being-annoying inventory limit, which felt particularly draconian here. Infocom’s previous game, Planetfall, also inflicted these three timers on players, so I guess Enchanter just had the misfortune to fall into the period of IF evolution between, “Hey, these timers make the game more realistic!” and “Hey, these timers make the game a lot less fun.”

The thirst timer isn’t terrible — there’s an endless source of water available, though occasionally you may have to trundle over to it. Still, it’s mostly just an annoyance. Food, on the other hand, has a hard limit — there’s a loaf of bread that lasts something like 7 meals, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Enchanter continued Infocom’s streak of making us replay games, and that hunger timer was a big part of how it did so. (The other part was finding out we’d locked ourselves out of victory in our first few moves — more about that in a moment.)

Then there’s the sleep timer. While not as unforgiving as the hunger timer, it did introduce a whole new way to suddenly lose — you can get robbed while you sleep! Apparently this is the best use for the Blorb spell, but you have to learn that the hard way. Incidentally, Dante and I played a bit of Enchanter together when he was much younger, and this bedtime theft (combined with me saying, “We’ve been robbed!”) upset him so much that he dropped the game completely.

On the other hand, Enchanter does a few things with its sleep timer that make it almost worth having. For one, there’s a puzzle that flat-out requires sleep. Fall asleep on a beautiful bed, get rewarded with the location of a new scroll you’d never have found otherwise. That’s easy enough. Even more enticing, though, are the hints you get while dreaming. These dreams make perfect sense with the character, a novice spellcaster with the potential for greater power, and a connection to the mystical forces of the universe. Plus, they can help get you unstuck — always appreciated. One of those dreams brilliantly hinted us toward the solution to a puzzle:

After a while, your sleep is disturbed by a strange dream. You are wandering in a darkened place, for you have no light or other possessions. You feel that you are being watched! You are surrounded by faces, their eyes following you. They drift in and out, staring at you with proud indifference. One face, brightly lit (unlike the rest), draws you closer and closer. As you touch it, you wake.

It took a few repetitions of this before we caught on — and the game gets increasingly insistent about signaling that this is a hint — but finally we understood that it referred to the Gallery, and further understood what we had to do, given that a nearly identical puzzle appears at the end of Zork II. Unfortunately, that was also when we realized that we’d locked ourselves out of victory.

See, one of the most satisfying parts of Enchanter is the way it obviates some of the recurring frustrations of earlier Zork games. For a player who has struggled with one lock after another, possessing a Rezrov spell feels marvelously empowering. Never again, locks! (Not true, but it still feels great when Rezrov pops something open.) Similarly, the Frotz spell meant that our days of struggling against light limits were over at last! “Frotz me” was one of the first commands we typed once we understood that the PC could finally be its own light source. Which is great… except when you need darkness. It wouldn’t be until Spellbreaker that Infocom would allow the “Extinguish” verb to undo a “Frotz me”, so… RESTART!

Photo from the Enchanter package showing the disk and feelies

Unfortunately, there was no spell that improved our carrying capacity, which meant that we were frequently told that we were carrying too many things already. Usually an annoyance, this behavior became downright infuriating with a grabby fellow like the adventurer around — when we opened up a new location, he would charge right in and take everything we hadn’t been able to pick up, which tended to be most things, given the game’s insistence on inventory limits. One silver lining: there was a lot of comedy value to be had from checking out the adventurer’s inventory, which besides his own sword and lamp was generally made up of our castoffs:

There is a bedraggled and weary adventurer standing here. He is carrying a sacrificial dagger, a lighted portrait, a dusty book, a purple scroll, a sword, and a brass lantern.

He’s like a sillier version of the Zork I thief, or maybe a deranged magpie who doesn’t restrict himself to just the shiny objects.

The adventurer focuses entirely on objects, while the enchanter cares much more about scrolls, whose physical presence is ephemeral, but whose contents can be used over and over. Put another way, the adventurer’s power comes from having things, while the enchanter’s power comes from knowing things. For kids whose knowledge greatly outstrips their wealth, this is a pretty appealing formulation.

The mind-body split between these two characters also figures into the game’s puzzles, in which the adventurer can ignore mental barriers such as illusions, breaking through with a basic physicality that can pave the way for the enchanter. On the flip side, the enchanter can use a spell (not an object) to change the adventurer’s mood, so that he’s willing to cooperate. I would totally play a game (or for that matter, watch a TV show or movie) in which these two team up for a whole story to solve problems.


The puzzles in Enchanter overall are quite clever and fun on average. We particularly enjoyed the Unseen Terror puzzle, with its ASCII art and its multi-step luring and trapping mechanic. Figuring out the right combination of spells and objects to get the sacrificial dagger was another favorite. Oh, and the rainbow turtle! That one was a little awkward with its syntax, but once we understood how to tell the game our idea, it was quite a thrill seeing it work.

The final puzzle, however, stymied us for quite some time, and here is where Enchanter‘s spell-specific puzzle gimmick shows its weakness. See, when there’s one spell and only one spell that can resolve a situation, you’re at an impasse unless you’ve found that spell, but you likely don’t even know you’re at that impasse. Now, one could argue this is really no different than a Zork game, in which there is often one and only one object that can unlock a puzzle, but I think there’s a qualitative difference.

Because objects are concrete items that tend to have very specific or limited capabilities, it’s more clear when you’re missing one. Say you find a bolt that needs turning — it’s pretty certain that a sword or a hot pepper sandwich is not going to do the job. You clearly need a wrench. Now say you find a fire-breathing dragon. Could you make it your friend, or change it into a newt, or talk to it? Well, why not? Those all seem like reasonable solutions to the problem, and if they don’t work, it’s only because the game rather arbitrarily decides that they don’t. When it turns out that you must have a “quench an open flame” spell, you might justifiably cry foul, especially when a dragon is much more like a hostile creature than an open flame. By building the skills and powers of the PC, Enchanter comes closer and closer to risking logical breaks by deciding that those powers are only allowed to apply to some situations and not other, very similar situations.

The other weakness of this scenario is that the Gondar spell (the open-flame-quenching one) is only available from searching a second-level noun — that is, an object mentioned in the description of another object rather than the description of a room. Given how many first-level nouns go undescribed in Enchanter and all its predecessors, expecting that kind of search behavior seems a little beyond the pale. We needed a hint to get there.

