Wishbringer [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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

>CONNECT THE GAMES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>EXPLORE LANDSCAPE. G.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>WISH FOR MULTIPLE SOLUTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Beyond Zork [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Beyond Zork
[This review contains many spoilers for Beyond Zork. I’ve written an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

To play the next game with the Zork brand, Dante and I jumped forward five years, from 1982 to 1987. By this time, Infocom was well-established and successful, but it also found itself reckoning with trends in the computer game industry that threatened interactive fiction, and prominent among those was the CRPG, the Computer Role-Playing Game.

>CONNECT IF TO RPG

As I said in the Zork I review, Zork was created in the shadow of Adventure, which itself was in the shadow of Dungeons and Dragons. Adventure co-creator Will Crowther was partly inspired by his experiences in a D&D group — one which apparently included Zork co-author Dave Lebling! — to combine his caving experiences with his gaming experiences. Zork, in turn, included randomized combat with the troll and thief, though it turns quickly away from the D&D model into something more static and puzzly.

In the meantime, game developers continued to make inroads on replicating the D&D experience via a computer. The Ultima and Wizardry series got their starts shortly after Zork I was released, mapping the initial territory of the CRPG. These games were much lighter on description and puzzles than Infocom’s work, but they offered the joys of hacking and slashing your way through hordes of monsters, and gradually increasing in power as you do so. It took quite a while for a game to surface with the actual D&D license, but the way having been paved by the CRPGs of the early and mid-Eighties, it was only a matter of time before two of the big geek trends of the era combined.

That first D&D game was called Pool of Radiance, which brings us in a rather roundabout way to Beyond Zork. This game is Infocom’s attempt to bridge the gap between IF and CRPG, and in fact it includes an actual pool of radiance. The connection seems far too on-the-nose to be coincidental, but it’s true that the D&D game didn’t come out until 1988, whereas Beyond Zork was released in 1987. Perhaps Brian Moriarty, the author of Beyond Zork, knew the D&D game’s title in advance and decided to write an anticipatory homage? In any case, while Beyond Zork tries to bridge a chasm betwen two genres, it also itself features a chasm whose bridge cannot be crossed. Moriarty’s subconscious may have been telling him something, because the connection between IF and CRPG is a pretty uncomfortable one, at least in Beyond Zork.

Like most RPGs, this game starts out by asking you to build a character, and Dante and I obligingly did so. We named him Azenev. (If you know Dante well, you might guess that this is an N.K. Jemisin reference, and you’d be right. It’s a backwards spelling of a character name from Jemisin’s The City We Became.) We built Azenev from six attributes: endurance, strength, dexterity, intelligence, compassion, and luck — a pretty close mapping to D&D‘s strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. Here’s where Problem Number One surfaced: we had no idea which attributes would be important. We tried to make him pretty balanced, though Dante felt like luck could make a big difference in everything, so we poured some extra points into that.

Well, it turns out that luck doesn’t seem to make a substantial difference in very much of anything, so Azenev version 1 met his demise almost immediately. One would hope that with a balanced character you’d be able to survive and thrive in an RPG, but not in this one. Apparently endurance is the key stat, given that attacks reduce it and you die when it runs out. So we rebuilt Azenev with more endurance and less luck, but still didn’t fare much better, because of Problem Number Two: monster mismatches.

In a typical RPG, be it computer or tabletop, your character starts out weak — level one. With a character like this, you can’t go out and fight dragons or ogres, so a well-designed game throws you some monsters you can handle — maybe big spiders, or little goblins, or medium-sized rats. When you conquer those, eventually you level up, and can face the next tier of danger, continuing through that cycle until you finally can smite mighty dragons.

Image from the Beyond Zork feelies, describing the cruel puppet and the dust bunnies.

