Spellbreaker [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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

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

>EXAMINE WRITING AND STRUCTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of the Infocom grey box for Spellbreaker

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

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

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

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

>COMPARE SPELLBREAKER TO D&D

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

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

>slaver
You do that very well for such an inexperienced grue.

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

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

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

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

>ANALYZE PUZZLES

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

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

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

>WHAT IS MAGIC?

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

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

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

The final screen from a winning playthrough of Spellbreaker.

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

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

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

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

Sorcerer [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Sorcerer
[This review contains many spoilers for Sorcerer, plus mild spoilers for the Zork games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

>PICK UP THREAD

In the Zork sequels, you pick up pretty much exactly where you left off. Zork I ends at a barrow, and Zork II picks up in that very same barrow. Zork II ends with you falling down some stairs, and Zork III starts at the bottom of those stairs. Oh, your inventory gets mostly wiped out each time, but for the most part there’s a direct moment-to-moment continuity between one game and the next.

The Enchanter series works a little differently. Enchanter ends with this message:

Here ends the first chapter of the Enchanter saga, in which, by virtue of your skills, you have joined the Circle of Enchanters. Further adventures await you as the Enchanter series continues.

When Sorcerer begins, you’ve been a member of that Circle for a while now. You live in the guild hall, you’re familiar with other members of the Circle, and you’ve established some credibility among them. Just as Enchanter itself innovated by letting the PC grow in skill and power over the course of the story, so does the next episode in the series innovate by demonstrating the PC’s advancement in status and prestige over the course of the saga.

That sense of progression can also put the designers in a bit of a tough spot, though. Logically, the Sorcerer PC’s spellbook should include everything that was in it at the end of Enchanter, but that would make it a) a bit long and unwieldy, and b) pretty powerful! This problem would only get worse as the series progressed, with spells meant to address a particular puzzle hanging around forever, restricting the available puzzle space further and further. Zifmia, in particular, would pretty much preclude the entire plot of Sorcerer. Oh, you say Belboz is missing? No problem — I’ll have him back here in a jiffy.

Steve Meretzky, designer of Sorcerer, decided to split the difference. Gnusto, Rezrov, and Frotz, all of which were available very early in Enchanter, remain in the book. These three become the Enchanter series’ equivalent of Zork‘s sword and lantern, carrying on from one game to the next as fundamental abilities for the PC. Beyond that, we get one more spell from Enchanter: the flying spell Izyuk, obtained near the climax of the game. This hard-won skill stands on its own, but also symbolizes all the other spells acquired through the course of an Enchanter playthrough, indicating what the PC has gained from that experience. On top of this, we find a few new spells, to show the PC’s growth between episodes, and to set up new puzzles. Thus the spell book at the beginning of Sorcerer is fuller than than it was at the beginning of Enchanter, but still in no danger of its contents scrolling off the screen or making new puzzles increasingly impossible to craft.

>WIELD RED PEN

Sadly, though the PC grows in power from one game to the next, the quality control of the software itself experiences a pretty shocking decline. Of all the Infocom games Dante and I had played up to this point in the project, Sorcerer was by far the sloppiest. We literally found a bug within 10 moves of starting the game, and a really basic one at that: “Examine bed” prompts no response whatsoever. Typos show up too (emphasis mine):

  • “You here a commotion from the room to the west.”
  • “It streches east as far as the eye can see.”
  • “Lying open on a stand in one corner is a heavy volume, probably a copy of the Encyclopedia Frobizzica.”

I mean, I expect this kind of thing when reviewing indie games written by amateurs, but misspelling “hear” or “stretches” in a professionally released product, one for which they were charging almost $45 in 1984? That’s pretty tough to excuse. And sure, “Frobozzica” is a made-up word, but given that “Frobozz” is much more established than “Frobizz” in the Zork universe, and that the encyclopedia is called “Frobozzica” in Zork Zero, “FroBIZZica” is pretty clearly an error too.

There’s even a misfeature so egregious that Graham Nelson later made an example out of it in The Craft of the Adventure, arguing that players shouldn’t be required to type exactly the right verb:

>unlock journal
(with the small key)
It would take more magic than you've got!