Once we got that hint, and were sufficiently Gondared, the climactic sequence of the game became finishable, and we finished! Banishing Krill was as satisfying as we’d hoped, and we were excited to know that much more IF with this fun spellcasting mechanic awaited us!

Zork Zero [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Zork Zero
[This review contains lots of spoilers for Zork Zero, as well as at least one for Zork I. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

The earliest game in the Zork chronology was one of the latest games in the Infocom chronology. Zork Zero emerged in 1988, two years after the company was bought by Activision, and one year before it would be shut down. Zork was Infocom’s most famous franchise by far, and this prequel was the company’s last attempt to milk that cash cow, or rather its last attempt with original Implementors on board. Activision-produced graphical adventures like Return to Zork, Zork: Nemesis, and Zork: Grand Inquisitor were still to come, but those were fundamentally different animals than their namesake. Zork Zero, written by veteran Implementor Steve Meretzky, was still a text adventure game.

However, there was a little augmentation to the text this time. Along with a few other games of this era, Zork Zero saw Infocom dipping its toe into the world of graphics. The text window is presented inside a pretty proscenium arch, one which changes its theme depending on your location in the game, and also provides a handy compass rose showing available exits. Some locations come with a thumbnail icon, many of which are pretty crudely pixelated, but some of which (like the Great Underground Highway) are rather memorable. Most crucially, several important puzzles and story moments rely upon graphics in a way that hadn’t been seen before in a Zork game, or any Infocom game for that matter. In order to make these nifty effects work in Windows Frotz, our interpreter of choice, Dante and I had to do a bit of hunting around in the IF Archive — thus it was that we solved our first puzzle before we even began the game.


Once we did start, we found that graphics weren’t the only way Meretzky found to expand on the Zork legacy. He also expanded on it by… expanding it! Over and over again, we were knocked out by the scope of this game. It’s enormous! Our Trizbort map had 208 rooms, and that’s not even counting ridiculous location “stacks” like the 400-story FrobozzCo building or the 64-square life-sized chessboard. By contrast, our map for Zork I had 110 rooms, and Zork III had a meager 59. So many locations. So many puzzles. So many objects. So many points! You’ll score a thousand hard-won points in a successful playthrough of Zork Zero. Dimwit Flathead’s excessiveness is a frequent butt of Meretzky’s jokes in this game (e.g. a huge kitchen that “must’ve still been crowded when all 600 of Dimwit’s chefs were working at the same time”), but if Dimwit were to design an IF game, it would definitely be this one.

The largesse still doesn’t apply to writing noun descriptions, though. For example:

There's nothing special about the cannonball.

There's nothing unusual about the herd of unicorns.

It looks just like the Flathead Fjord.

Even this late in Infocom’s development, they still hadn’t adopted the ethos that the most skilled hobbyists would take up later, of enhancing immersion by describing everything that could be seen.

Similarly, inventory limits are still around to vex us, and they hit especially hard in a game like this, which is absolutely overflowing with objects. Because of those limits, we followed our tried-and-true tactic of piling up all our spare inventory in a single room. In the case of Zork Zero, we knew we’d be throwing a bunch of those objects into a magic trophy case cauldron, so we stacked them in the cauldron room. By the time we were ready for the endgame, that room’s description was pretty hilarious:

Banquet Hall
Many royal feasts have been held in this hall, which could easily hold ten thousand guests. Legends say that Dimwit's more excessive banquets would require the combined farm outputs of three provinces. The primary exits are to the west and south; smaller openings lead east and northeast.
A stoppered glass flask with a skull-and-crossbones marking is here. The flask is filled with some clear liquid.
A 100-ugh dumbbell is sitting here, looking heavy.
Sitting in the corner is a wooden shipping crate with some writing stencilled across the top.
A calendar for 883 GUE is lying here.
You can see a poster of Ursula Flathead, a four-gloop vial, a shovel, a box, a spyglass, a red clown nose, a zorkmid bill, a saucepan, a ring of ineptitude, a rusty key, a notebook, a harmonica, a toboggan, a landscape, a sapphire, a glittery orb, a smoky orb, a fiery orb, a cloak, a ceramic perch, a quill pen, a wand, a hammer, a lance, an easel, a wooden club, a bag, a silk tie, a diploma, a brass lantern, a notice, a broom, a funny paper, a stock certificate, a screwdriver, a gaudy crown, a ticket, a dusty slate, a treasure chest, a blueprint, a saddle, a fan, a steel key, a walnut shell, a manuscript, an iron key, a package, a T-square, a fancy violin, a metronome, a scrap of parchment, a proclamation, a cannonball, a sceptre and a cauldron here.

That certainly wasn’t everything, but you get the idea.

In fact, this game was so big that its very size ended up turning into a puzzle, or at least a frustration enhancer. Dante and I flailed at a locked door for quite a while before realizing that we’d had the key almost since the beginning of the game. We forgot we’d obtained an iron key by solving a small puzzle in one of our earliest playthroughs, and the key itself was lost in the voluminous piles of stuff we had acquired. When we finally realized we’d had the key all along, it was nice to open up the door and everything, but it also felt a bit like we should be appearing on the GUE’s version of Hoarders.

Not only did the scope of Zork Zero obscure the answers to puzzles like that, it also functioned as a near-endless source of red herrings. It’s possible to waste immense amounts of time just checking locations to see if you’ve missed anything, because there are just so many locations. The FrobozzCo building was of course an example of this, but even more so was the chessboard, which soaked up tons of our time and attention trying to figure out what sort of chess puzzle we were solving. Not only was exploring the whole thing a red herring, but so was making moves and doing anything chess-related!

The cover of Zork Zero

On the other hand, the game’s sprawling vistas can also evoke a genuine sense of awe, somewhat akin to seeing the Grand Canyon from multiple viewpoints. There was a moment in the midgame where we’d been traversing a very large map to collect various objects, and then the proper application of those objects opened up a dimensional gateway to an entirely new very large map. Shortly afterward, we realized that in fact, the puzzle we’d just solved had in fact opened up five different dimensional gateways, some of which eventually connected to our main map but many of which did not! Moments like that were breathtaking, not just because of all the authorial work they implied, but also because of the gameplay riches that kept getting laid before us.