Beyond Zork allows players no such accommodation! You start at level 0 (even weaker than level 1!), but you can encounter powerful adversaries at any time, with no real way to tell how powerful they are, except how fast they kill you. One of the first monsters we ran into is called a “cruel puppet”. It’s an entertaining enough creation — a marionette-looking thing that drains your endurance with vicious insults. But it is in no way appropriate for a zero-level character to face. Dante and I died over and over and OVER to the cruel puppet. We died after using a healing potion. We died after figuring out how to wield our weapon. We died after leveling up our character. We died after upgrading our weapon. We died after retreating to heal and then coming back. We just. Kept. Dying.

This is not fun, but I think I understand why Moriarty designed the game this way. He was wrestling with the tension between Infocom’s bias towards large-world exploration and the RPG’s tendency to tailor the story and encounters towards the character’s level. In addition, he was trying to reconcile IF’s narrative qualities against “crunchy” RPG mechanics that show you things like the level, attack power, defense strength, and health of everybody in the fictional world. Getting to explore the whole world right off the bat meant that we could easily and quickly wander way out of our depth, and leaning towards IF narrative meant that we had none of that crunchiness available to tell us that we’d need to be much more powerful before venturing in.

Defining the problems suggests the solutions. Maybe the game could have scaled encounters to character level, so that any monster you meet is just powerful enough to present a reasonable challenge. Maybe it could have shown more stats on monsters — as it is, the only way to tell a monster’s health is by examining it, and not only does that cost you a turn where the monster can attack you, it also gives vague descriptions like “gravely wounded” and “seriously wounded” — which is worse? Or maybe it could cordon off areas of the game until you’re powerful enough to face them. The trouble is, Infocom likes to cordon off game sections with puzzles, and your ability to solve a puzzle has little bearing on the power of your character.

There is an area where Moriarty blends all these things quite successfully: the cellar of the Rusty Lantern inn. You enter this cellar in search of a particular bottle of wine, and the cook slams and locks the door behind you. In the course of exploring the cellar, you’ll encounter low-level monsters that can be defeated by a weak character, treasures that can be sold to buy better gear, magic items that also upgrade you, and a means of improving one of your character’s stats, in this case dexterity. Staying alive in the cellar and getting out of it require puzzle-solving, and when you emerge you’ll likely have leveled up, improved your stats, and acquired some good loot. It’s very satisfying!

I’m inclined to think that maybe Beyond Zork should have forced that sequence first, or at least steered us toward it much more emphatically, rather than letting us traipse around a bunch of set pieces that were much too hazardous for us. In fact, if the entire game had been structured as a series of these compact mini-games, with interconnections between them and a common landing place to buy gear, that would have gone a long way toward settling the conflict between the IF and RPG conventions.

However, that on its own wouldn’t have been enough to deal with Problem Number Three: challenges that depend on stats. In trying to meld RPG mechanics with traditional IF, Moriarty runs into serious friction between the two, created by basing story barriers around the character’s attribute scores. In a tabletop RPG, each character has strengths and limitations, but multiple characters bind themselves together into a party who balance each other out. In IF, the character is solo, but typically not bound to attribute scores, so they are a purer proxy for the player’s puzzle-solving. So in a solo RPG, the PC’s limitations remain unchecked, which risks making certain barriers difficult or impossible to pass. Solo CRPGs typically manage this by adding numerous NPCs to the player’s party. Solo tabletop RPGs are certainly possible, but they require a DM or an adventure that is flexible enough to shape the story around that one player’s character. Beyond Zork does neither of these things, and therefore the elements never quite jell.

For example, if your intelligence score is too low in Beyond Zork, you’ll be unable to read the magic scrolls that are critical to solving certain puzzles. There’s no brainy wizard in your party to help out, so a low score in that stat means you’re just out of luck. (Your luck stat does not help.) Now, there are ways to possibly make up these deficits, and in the case of intelligence, one gets provided for free, though Dante and I still lost access to it, for reasons I’ll explain later. For other attributes and weaknesses, though, the improvements tend to cost money, and the game’s major source of money is locked behind its worst puzzle. More about that later, too. Other times, the improvements are locked behind layers of puzzles, none of which are terrible but due to the interwoven nature of everything, it’s very difficult to get past those puzzles until you’ve defeated the enemies that you needed the improvement for in the first place. The strength-enhancing morgia root is a perfect example of this — only available after large portions of the game have already been conquered, by which point it makes little difference.