>open journal
(with the key)
The journal springs open.

I mean, I guess this contributed to the greater good as an example of what not to do, but it left us shaking our heads nevertheless.

The front cover of the Sorcerer folio edition

Even more frustrating and baffling is the way that Meretzky feints at eliminating some of the worst conventions in older text adventures, only to bring them back worse than ever. That part will take a little unpacking, though, so let me back up a few steps.

One of the greatest things about Enchanter, right off the bat, is that it provides the PC with powers that will immediately solve entire branches of tired IF puzzles. Frotz gets rid of darkness puzzles forever. Well, except for puzzles where you need the darkness, of course, but still — after multiple games whose limited light sources force restarts, it’s brilliant to never have to worry about that again. Similarly, Rezrov permanently removes locked doors and locked boxes as obstacles. Again, there are exceptions to this, even within Enchanter itself, but now the games have to come up with elaborate reasons for why a lock can overcome Rezrov, whereas before you’d just have to go hunting for the damn key.

Early on in Sorcerer it seems like the same kind of thing is afoot with hunger and thirst timers. I’ve harped endlessly about how annoying I find these timers, and my heart sank the first time I saw the message “You are now a bit thirsty” in Sorcerer. The hunger and thirst got worse and worse, as they do, with no apparent source of food and drink to be found, and then we stumbled upon a magic item with this description: “BERZIO POTION (obviate need for food or drink)”.

At this point our transcript bursts into rapturous shouts of “OMG YAY” and “THANK YOU STEVE”. We drank the potion and voila, no more harassment from those timers. Oh, it was blissful.

>YELL

So imagine my chagrin when, about 75% of the way through the game, it told me, “You are now a bit thirsty.” Really? Really?? The Berzio effect is temporary? For god’s sake, why? There really is nothing to eat or drink anywhere in Sorcerer, and we weren’t close enough to the conclusion when the message came up to finish it before starving. There was nothing for it but to… RESTART! Our restarting streak remained alive.

Thus Meretzky seems to recognize the pointlessness of hunger and thirst timers, even mock them with swift removal, only to not just reintroduce them later, but make them absolutely impossible to reset. In the end, rather than ongoing timers that are a minor annoyance, Sorcerer creates one big timer that imposes a hard limit on the whole game. I suppose Enchanter‘s loaf of bread operated the same way, but at least that game didn’t tease us with the idea that we’d never have to worry about hunger and thirst again, only to become the Lucy to our Charlie Brown, building our confidence only to snatch satisfaction away.

Elsewhere, Meretzky pulls more or less the same trick with mazes. When we encountered the elaborate glass maze in Sorcerer, Dante immediately set about brute-forcing it — dropping items, trying different directions, making sure we had Izyuk up so that we didn’t plummet to an untimely death, and painstakingly mapping out all the valid connections between each room to overcome the invisibility of all the walls, floors, and ceilings. This is a three-level maze, so we had to stack three different maps on top of each other, noting all the connections both within each level and between the different levels.

This is what previous Infocom games had trained him to do, and he never expected that there would be any other way to solve the puzzle. But as it turns out, there is another way: the Fweep spell, which turns the caster into a bat. (And makes an amusing Zork I reference in the bargain.) As a bat, the PC can sense all the barriers in every direction, and therefore simply map the rooms as rooms, rather than by trial and error in each direction. In a way, the whole glass maze is an elaborate red herring, since surely Infocom expected most players to try the brute force approach if they hadn’t already found the Fweep scroll. Overall, though, it’s just a marvelously clever construction, one which seems to make a parody of the entire genre of maze puzzles.

A map (provided with the Invisiclues) of Sorcerer's glass maze

Having bat radar became particularly important when we had to traverse our way back through the entire 3D maze after its geography had entirely shifted from what it was during our first traversal, and we were being pursued by a monster. Even if we had brute-forced our way through to that halfway point (as it happens, we found the Fweep spell after giving up on the glass maze for a while), the game makes it over-the-top painful to brute-force through to the end.