Sometimes, to make things even sillier, the effects of the giant inventory would combine with the effects of the giant map. One of those offshoot maps mentioned above contained a special mirror location, which would show you if there was anything supernatural about an object by suggesting that object’s magical properties in its reflection. Super cool, right? Well yeah, except that inventory limits, combined with incredible object profusion, required us to haul a sliver of our possessions during each trip to the mirror, and each trip to the mirror required a whole bunch of steps to accomplish. (Well, there was a shortcut through a different magical item, but we didn’t realize that at the time, and in fact only caught onto that very late in the game, so didn’t get much of a chance at optimization.)

So yes, the mirror location was a wonderful discovery. Less wonderful: hauling the game’s bazillion objects to the mirror in numerous trips to see if it could tell us something special. But then when we found something cool that helped us solve a puzzle: wonderful! This is quintessential Zork Zero design — an inelegant but good-natured mix of cleverness, brute force, and sheer volume. The capper to this story is that there’s one puzzle in particular that this mirror helps to solve, but we fell prey to Iron Key Syndrome once again and somehow failed to bring that puzzle’s particular objects (the various orbs) to the mirror, obliging us to just try every single one orb in the puzzle until we found the right one.


Those orbs felt pretty familiar to us, having just recently palavered with Zork II‘s palantirs. (Well, the game calls them crystal spheres, but c’mon, they’re palantirs. Or, as Wikipedia and hardcore Lord of the Rings people would prefer, palantíri.) However, familiar-looking crystal balls were far from the only Zork reference on hand. As I said, Zork Zero appeared late in Infocom’s history, and with the speed at which the videogame industry was moving, Zork I had for many already acquired the reflected shine of a bygone golden age. Thus, nostalgia was part of the package Infocom intended to sell with this game, which meant Zork tropes aplenty.

One of the best Zorky parts of the game concerns those dwellers in darkness, the lurking grues. In the world of Zork Zero, grues are a bygone menace. As the in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica puts it:

Grues were eradicated from the face of the world during the time of Entharion, many by his own hand and his legendary blade Grueslayer. Although it has now been many a century since the last grue sighting, old hags still delight in scaring children by telling them that grues still lurk in the bottomless pits of the Empire, and will one day lurk forth again.

Oh, did I fail to mention that this huge game also contains an interactive Encyclopedia Frobozzica, with dozens of entries? Yeah, this huge game also has that. In any case, “the bottomless pits of the Empire” might sound familiar to longtime Zork players, or to readers of Infocom’s newsletter, which was for several years called The New Zork Times, until a certain Gray Lady‘s lawyers got involved. As NZT readers would know, there was a time before Zork was on home computers, before it was even called Zork at all. It was called Dungeon, at least until a certain gaming company‘s lawyers got involved.

In Dungeon, there were no grues in the dark places of the game, but rather bottomless pits — a rather fitting fate for someone stumbling around in a dark cave, but the game was more than just a cave. As the NZT tells it:

In those days, if one wandered around in the dark area of the dungeon, one fell into a bottomless pit. Many users pointed out that a bottomless pit in an attic should be noticeable from the ground floor of the house. Dave [Lebling] came up with the notion of grues, and he wrote their description. From the beginning (or almost the beginning, anyway), the living room had a copy of “US News & Dungeon Report,” describing recent changes in the game. All changes were credited to some group of implementers, but not necessarily to those actually responsible: one of the issues describes Bruce [Daniels] working for weeks to fill in all the bottomless pits in the dungeon, thus forcing packs of grues to roam around.

Sure enough, in Zork Zero prequel-ville, when you wander into a dark place, you’ll get the message, “You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to fall into a bottomless pit.” In fact, at one of the lower levels of the enormous map, we found a location called “Pits”, which was “spotted with an incredible quantity of pits. Judging from the closest of them, the pits are bottomless.” Across the cavern, blocked by those pits, was “an ancient battery-powered brass lantern”, another major Zork nostalgia-carrier. Fittingly, to get to the traditional light object, we had to somehow deal with the even-more-traditional darkness hazard.

Lucky for us, yet another puzzle yielded an “anti-pit bomb”, which when thrown in the Pits location causes this to happen:

The bomb silently explodes into a growing cloud of bottomless-pit-filling agents. As the pits fill in, from the bottom up, dark and sinister forms well up and lurk quickly into the shadows. Uncountable hordes of the creatures emerge, and your light glints momentarily off slavering fangs. Gurgling noises come from every dark corner as the last of the pits becomes filled in.

Thereafter, when the PC moves into a dark place, the game responds with a very familiar message: “You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.” Luckily, the game provides an inexhaustible source of light in the form of a magic candle, so there are no terrible light timers to deal with. Some things, nobody is nostalgic for.

A screenshot from Zork Zero showing the message "You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to fall into a bottomless pit."

Lack of a light timer made it easier to appreciate this game’s Wizard of Frobozz analogue, the jester. Like the Wizard, this guy pops up all over the place at random times, creating humorous magical effects which generally block or delay the PC. Sometimes those effects are themselves Zork references, such as when he sends a large deranged bat swooping down, depositing the PC elsewhere as it shrieks, “Fweep! Fweep!” Also like the Wizard, his effects get less funny the more they’re repeated. And also also like the Wizard, he figures prominently into the game’s plot.

However, unlike the Wizard, he functions in a whole bunch of other capacities as well. He’s the game’s primary NPC, appearing to deliver jokes, adjudicate puzzles (especially riddles), occasionally help out, congratulate solutions, and hang around watching the player struggle. He’s not quite an antagonist but certainly not an ally, and you get the sense he’s controlling far more than he lets on. In other words, he’s an avatar for the game itself, and in particular the twinkling eyes of Steve Meretzky.

>LAUGH. G. G. G. G.

Meretzky’s writing is witty and enjoyable throughout — it’s one of the best aspects of the game. He clearly revels in tweaking Zork history, as well as in reeling off line after line about the excessive Dimwit, e.g. “This is the huge central chamber of Dimwit’s castle. The ceiling was lowered at some point in the past, which helped reduce the frequency of storm clouds forming in the upper regions of the hall.” Probably my favorite Zork reference was also one of my favorite jokes in the game:

[The proper way to talk to characters in the story is PERSON, HELLO. Besides, nothing happens here.]

Meretzky is also not above retconning previous bits of Zork lore that he disagrees with, such as his Encyclopedia Frobozzica correction of a detail in Beyond Zork‘s feelies: “The misconception that spenseweed is a common roadside weed has been perpetuated by grossly inaccurate entries in the last several editions of THE LORE AND LEGENDS OF QUENDOR.”