Cover of Beyond Zork

There’s a Problem Number Four, or perhaps Problem Number Zero, because it’s fundamental to the others: hidden mechanics. If you’re playing a tabletop RPG, the rules are available. Sure, the DM may have some nasty surprises in store for you, but everybody is playing from the same set of books. Now, there’s a discussion about metagaming to be had here. Metagaming, for those who don’t know, is the term for when a player makes decisions based on information that would be unavailable to that player’s character, such as, “I’ve read the Monster Manual, and I know that the cruel puppet has 200 hit points, so my character runs away.” This sort of thing is emphatically frowned upon in RPG circles. So it’s fair enough to say that the game master (or game designer as the case may be) must keep some things hidden in order to keep the narrative’s boundaries logical. However, at least for Dante and I, understanding the mechanics behind this game’s pronouncements would have saved us a lot of frustration.

For instance, there’s a scrystone (read: crystal ball), about which we’re told: “Visions of things yet to be lie within its depths, for those with enough wit to see them.” When we look into it, we just see an “unintelligible swirl.” Well that sure sounds like we need to boost our intelligence stat, and hooray, we know just what to do — let’s buy that Potion of Enlightenment and drink it. So we do that, it boosts our intelligence stat, we look in the scrystone again, and… our boosted intelligence makes zero difference. Now, behind the scenes, it turns out that the scrystone requires an extremely high intelligence, and there is only one item in the game that provides that kind of massive boost. Without understanding that requirement, though, we were left to feel that the game simply misled us, and that improved intelligence is not the way to solve the puzzle.

>KILL INVENTORY LIMIT

For our entire playthrough, we found ourselves frequently guessing blindly at how our stats were affecting gameplay. For example, would this game’s extremely annoying inventory limits have been relieved had we had more strength or dexterity? Because if so, boy oh boy would I have maxed those stats. I ran into more infuriating inventory limit nonsense in this game than in any other Infocom game before or since in this >RESTART series. Here’s a prime example — we’re wandering through the market when somebody drops a “fish cake”. We’ve read in the feelies that eating fish increases intelligence, so we want that thing. But…

>n
"Oof!"
The street hawker you just bumped into glowers. "Watch where I'm goin', will ya!" You clumsily help to pick up her spilled wares; she stomps away without a word of thanks.
As you dust yourself off, you notice something lying in the dust.

>get fish cake
Your hands are full.

>put all in pack
The scroll of Fireworks: Done.
The potion of Forgetfulness: Done.
The rabbit's foot: Done.
The staff of Eversion: Done.
The scroll of Mischief: Done.
The bit of salt: Done.
An alley cat races between your legs, snatches the fish cake and disappears into the crowd.

ARGH! Tightly timed object availability plus clunky inventory mechanics equals super frustrated IF player. (Also, I wonder how it is that I help her to pick up her spilled wares if my hands are so full?) By this time in our play session, Dante and I had made a fair bit of progress but hadn’t saved recently; we just didn’t have the appetite for replaying through all of it just to make sure we bumped into a totally sudden and arbitrary encounter with our hands free. We decided to just forego the intelligence boost, since we were at least able to read. That did make for a moment, though, after the potion of Enlightenment failed to help us read the scrystone, where I wondered through my curses if we had been blocked from winning the entire game due to a frickin’ inventory limit early on.

You may note that the game provides a pack. This is very helpful! However, Infocom never quite got to the point that Graham Nelson reached in the Inform libraries, where not only does the player carry a sack object, but the game automatically handles all the tedium of putting something old into the sack when the PC picks up something new. Consequently, we’re unable to grab that fish cake even though we know exactly how to do it.