So hooray for Fweep! No more mazes, right? Wrong. Later on in the game, we found ourselves trapped in a Zork I-esque coal mine, for which bat senses were inexplicably useless. Not only that, the coal mine is filled with poison gas, and the potion we drink to ignore the poison only lasts for a few moves. So there we were, not only back to dropping items and testing exits, but having to restore every few moves because we’d quickly suffocate and die. Thus another bad-old-days convention seems as if it’s been overturned, only to rise up from its grave and strangle us.

There’s a common attribute between these two frustrating experiences: potions. Meretzky introduces this item type as a new means of magic delivery within the Zork universe, and it’s worth digging a bit into what reasoning might have been behind that design decision.

>EXAMINE POTIONS

Potions differ from spells in that they are one-use-only items. In this way, they represent a partial return to the inventory-based approach of Zork, as opposed to the skill-based approach of Enchanter. What’s a bit odd is that Enchanter had already established a template for one-use magic: the longer and more complicated scroll, such as its magic-dispelling Kulcad or its game-winning Guncho. Sorcerer carries on the tradition with the Aimfiz and Yonk scrolls. So why invent another way for magic to be one-use-only? Perhaps the complicated scrolls were associated with very powerful or grand spells, and Meretzky wanted a more ordinary way to package single-use magic?

A better question might be: why did these need to be single-use at all? Let’s take a look at the potions and their effects. There are five of them:

Potion Effect
Berzio Obviate need for food or drink
Blort Ability to see in dark places
Flaxo Exquisite torture (a joke item, containing the author credit)
Fooble Increase muscular coordination
Vilstu Obviate need for breathing

So okay, let’s rule out Flaxo right off the bat. It’s a goofy joke, not at all germane to solving the game. The Filfre spell in Enchanter served an equivalent purpose, and it was in the form of one of those complicated scrolls, like Kulcad and Guncho. Does Flaxo need to be a potion? Only for variety’s sake.

Fooble and Blort are both tied to specific puzzles — the slot machine and grue cave respectively. So certainly there’s only one valid use in the game for each of them. But would it have any ill effect if these were spells rather than potions? I guess one could argue that Fooble might make the danger zones west of the castle more logically defeatable, but then again Meretzky certainly isn’t above arbitrarily overruling a spell’s logical effects, such as when land mines blow up even if you fly over them.

As a player, I can’t come up with anything that Fooble and Blort would ruin if they were reusable. Having designed a few IF games myself, I certainly recognize that there are always lots of unexpected cases to be reckoned with, but it’s hard to see why those cases would be manageable for spells like Izyuk and Malyon, but not for Fooble and Blort.

A page from the booklet-style copy protection (rather than the infotater) provided with Sorcerer, explaining the Surmin and the Yipple with their codes.

That leaves us with two potions. Berzio, I’ve already argued, shouldn’t be temporary in the first place. The only reason to make it so is from the old school of challenge which says that replaying is part of the fun. It isn’t, at least not for us. So we’re down to Vilstu, and now it’s time to talk about the coal mine and time travel puzzle.

It’s worth pointing out that one piece of this puzzle — stopping in the middle of the slippery shaft — was the very last holdout from the mainframe version of Zork, the only significant puzzle left unimplemented in the trilogy. It’s no wonder that the coal mine in Sorcerer is reminiscent of that in Zork I, because that same mine is the site of this puzzle in the mainframe version. Satisfyingly, it finally gives us a version of the broken timber that isn’t a red herring, and in general is a top-notch puzzle. However, on its own, it really doesn’t need to be time-limited by the lack of oxygen and the all-too-temporary Vilstu potion.

>ADMIRE PUZZLE

The time travel puzzle, on the other hand, is a different story. I’ve complained a lot about Sorcerer so far in this review, but this puzzle redeems it. The notion of the PC interacting with a future self, whose actions not only provide a hint for the puzzle but will have to be repeated by the player a little later on, was pretty mind-blowing at the time. Pulling off that time-travel trick is not only impressive for the game itself, but also makes the player feel super-smart when it works. That’s always a marvelous achievement for interactive fiction.