Speaking of feelies, this game had great ones, absolutely overflowing with Meretzky charm. Infocom was still heavily into copy-protecting its games via their documentation, and in typically excessive fashion, this game did that many times over, providing a map on one document, a magic word on another, and truckloads of hints (or outright necessary information) in its major feelie, The Flathead Calendar. This calendar called out to yet another aspect of Zork history, the wide-ranging Flathead family, with members such as Frank Lloyd Flathead, Thomas Alva Flathead, Lucrezia Flathead, Ralph Waldo Flathead, Stonewall Flathead, and J. Pierpont Flathead. The game’s treasures are themed around these figures, which was not only a lot of fun but also allowed me to do a bit of historical education with Dante, who still references Flatheads from time to time when mentioning things he’s learning in school.

The feelies establish a playful tone that continues through to the objects, the room descriptions, and the game’s general landscape. There are also great meta moments, such as the “hello sailor” response above, or what happens when you dig a hole with the shovel you find: “You dig a sizable hole but, finding nothing of interest, you fill it in again out of consideration to future passersby and current gamewriters.” Also enjoyable: the response to DIAGNOSE after having polymorphed yourself, e.g. “You are a little fungus. Other details of health pale in comparison.”

Meretzky even brings in a trope from Infocom’s mystery games, in probably the most ridiculous joke in the entire thing. There’s a location containing both a cannonball and a number of “murder holes”, “for dropping heavy cannonballs onto unwanted visitors”. This is obviously an irresistible situation, and the results are worth quoting in full:

As you drop the cannonball through the murder hole, you hear a sickening "splat," followed by a woman's scream!
"Emily, what is it!"
"It's Victor -- he's been murdered!"
"I'll summon the Inspector! Ah, here he is now!" You hear whispered questions and answers from the room below, followed by footsteps on the stairs. The jester enters, wearing a trenchcoat and smoking a large pipe.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to order Sgt. Duffy to place you under arrest, sir." You grow dizzy with confusion, and your surroundings swirl wildly about you...
A century's worth of prisoners have languished in this dismal prison. In addition to a hole in the floor, passages lead north, southeast, and southwest.

None of these characters (except the jester) occur anywhere in the game outside this response. Sergeant Duffy, as Infocom fans would know, is who you’d always summon in an Infocom mystery game when you were ready at last to accuse the killer. By the way, the Dungeon isn’t locked or anything — it’s a gentle joke, not a cruel one. The only real punishment is having to traverse the huge map to get back to wherever you want to be. I’ll stop quoting Meretzky jokes in a second, but I have to throw in just one more, because of the surprising fact that it establishes:

1) It's not cooked. 2) It would probably bite your nose off if you tried. 3) You don't have any tableware. 4) You don't have any melted butter. 5) It isn't kosher.

Turns out the Zork adventurer (or at least the pre-Zork adventurer) is not only Jewish, but kosher as well! Who knew? Though, given that the kosher objection comes last, after lack of cooking, tableware, and butter, their commitment may be a bit halfhearted after all.

The cover of Zork Zero's Flathead Calendar feelie

Amidst all the humor, Meretzky hasn’t lost his touch for pathos either, with a design that themes several puzzles around the sense of ruin and decay. For example, we found an instruction to follow a series of steps, starting from “the mightiest elm around.” In Zork Zero, this is an enormous tree stump. Meretzky has learned some lessons from Planetfall and A Mind Forever Voyaging about how to make a landscape that inherently implies its bygone better days. Even in the Zork prequel, the adventurer is traversing a fallen empire.


Zork Zero isn’t just a prequel in narrative terms. As we kept finding old-timey puzzles like the rebus or the jester’s Rumpelstiltskin-esque “guess my name” challenge, Dante had the great insight that as a prequel, this game was casting back not just to an earlier point in fictional universe history, but to puzzle flavors of the pre-text-adventure past as well. Relatedly, as we ran across one of those vintage puzzles — The Tower of Hanoi Bozbar — he intoned, “Graham Nelson warned us about you, Tower of Bozbar.”

He was referencing a bit in Graham’s Bill of Player’s Rights, about not needing to do boring things for the sake of it: “[F]or example, a four-discs tower of Hanoi puzzle might entertain. But not an eight-discs one.” Zork Zero‘s tower split the difference by having six discs, and indeed tiptoed the line between fun and irritating.

However, if we’d been trying to do it without the graphical interface, the puzzle would have vaulted over that line. The game’s graphics are never more valuable than when they’re helping to present puzzles rooted in physical objects, like the Tower or the triangle peg solitaire game. Clicking through these made them, if not a blast, at least bearable. Those interactions do make for an amusing transcript, though — hilarious amounts of our game log files are filled with sentences like “You move the 1-ugh weight to the center peg” or “You remove 1 pebble from Pile #3” or “You are moving the peg at letter D.”

Just as some concepts are much easier to express with a diagram than with words, so are some types of puzzles much easier to express with graphics. Infocom had long been on the record as disdaining graphics, and indeed, I still think text has a scene-setting power that visuals can’t match. Meretzky’s descriptions of Dimwit’s excessive castle have more pith and punch than a visual representation of them could possibly muster. However, a picture is so much better than a thousand words when it comes to conveying a complex set of spatial relations. Even as early as Zork III‘s Royal Puzzle, Infocom leaned on ASCII graphics to illustrate those spatial relationships, because that just works so much better. Once they had more sophisticated graphics available, the range of Infocom’s puzzles could expand. It’s ironic that the first thing they did was to expand backwards into older puzzle styles, but then again it’s probably a natural first step into exploring new capabilities.

Going along with the overall verve of the game, those old chestnut puzzles revel in their old chestnut-ness. Zork Zero is a veritable toy chest of object games, logic challenges (e.g. the fox, the rooster, and the worm crossing the river), riddles, and other such throwbacks. Of course, there are plenty of IF-style puzzles as well. (There’s plenty of everything, except noun descriptions.) Sometimes these could be red herrings too — all the Zorky references kept leading us to believe we might see an echo of a previous Zork’s puzzle. Hence, for example, we kept attempting to climb every tree we saw, fruitlessly.