We ran into this very same issue when trying to accept the goblet from the Implementors. A group of gods tries to hand us a holy object, and Beyond Zork is hitting us with, “Your load is too heavy.” By this point, we were carrying enough around that even the pack didn’t help. (That’s right, it too has a limit.) The Implementors get more and more annoyed at our “contrariness” in not picking up the goblet, and they eventually force it into our hands, only for it to immediately clatter to the ground again. The hilarious part is that if anybody should understand why we can’t pick it up, it should be the Implementors! God how I would have loved it if one of them had said, “Oh hey, looks like his load is too heavy. Let me just do away with that problem forever so he can take this nice goblet.”

Instead, the pack helped just enough with the problem of carrying things that we weren’t using our previous Zorky method of leaving a bunch of stuff at one location, but it didn’t help so much that we didn’t still find ourselves unable to pick up things in timed situations. In fact, about three-quarters of the way through the game, we did resort to our old Zorky ways, leaving a pile of objects at the Hilltop starting location.

Part of what made our inventory so dang full was the profusion of items in this game. Magic items abound — scrolls, potions, and all manner of point-and-enchant doohickeys. There’s a cane, a wand, a rod, a stick, and both a staff and a stave. The identity of these items changes from one playthrough to the next — you might find a stave of Sayonara in one game, but if you restart you could end up with a stave of Dispel. That’s one of several ways that Moriarty brings in the RPG trope of randomness.

The "Southland of Quendor" map from the Beyond Zork feelies

Of course there’s the randomized combat — get lucky enough with your hidden dice rolls and maybe you can overcome that strong monster in your way. (Not the cruel puppet, though. Never the cruel puppet.) But even beyond that, items are randomized, and the very landscape is randomized. Though the general layout of regions in Beyond Zork is a constant, the internal geography of those regions varies by playthrough. The geographical randomization works pretty well, thanks in part to the handy onscreen map provided. For each region (forest, swamp, jungle, etc.) Moriarty provides a grab-bag of locations with evocative names and descriptions, and then the game decides randomly (within set parameters) how they’re laid out in relation to each other in that region. Then within those locations, items and monsters are also placed randomly. This can sometimes affect difficulty, such as when two key areas that interact in a puzzle get randomly placed far apart, but for the most part it just adds flavor.

Randomization of items can be a little more frustrating, as it can determine whether a certain item is just lying on the ground, or whether it costs money in a shop. In the latter case, you have to defeat some monsters and gain some treasures in order to purchase said item. As I’ve mentioned, that’s not always so straightforward a task with an under-leveled character.

>CRY ABOUT TEAR

Now that we’re back to the topic of purchasing, let’s dig into the puzzle that nearly ruins this game: the Crocodile’s Tear. In my first encounter with Beyond Zork, as a teenager in the 1980s, this puzzle really did ruin the game for me — I abandoned the whole thing after a long struggle. Abandoning a game was quite a last resort in those days, as it had cost a lot of money to acquire, and I had pretty much unlimited time to spend on it. But after a year (not exaggerating) of on-and-off struggling against this puzzle, I simply could not find a way through it, and there was no Internet full of answers to consult. By that point, I was too disgusted to consider buying Invisiclues. I felt like somehow the game wasn’t playing fair with me, and I turned out to be correct.

When Dante and I encountered the puzzle, there was no question that we’d get through it, just a question of whether we’d need to consult hints — easy enough to do in the 21st century but still a sign of failure on someone’s part, either the game’s or ours. But like my teenaged self, Dante could not solve the puzzle on his own, and I must have repressed the solution, because I needed a hint too.