Now, this puzzle is not without its flaws. I’ve already mentioned how the coal mine did not need to be loaded up with a time-limited maze that requires laborious mapping and many restarts. Also, as Dante observed, it would have been better if the slanted room had contained the combination somehow. Otherwise it’s just a weird open-ended paradox. How does my future self learn the combination? By telling it to my past self. Buh?

Nevertheless, the existence of the time travel puzzle totally justifies the one-use and temporary quality of Vilstu. If the potion had been a regular spell, we could just keep casting it and hang out talking to our temporally displaced other self — clearly a non-starter from the game designer’s point of view. Could it have been a complicated scroll rather than a potion? Well… sure, but let me play devil’s advocate with potions for a minute.

With the exception of Flaxo, all the potions have a quality in common: they change how the PC’s body functions. Nothing in Enchanter works quite like this. Sure, things like Nitfol or Exex or Ozmoo can have magical effects that are more or less adjacent to the PC, but they don’t alter the senses, or the digestion, or the muscles, or the lungs. They are fundamentally external effects, whereas all the non-joke potions in Sorcerer have internal effects. In Sorcerer, Yomin is in the same category as Nitfol (psychic), Gaspar is a lot like Ozmoo, and Fweep, well, that’s just a full-on polymorph, not an enhancement of the spellcaster’s body.

Consequently, I’ll make the case that the potions are a cool idea, whose fascinating possibilities are sadly overshadowed by their inclusion in some designs that seem to exist only to annoy. Points to Beyond Zork for rescuing these from the doldrums.

A screenshot showing a couple of possible opening moves in Sorcerer, as well as the game's banner credits

So after we finish the time travel puzzle, spell book in hand, we shoot out the bottom of the slippery chute, ready to face the endgame. I don’t have a lot to say about this, but I’ll just mention a couple of things. First, Sorcerer does a nice job of keeping the tension simmering with its amulet object, which glows more and more as it nears Belboz. That amulet also makes a dazzling appearance as the game’s cover art, though the mirroring effect never worked quite as well as I suspect Infocom hoped it would.

Nevertheless, the amulet made for a slightly disconcerting (but certainly amusing) moment with us, as we dropped all our possessions on the lagoon shore and dove down to retrieve the wooden crate. When we hauled the crate back to shore, we saw the amulet’s description: “There is an amulet here. The amulet’s jewel is pulsing with flashes of brilliant light.” Which led Dante to ask, “Is Belboz in the crate?”

The other thing about the endgame is its availability. Since the chute is available whether the time travel puzzle gets solved or not, we came upon the endgame before we could possibly solve it, and I’m certain that was by design. As with Enchanter we carry the game-winning spell (Swanzo) around for quite some time before being able to use it. However, unlike Enchanter, using the spell without the proper shields makes everything much much worse, resulting not only in a losing ending but an ending in which we become the demon’s victim, earning a (both comical and chilling) score of -99.

The fact that we could get as far as actually finding Belboz and driving the demon out of him, only to have the whole thing blow up in our faces, is of course what drove us back to the time travel puzzle, just as we were meant to. When we saw that the prize of that puzzle was a mind-shielding spell, everything fell into place with one of those very satisfying clicks.

That was Sorcerer — overall kind of a frustrating mess, as Jimi Hendrix once sang, but an enjoyable story for all that, and home to one of the more magical puzzles Infocom ever produced.

All Things Devours by Toby Ord as “half sick of shadows” [Comp04]

IFDB page: All Things Devours
Final placement: 3rd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I must admit, I got a little nervous when I saw this game’s title, which appears at first blush to be grammatically incorrect. As it turns out, the title isn’t in error — it’s excerpted from one of the riddle-poems in The Hobbit, the one that begins “This thing all things devours.” I still think that it’s a weak title — the entire line would be much better — but I was relieved to know I was in the hands of a competent writer. In fact, my fears about the entire game were groundless; it’s very good. It has a plot, but by the author’s own admission, ATD is much more game than story, an intricate puzzle-box, with a couple of puzzles I found very satisfying indeed.