The IF parts of the game don’t hesitate to be cruel, either. I’ve mentioned that every single Zork game made us restart at some point — well Zork Zero was no exception. In this case, it wasn’t a light timer running out or a random event closing off victory, but simply using up an item too soon. We found a bit of flamingo food early in the game, and fed it to a flamingo… which was a mistake. Turns out we needed to wait for a very specific flamingo circumstance, but by the time we found that out, it was far too late. This flavor of forced-restart felt most like the experience we had with Zork I, where we killed the thief before he’d been able to open the jewel-encrusted egg. The difference is that restarting Zork Zero was a much bigger deal, because we had to re-do a whole bunch of the game’s zillion tasks.

A screenshot from Zork Zero showing Peggleboz, its version of the triangle peg solitaire game

On the other hand, while this game does have a maze, it is far, far less annoying than the Zork I maze. In general, the design of Zork Zero does a reasonably good job of retaining the fun aspects of its heritage and jettisoning the frustrating ones. Except for that inventory limit — interactive fiction wouldn’t outgrow that one for a while longer. And while there are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles (I’m thinking of the elixir, which is a real guess-the-verb, and throwing things on the ice, which is a real head-scratcher), for the most part they’re entertaining and fun.

Before I close, since I’ve been talking about old-fashioned puzzles, I’ll pay tribute to a moment in Zork Zero which beautifully brought together old and new styles. As one of several riddles in the game, the jester challenges the PC to “Show me an object which no one has ever seen before and which no one will ever see again!” Now, we tried lots of solutions to this — air, flame, music, etc. — but none of them worked, and none of them would have been very satisfying if they had worked. Then, at some point, we realized we had a walnut with us, and if we could open it, the meat inside would certainly qualify as nothing anyone had seen before.

Then, after much travail, we were able to find a magic immobilizing wand, then connect that wand with a lobster, which turned into a nutcracker. After that it was a matter of showing the walnut to the jester to solve the riddle. That was a satisfying moment, made up of connecting one dot to the next, to the next, to the next. But it wasn’t quite over:

"True, no one has seen this 'ere me -- but thousands may see it in years to be!"

"I'm very impressed; you passed my test!

That final capper turned a good puzzle into a great one — a solution that felt smart and obvious at the same time. Unfortunately, eating that walnut wasn’t enough to defeat Zork Zero‘s hunger puzzle. (Not a hunger timer, mind you — a reasonable and contained hunger puzzle.)

For that, we needed to become a flamingo, and eat the flamingo food. RESTART!

Getting Back to Sleep by Patrick Evans as “IceDragon” [Comp04]

IFDB page: Getting Back to Sleep
Final placement: 33rd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh boy. Its time for one of my least favorite comp traditions: the homebrewed game. Traditionally, these games have parsers which lack the amenities provided by any major IF development system, and Getting Back To Sleep is no exception. What does it lack? Well, SAVE and RESTORE, for starters. Oh, and SCRIPT, which means that you’ll be seeing no quotes from the game in this review. Rather than making notes at the prompt as I usually do, I had to keep switching to a separate file to keep my notes, and felt slightly annoyed each time.

Let’s see, what else? UNDO, OOPS, and lots of other modern features, and by “modern” I mean “standard as of 1985 or so.” Those weren’t there. Nor was VERBOSE mode, which sucked for me, since I always play in VERBOSE mode. Instead, I had to keep typing L every time I wanted to look at the room description. Except that L doesn’t work either! Yeah, you have to type out LOOK each time. You also can’t abbreviate INVENTORY to I, though at least you can abbreviate to INV. Why one abbreviation is present and not the other continues to mystify me.

Here’s a good one: the parser is case-sensitive. It understands “look” but not “Look.” For a long, scary moment, I thought there was no way to see room descriptions a second time. The parser also breaks my Third Law of Parsing, which is “Parsers must not ask questions without being prepared to receive an answer.” GBTS is guilty of asking questions that look like disambiguation (“What do you want to get?”) without being able to handle a one-word answer at the next prompt.

It’s not that I think creating a homebrewed system would be easy. I’m sure it’s a hell of a lot of work. But why you’d put in all that work, coding (according to the readme) over 10,000 lines of C# in a state-of-the-art programming environment, to create something that wouldn’t have even passed muster as a text adventure twenty years ago… that escapes me. I could see trying it if that was your only choice, but there are multiple very good IF development environments, all of which produce output that’s playable on way more platforms than GBTS is, all of which offer all the features I described in my first paragraph “right out of the box”, and all of which are completely FREE!

It kind of feels like building your own piano while Steinways are being given away around the corner. It’d be one thing if your piano was going to be just as good as the free ones, but when yours has only 20 keys, no pedals, no black keys, and is wildly out of tune, how can you expect your performances to be any good? One of the sadder parts is that the readme proudly states that this homebrewed system has “the flexibility and freedom to accomplish what no other interactive fiction system can do: the game lives in real time.” Well, I can’t speak for TADS or Hugo, but Inform most certainly can do that. Hell, ZIL could do it. Border Zone had it in 1987.

Of course, GBTS would have its problems even if it were created with an IF development tool. It’s one of those games where you might see shelves full of stuff, and X SHELVES would give you a dull description about the stuff being a lot of supplies and junk. X SUPPLIES gives you the same description and X JUNK isn’t even implemented, so you move on, only to find out later (from the walkthrough) that SEARCH SHELVES would give you a special key for one of the game’s many locked doors. Many many first-level objects are unimplemented. Its/it’s errors infest the prose. There’s a sorta-maze, with a randomly appearing object that is vital for solving a puzzle. There’s tons of stuff like that. The story itself is fine, though highly derivative of Planetfall. But the game is an experience to be missed.

Rating: 3.2

Ad Verbum by Nick Montfort [Comp00]

IFDB page: Ad Verbum
Final placement: 4th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Among Infocom enthusiasts, the game Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head Or Tail Of It doesn’t tend to get singled out for a lot of praise. It has its fans, sure, but rarely receives the hosannas granted to such works as Trinity, A Mind Forever Voyaging, or even Planetfall. Its detractors, on the other hand, can be extremely vocal and emphatic. Ironically, though, the thing its critics decry is in fact the game’s greatest strength: it is a near-total break from IF convention, setting aside adventuring and role-playing to focus instead on wordplay, puns, and cliches. A typical Nord and Bert puzzle asks you to type a spoonerism, cliche, or bad old joke into the command line, which the game will then recognize and advance the story for you.