I’ll break this puzzle down, but first a little digression to give some background. Recall that one of the PC’s attributes is a compassion score. This seems like a bit of an odd stat for an RPG — it’s certainly not any good in a fight, and it doesn’t seem to help with using magic or solving puzzles. (Turns out it matters in the endgame, but there’s obviously no way of knowing that until you reach it.) You can boost your compassion score, though, by doing compassionate things, like rescuing a unicorn locked in a stable, or saving a minx (cute cat-like creature) from a hunter. These scenes are written and constructed beautifully, particularly the minx. Rescuing these poor creatures and raising our compassion is far more heartstring-tugging than anything in the original trilogy. (It helps that we have a very fluffy cat at home, who does not say “minx” but might as well.)

Keep all that in mind as we talk about the Crocodile’s Tear. The Tear is a legendary sapphire, found in Beyond Zork‘s jungle section. It’s worth much more money than all the other treasures in the game put together. You find it attached to a huge stone crocodile idol, at the back of the idol’s gaping maw. Trouble is, when you climb the lower jaw to get to the jewel, the jaw tilts like a seesaw, making it so that you can’t quite reach the treasure, and when you lean too hard, the jaw tilts backward and drops you into the idol’s interior.

So far, so fair. Maybe we need a stick to reach to the gem, or a projectile to knock it loose, or a counterweight to allow us to keep climbing the jaw after we pass its fulcrum. We tried all these things, in many permutations. We were especially hopeful when we acquired a sea chest, which is definitely both heavy and bulky — I’ve got the painful inventory management transcripts to prove it. We set that sea chest on the maw — which the parser allows without complaint — but it did absolutely nothing to counterbalance us. Sigh. Finally, after lots of failed attempts at getting this jewel, we turned to the hints, and were shocked at the intended solution.

Pages from the Beyond Zork feelies describing the hungus and spenseweed.

See, nearby the idol (well, nearby or a ways away, depending on how the jungle region was randomly laid out) is a heart-rending scene. A mother hungus (part hippo, part sheep) is with her baby. The baby is trapped in a pool of quicksand. The mother gazes anxiously at the baby. She bellows impotently, and the baby responds. If you should walk away, the baby hungus bellows mournfully. Well, the answer to this one is obvious. We’ve got a stick of Levitation, so we point that at the baby hungus, and this happens:

The baby hungus bellows with surprise as he rises out of the quicksand! Sweat breaks out on your forehead as you guide the heavy burden over the mud and safely down to the ground.
The ungainly creature nuzzles you with his muddy snout, and bats his eyelashes with joy and gratitude. Then he ambles away into the jungle to find his mother, pausing for a final bellow of farewell.
[Your compassion just went up.]

Fantastic! We’ve raised our compassion again. What does this have to do with the Crocodile’s Tear, you may be asking? Well, it turns out that the solution to that puzzle is to attack the baby hungus while it’s stuck in the quicksand. (Strangely, attacking the baby hungus does not make your compassion score go down, though it surely should.) That gets the mother mad enough that she’ll chase after us, and if we climb onto the stone maw, she’ll stand on the other end, counterbalancing it so we can get the jewel.

We found this outrageous. The notion of attacking a baby animal in peril is so completely against the grain of everything else Beyond Zork asks us to do, and so generally repellent, that it absolutely should not be the solution to anything. Not only that, doing the compassionate thing actually makes the game unwinnable! Let me say that again: saving a baby animal from dying (or at least, doing so before attacking it first) ensures that you cannot win the game, because the hunguses disappear from the game after you rescue the baby. This might be the worst puzzle in the entire Infocom canon. It’s all the more surprising coming from Moriarty, who had already done such brilliant work in Trinity exploring player complicity and moral culpability with an animal-killing puzzle. Here, instead of a metaphorically freighted moment of tragedy, the animal cruelty is treated as a mere mechanical device — it’s both disappointing and baffling.