The setup is complex, requiring the same sort of lateral thinking as that featured in Sorcerer‘s famous time-travel puzzle. Due to its convoluted nature, the game had to be quite a chore to implement, and while its coding isn’t perfect, I was impressed with how thoroughly and skillfully it covered a very wide range of permutations. Moreover, ATD does a wonderful job of automating mundane actions, the very thing I was moaning about in my review of The Great Xavio. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see something like this:

>n
(first opening the door to the Deutsch lab)
(first unlocking the door to the Deutsch lab)

The Deutsch Laboratory

Every first-level object interaction I tried was handled gracefully, and the automation even did one or two cool tricks to keep track of player knowledge. Anyway, I’m about to raise a couple of points criticizing ATD, so I want to make it clear that I really did like the game. I liked it a lot.

That being said, there are a couple of flaws I’d like to discuss. The first is that I don’t think this game plays fair with the concept of the accretive PC. If you don’t recognize the term, that’s because I recently made it up, while reviewing Adam Cadre’s Lock & Key for IF-Review. In that review, I made the case that games like Lock & Key and Varicella have a unique sort of PC, one whose knowledge and/or cunning must by acquired by the player herself in order to successfully complete the game. Primo Varicella, for instance, has a devious plan to take over the regency. At the beginning of any session with Varicella, the PC knows what this plan is, but the player may or may not. It’s only through experiencing multiple iterations of the game, and thereby learning all the things that Primo already knows, that the player can hope to embody Primo successfully enough to win the game.

I call this sort of PC “accretive” because the player’s accreting knowledge allows the PC to become more and more himself on each playthrough, and once the player’s ingenuity matches that of the PC, she can successfully complete a game. When that happens, it’s as if the real story is finally revealed, and all those other failed attempts exist only in shadowy parallel universes. In my opinion, this sort of game is a brilliant refutation of the idea that IF games should be winnable without experience of “past lives.” After all, if the PC’s knowledge must match the player’s at the outset of the game, the PC must know very little, which is why we see so many amnesiac PCs in IF. An accretive PC allows the player to catch up with the PC through the device of past lives, and as long as the PC is established as already having all the knowledge that the player is able to gain, it all works swimmingly.

At first, ATD appears to be exactly this sort of game. It certainly requires quite a few iterations to win (or even to understand, really), and the PC is shown to have much more specific knowledge of the surrounding area and of her specific task than a player will on the first time through. However, partway through, something happens that the game clearly specifies as a surprise to the PC, something not included in her original plan. Consequently, she has to think on her feet in order to recover and still succeed at her goal. The only problem is, she can’t reasonably do that without knowledge of past lives.

A successful traversal of ATD requires not only knowledge of the circumstances and the setting, but advance knowledge of something that the game itself definitively states that the PC does not know in advance. Here, I cry foul. I’m not complaining that the game is unfair — it does an admirable job of warning players upfront that it’s going to be unfair, and I’m fine with that. However, it’s constructed in such a way that its story cannot make sense. The puzzles still work, but the unbelievability of the PC’s actions causes the story essentially to self-destruct.

There’s another problem too, one that causes the logic of the central puzzle to fall apart. Unfortunately, it’s terribly difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. About the best I can muster at the moment is that if I follow the solution as laid out in the walkthrough, it seems to me that one of the central problems presented by the game remains unsolved, though the game does not acknowledge that this is the case. Because I was crafting my puzzle solutions to avoid this unsolved state (and having a hell of a time solving the puzzle as a result), I was rather flummoxed when I finally broke down and looked at the walkthrough. It was unsatisfying to end the game feeling as if it hadn’t played by its own rules.

Now, as I said initially, the environment in this game is really quite complex, and it’s possible (likely, even) that my objections stem from a careless or incomplete understanding of how the game is actually working. If that’s the case, I look forward to withdrawing my complaints once somebody explains how I’m being dense. Even if not, the game is eminently worth playing just for its clever premise and a couple of excellent puzzles. It may play a bit fast and loose with its concept, and its ending may be a bit anticlimactic, but I highly recommend it nonetheless.

Rating: 9.0

About the Infocom >RESTART Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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