Naturally, if you despise puns, or if you don’t know a lot of cliches, or if you don’t enjoy wordplay, Nord and Bert isn’t the game for you. Because I love language and have a pretty firm command of English idioms, I loved Nord and Bert, though I certainly found myself relying on the hints at a few points. Still, it’s not surprising that fans of Trinity-style IF find themselves caught short when playing the game — it’s nothing like any other Infocom game, or really any other piece of IF. Until now. Ad Verbum is very much in the spirit of Nord and Bert, but instead of focusing on English idioms, it focuses on the words themselves, having a ball with all manner of challenging restrictions on expression.

For example, there’s a room where every single word starts with “S”. I’m not kidding — every single word. Don’t believe me? Here’s the room description:

Sloppy Salon
Simple social space, sadly spoiled. Some skewed situation's sequel,
surely. Seemingly, slovenly students sojourned -- scraping,
scratching, scuffing surfaces.

Stuff: ... stainless steel stapler... sizable sofa.

Now, I’ve seen some amazing room descriptions in my years of playing IF, but this one just blows my mind. I can’t believe the sheer linguistic bravado of it. Not only that, the author performs a similar feat in four other rooms, one for the letter “E”, one for “N”, one for “W”, and another for “S”. Not only that, each room has customized library responses consisting of only words beginning with the appropriate letter. In these rooms, as you might gather, the game will only accept input beginning with the appropriate words — the challenge is to come up with words that tell the parser what you want to do while staying within the linguistic restriction. Keep a thesaurus handy while playing this game.

Just for these rooms alone, the game is a towering achievement. To come up with not just a room description, but actual library responses that make sense for all commands, in such a restricted form, is incredible. Beyond this, though, is the achievement in parsing — I shudder to think what this game’s code must look like. And those four rooms are just one part of the whole thing. Ad Verbum overflows with linguistic challenges of this nature, and I had a hell of a lot of fun playing it.

At least, I had fun until the time I typed in an answer that should have worked under the game’s rules, but which the game didn’t recognize. And there we have the danger of this kind of game. Its wordplay challenges are so mind-wrenching that when I do come up with an answer that works, the game had better accept that answer, or I’ll get frustrated very quickly. Up until about halfway through Ad Verbum, I found that it was very well prepared to handle anything I threw at it. However, as I moved to other puzzles, it started to reject perfectly valid commands, which caused me to lose faith in the game with distressing speed, despite how impressed I had been with it up until then. After that frustrating period, I turned to the help and didn’t try very hard to solve the rest of the puzzles, which is a shame because some of them were really excellent puzzles.

The problem is that because Ad Verbum requires such specific input, when it isn’t prepared to handle what little input is valid under its rules, it seems much more broken than does a typical IF puzzle when it rejects alternate solutions. I can’t say I blame it — frankly, I’m astonished by how well coded it is already, even despite what it still lacks — but that didn’t make my experience any more fun when the game was rejecting correct answers. Ad Verbum sets itself a highly bizarre challenge, bravely taking up the mantle of Nord and Bert. When it succeeds, it provides immense intellectual pleasure. When it fails, it generates great frustration, and helps me understand just a little bit more of what those Nord and Bert bashers are on about.

Rating: 8.6

[Postscript from 2020: Ad Verbum won the XYZZY Award for Best Puzzles, in a ceremony held on ifMUD. In accepting the award, Montfort gave the most astounding acceptance speech I’ve ever seen. I reproduce it here in full, from its archive on Montfort’s site:

Ahem, awesome! Author accepts an appealing award affably.

As author’s actions affirm, alphabetical arrangements always amused author. Assembling assorted arbitrary ASCII, ad absurdo, as adventure and acquisition, appeared attractive.

And accordingly, author attacked adventure, abandoning ars amatoria, abandoning athletic activity, appearing agonizingly antisocial. After arduous attempts and assays, author actualized adventure.

Accolade and adventurer appreciation authentically affects author.

Acknowledgement appears appropriate: author appreciates all assistance and aid, awfully. An acolyte (“alone,” as acolyte’s appellation asserts) accoutered abundant authentication aid, assuredly above average.

Author asserts again: acclaim’s absolutely appreciated. Adieu!]

Enlightenment: A One-Room Absurdity by Taro Ogawa [Comp98]

IFDB page: Enlightenment
Final placement: 5th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

What is it with all the one-room games this year? There must be some kind of movement happening in the collective IF unconscious which says “Plot? Who needs it? Give me one room, and as long as it’s got one or more puzzles in it, I’m happy.” Well, sometimes I’m happy too. And, more or less, this is one of those times. Despite its title, Enlightenment has very little to do with gaining awareness or understanding Zen koans. To say what it does have to do with would probably be a bit too much of a spoiler, but it involves deliberately placing yourself in a situation that most text adventurers would avoid at all costs. Because of this, it took me a little while to actually catch on to how the game is supposed to work — I just couldn’t believe that deliberately placing myself in danger was the right path. It is, though, and getting there is all the fun. Like last year’s Zero Sum Game, Enlightenment puts the PC at the end of an adventure of dizzying proportions. Unlike Zero Sum Game, Enlightenment isn’t really an unwinding of the PC’s accomplishments — you get to keep your score, and even increase it. You’ve already overcome dozens of obstacles, collected lots of treasures, and scored 240 points out of 250; now there’s just the little matter of getting past a canonical troll bridge and scurrying out of the caverns with your loot. But how? In the game’s words:

If only you hadn't used your Frobozz Magic Napalm on that ice wall...
If only you hadn't used your TrolKil (*Tm) to map that maze...
If only you hadn't sold your Frobozz Magic Tinning Kit.
If only you hadn't cooked and eaten those three Billy Goats Gruff...
... or that bear ...

If ONLY you'd checked the bloody bridge on your way in.

This brief excerpt is representative of the writing in the game: it is both a very funny parody of the Zork tradition as well as an enthusiastic participation in that tradition. In fact, as you can see from the above quote, the game actually features some familiar parts of the Zork universe, such as Frobozz Magic products, rat-ants, and even certain slavering lurkers in dark corners. Activision apparently granted permission for this usage, as they did for David Ledgard in his adaptation of the Planetfall sample transcript for his game Space Station. Activision’s willingness to grant permissions for such usage, as well as their donation of prizes to the competition and their sometime inclusion of hobbyist IF on commercial products, is great news for a fan community like ours — their support of IF means that more people will devote their time to it, resulting (hopefully) in more and more good games. Enlightenment is one of the good ones, and one of its best features is its writing. Another way in which it is unlike Zero Sum Game is that it doesn’t take an extreme or harsh tone. Instead, the writing is almost always quite funny in both its comments on text adventure cliches (the FULL score listing is a scream) and its usage of them. The game is littered with footnotes, which themselves are often littered with footnotes. Sly allusions and in-jokes abound, but they’re never what the game depends on, so if you don’t catch them, you’re not missing anything important. Of all the one-room games I’ve seen this year, Enlightenment is definitely the best-written.

It even includes some fun outside documentation in the form of the HTML edition of the latest issue of Spelunker Today: “The magazine for explorers and adventurers.” This kind of mood-building file has been included with a few competition games this year, and Enlightenment‘s extras are definitely the best of the bunch. The writing in the faux magazine is just as good as the writing in the game, and the graphics look sharp and professional. I like these little extras — they really do help set the mood of a game — and they definitely add to the fun of Enlightenment. The one problem I had with this game was that, although the writing is funny and clever, it is sometimes not precise enough to convey the exact nature of a puzzle or its solution. In a heavily puzzle-oriented game like Enlightenment, this can be a major setback. For example, at one point in the game you’re called upon to cut something, but it won’t work to use your sword on it. You must find something else to cut with. Well, there is something else, but that object is never described as having a sharp edge. This is one of those puzzles that made me glad I looked at the hints — the only way I would have ever gotten it is by brute force, and that’s no fun anyway. In another instance, a part of the setting is described in such a confusing way that I still don’t quite understand what it is supposed to look like. Part of the difficulty, I think, is that the game features a gate, with metal spikes at its bottom set into the stone floor. Now, this made me think of bars, like you might see on a portcullis. However, as far as I can determine the game actually means a solid wall, with spikes at the bottom, which I wouldn’t describe as a gate. This kind of imprecision is a real problem when the objects so imprecisely described have to be acted upon in precise ways in order to solve puzzles. So I used the hints for a number of the puzzles, and I don’t mind that I did, because I wouldn’t have solved them on my own anyway. But imprecision aside, I’m still glad I used them, because it enabled me to play all the way through Enlightenment, and the trip out of that one room was well worth taking.

Rating: 8.6

Space Station by David Ledgard [Comp98]

IFDB page: Spacestation
Final placement: 19th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Several years ago, Graham Nelson released a piece of work he modestly referred to as a “parsing exercise.” This exercise really was a short game, a competition-sized game before there was a competition. It included the spell system from Enchanter, and several good puzzles. In fact, it was very loosely based on the sample transcript included in Infocom’s original distribution of Enchanter. This game was called Balances, and it was a big hit with the IF community. It’s probably the most-played “exercise” in the IF Archive. It also spurred a discussion, which reoccurs from time to time, about what fun it would be to create games based on the sample transcripts from various Infocom games. Now, David Ledgard has been the first person to turn that notion into a reality. He took the sample transcript from Planetfall and (apparently with the permission of Activision) implemented it in Inform, also extending it a bit so that it would comprise a full, winnable game (the transcript ends with the player’s death.) Where Balances only took a couple of ideas from the Enchanter transcript, Space Station lifts the Planetfall transcript almost verbatim. Unfortunately, the results are a little mixed.

The transcript itself is great reading. It’s funny, interesting, and well-written. Consequently, the pieces of Space Station that are copied straight from the transcript are also funny, interesting, and well-written. This is not something for which the author can really take credit, though I’m certain it was a fair amount of work to do all the transcribing and implementing. Ultimately this section of the game occupies a rather shadowy realm of authorship, its text written by an Infocommie (one presumes Steve Meretzky), and its code implied by the written text, but the final code of Space Station was written by someone else, and while he certainly implemented it in the spirit of the transcript he also (of necessity, or from an enterprising spirit) added quite a bit of his own. The seams between the two parts of the game are sometimes all too visible. For example, a scene outside the space station’s window is described (in part) thus: “Through the large observation window, you see the milky way. Where the stars are scattered thinly, and the cold of space seeps in.” When I read that, I thought “Surely Meretzky didn’t write that sentence fragment!” I was right — he didn’t. It was a part of the game’s “extensions”, and the grammatical error grated quite harshly against the polished, accomplished prose in other parts of the game. Sometimes the problem was just as bad when the game didn’t extend itself — it was quite jarring to try a legitimate (included in the room description) direction and run into the terse reply “Unimplemented!” On the other hand, there were some very funny moments in Space Station, moments that I was sure were a part of the transcript but in fact were part of the extensions as well. It was an extra treat to find out that those parts weren’t authored by Infocom. The problem is that once any seams at all showed, the split between the transcript and the rest of the game was constantly on my mind, and grammar and spelling errors (of which the game has a few) felt all the more glaring because of it.

This is a cautionary tale for anyone who decides to implement one of the Infocom transcripts. The transcripts themselves are generally excellent, as they should be from a professional company which had the important task of explaining interactive fiction to a novice public. They are well-written and entertaining, with good settings and clever puzzles. To implement one of these transcripts so that it becomes a good game in its own right, you need a few things. You need to be able to write so well that nobody will be able to tell where the transcript prose stops and yours starts. You need to be able to make your sections of the game as entertaining as the transcript section. You need to be able to extend the setting of the transcript rationally, without introducing a foreign tone or feel. You need to be able to come up with puzzles that are consistent with those in the transcript, and are done as logically as the pre-written ones. If you can do all that, then absolutely write a transcript-based game (assuming you can secure Activision’s permission, of course). Then again, if you can do all that, why waste your talent on adapting transcripts?

Rating: 6.4

VirtuaTech by David Glasser [Comp97]

IFDB page: VirtuaTech
Final placement: 21st place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

If sword-and-sorcery fantasy was the overused genre of the 1996 IF competition, I’m beginning to believe that virtual reality will win the honors for 1997. Of course, it’s not David Glasser’s fault that Comp97 scheduled his game to be played after several other VR-themed pieces on my list, but I can say that it took away some of the thrill for me to see yet another page from the VR handbook. The other unfortunate part of this is that VirtuaTech‘s use of VR is pretty humdrum: step inside your computer a la Planetfall, or alternately “VirtuaPhone” other entities, none of whom turn out to be characters. The game’s near-future milieu was reasonably interesting (though rather cliched), but it felt like a thin science-fictional sheen over what is basically a very simple college game — fix your computer and print out your paper to bring it to class.

As such, VirtuaTech isn’t bad. It’s short, easy, and inoffensive. There is some entertainment to be had from solving the game’s puzzles and exploring its limited geography, but it doesn’t deliver much in the way of excitement or thrills. The puzzles are mainly a matter of putting the right key in the right lock, and finding numbers to type on a variety of keypads. The game’s one slightly more interesting puzzle (opening the portal) I solved just by noodling rather than through any kind of inductive reasoning, so I wasn’t able to experience the pleasure of any great flash of insight.

On the plus side, there isn’t much particularly wrong with the game. The writing could be better, but it certainly works. The design is compact and efficient, and the setting as a whole is consistent and makes logical sense. There are very few bugs in the code (I only found one real problem), and the puzzles may be unimaginative, but they’re fair. Consequently, VirtuaTech turns out to be a pleasant way to spend 45 minutes or so.

Prose: There’s certainly a level of awkwardness to the prose in VirtuaTech. Many of the sentences are rather clunky, and the whole thing could use an edit for elegance and rhythm. However, I only rarely found myself confused by descriptions or situations, so the writing did its most important job: it conveyed the scene with accuracy and clarity.

Plot: The game’s plot is very, very simple, which is probably what makes it such a short game to play. [SPOILERS AHEAD] In fact, I was rather surprised that all I needed to do was to get the paper printed and to walk out the door. [SPOILERS END] When the winning message came up, I said “That’s it?” It was.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, the puzzles are pretty garden-variety. Lots of typing codes into keyboards or pushing the right button. Still, the puzzles all make sense within the game’s world, and there are no “guess-the-verb” or “read-the-designer’s-mind” puzzles to be found.

Technical (writing): I found a couple of grammar errors in the game, but nothing too egregious.

Technical (coding): There was only one bug in the game, and its effect on gameplay was negligible. A couple of verbs could have been better implemented, but solutions to these problems were also not hard to find.


Glowgrass by Nate Cull [Comp97]

IFDB page: Glowgrass
Final placement: 3rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Glowgrass is a fine piece of interactive science fiction in the tradition of Planetfall. Once again, you play a character whose ship has failed, touching down amid the well-preserved ruins of an ancient civilization. You explore these ruins, piecing together strange technology and small clues which lead you to the discovery of how a deadly plague wiped out the race which once dominated the planet. Of course, there are differences along with the similarities. Rather than an Ensign Seventh Class, you play a “xenohistorian”, and the ruins you are exploring belong to the Ancients, who are apparently (it’s a little unclear) not a separate race from your own, but rather your people’s ancestors. Also, Glowgrass is a much more serious game, with none of the silliness and whimsy of Planetfall. Finally, it is, as befits a competition game, much shorter, and therefore its ending is rather unsatisfying, leaving off just when it feels like the real game should begin. I won’t give away anything about this ending, but it pulls a little surprise which casts the assumptions of the rest of the game into doubt. I’m hopeful that Glowgrass is a preview of a longer adventure, so that the secret revealed at the ending can be explained and explored to its full extent.

Another important way in which Glowgrass distinguishes itself from Planetfall is that its postapocalyptic exploration is clearly focused on our own world. Various clues scattered throughout the game make it clear that the player character is exploring the ruins of old Earth. However, the old Earth explored by the character is not our present-day world, but rather a speculative extrapolation of a future 60 or so years from now. Thus Glowgrass becomes a small puzzle-box of possible futures, one fitting inside the other, and each one interesting in its own way. Cull does a very nice job of extrapolating technologies, both for the “Ancient” future and the far future, using small touches to demonstrate the character’s far-future understanding colliding with a researched past (which is our future.) If my description is confusing, it’s only because I’m not doing as good a job as Cull does of making the overlapping eras perfectly clear.

Glowgrass also concerns itself with an imagination of virtual reality. The number of IF games which involve some type of VR or simulated reality (Delusions, AMFV, Mind Electric, etc.) leads me to believe that our medium is particularly suited to exploring the possibilities of VR. It makes sense, considering that IF partakes of some element of simulation, that it demonstrates a particular facility for making itself a simulation of a simulation. Glowgrass pushes the envelope a bit by making its only NPC a virtual reality construct, thus neatly avoiding the problems of sentience, competence, and individual action — the character can’t go anywhere or do much of anything except talk, and her knowledge is limited by her programming: a perfect IF character. Glowgrass is a well-written game with a pleasantly creepy aura, a pleasurable way to spend a couple of hours and hopefully a prelude to more quality work.

Prose: The prose in Glowgrass was quite effective. In particular, the author made good use of the opportunities afforded by the player’s first entry into a particular location. For example, in one part of the game you find an “Ancient” skycar, and the game effectively capitalizes on the natural first reaction to finding such a vehicle: “Looking at the skycar, you feel a surge of hope. Despite the vehicle’s age, it seems intact. Maybe, if you could somehow get it to work…” However, having evoked and emphasized that reaction, the game quickly quashes it: “The thought dies as quickly as it came. Stupid idea. You have no idea how to fly the thing, and who knows what parts are missing?” Prose techniques like this build a very convincing player character, and help the game to succeed in creating an immersive fictional experience.

Plot: I’ve covered the basics of the plot above, so I’ll just use this space to say that the plot is not what it seems, and that I found the ending rather frustrating. In the last few sentences of the game, the author rearranges and twists your perceptions of the setting and the characters, but just as the secret is unfolding, the game ends. I’m hopeful that this game will one day serve as a prologue to a more thorough exploration of Glowgrass‘ absorbing world. In short: I want more!

Puzzles: According to the author, Glowgrass is “a story, not a puzzle game,” so the puzzles are intended to serve as natural propulsion for the storyline. In the main, they work quite well in this regard. Really the only area where I had trouble was in figuring out a piece of technology whose description was (I felt) a little too vague to suggest the use intended by the author. Once I consulted the walkthrough and found my way past this obstacle, the game flowed quite smoothly. Thus, if that part of the game (which I consider more a faltering of the prose than a puzzle) were polished a bit, Glowgrass‘ narrative flow would be very well served indeed by its puzzles.

Technical (writing): I found no mechanical errors in Glowgrass.

Technical (coding): The game’s coding was quite well done, with some very nice touches (I appreciated a response to “Who am I?”). There were only a few areas where the illusion broke down a bit too far, the main one being the “sculpture” which you can “SIT” on but not “ENTER”.