If you’ve read other entries in this series, you might recall that every Zork game so far has forced Dante and I to restart, for one reason or another. Well, this puzzle forced us to restart Beyond Zork, because of course it did. Who attacks a baby animal before saving it? Actually, this was the second time we’d had to restart. The first was caused by a different sort of inventory limit — magic items that only had a limited number of uses. Certain areas of the game are unreachable except via these items, and if you run out of “charges” for them before you’ve solved everything in the area, it’s off to restart-land you must travel.

>ENJOY GAME

So, that was a lot of ranting. I’m out of breath. Let me wind this up by talking about some of the things we really enjoyed in Beyond Zork, of which there were really quite a few, despite all my complaints above. I haven’t spoken at all about the game’s primary technical innovation, a multi-windowed display which always shows a boxes-and-lines map and relevant information such as inventory contents, room description or character stats alongside the game’s main text. That’s how, in the text above, we knew to say “get fish cake” even though the transcript only said “you notice something lying in the dust” — the room description window identified the fish cake. This display was very slick for an Infocom game at the time, and still works pretty well. I think my favorite thing, though, is the way you can use the number pad to navigate — for instance, pressing 8 on the number pad automatically enters “NORTH” and a carriage return into the parser. Combined with the map, this was an awesomely fast and easy way to get around. I wish more IF games did it now.

A screenshot from Beyond Zork, showing the onscreen map, the description window, and the parser interaction below both.

Another highlight of the game is its humor. Moriarty knows his way around a joke, such as this bit from a gondola conductor, which continued to amuse us throughout the game, despite how many times we saw it:

“Thirsty?” asks the conductor. “Stop by the Skyway Adventure Emporium for a tall, frosty Granola Float.” He smacks his lips dispiritedly. “Mmm, so good.”

Moriarty also does a lovely job of tapping into the general joy of Infocom’s tone and culture. By 1987, a whole lot of love had gone into the Zork universe — although this was the first game to carry the “Zork” name since Zork III, there were several intervening games set in the milieu that filled the gap, namely the Enchanter series and Moriarty’s own Wishbringer. With all this history established, Moriarty can draw on quite a few sources for references, jokes, and general explanations of what’s going on.

Now, we hadn’t played all those other games at the time we ran through Beyond Zork, so many of the references were lost on Dante, and sometimes only dimly recalled by me. But writing this review now that we’ve played them all, I can appreciate the game’s easy command of Enchanter-ese, such as “yonked a girgol just in time.” There’s another mailbox, with another leaflet, this one yielding a burin, which is a co-star of Spellbreaker, the game at the other end of the Zork spectrum. The unicorns all wear gold keys around their necks, a la Zork II. The boot crushed by the farmhouse is quite reminiscent of the Boot Patrol in Wishbringer, and the platypus recalls that game’s feelies, not to mention being emblematic of Moriarty’s sense of humor. All these allusions gave us (especially me) that warm insider feeling of, “Hey, I understood that reference.” Similarly, the scenes of recent or future Infocom games visible in the scrystone (Hitchhiker’s Guide, Zork Zero, Shogun) are a delight.

There are plenty of good puzzles in the game, too — it isn’t all attacking babies. This was our first game with copy protection via feelies, and it was a lot of fun leaning on The Lore and Legends of Quendor to help solve puzzles. The dust bunnies and dornbeast were particularly successful examples of this. The gray fields area is another pretty successful puzzle box. We appreciated the way it unfolds in layers — first entry, then understanding the scarecrows, then figuring out the use of the sense organ, and finally the Wizard of Oz sequence, relying on what you’d learned in the other parts. The subtle changes with the corbies and the corn are the kind of thing that work gangbusters in text but would be very hard to pull off with the same nuance in graphics.

Overall, we had a lot of fun with Beyond Zork despite its flaws, and I looked forward to replaying the next Infocom Zork game — the most technically sophisticated of them all, and certainly the biggest. Ahead of us was final Zork game from Infocom as an actual artistic ensemble rather than just a brand name, though in another way, it was the first: Zork Zero.

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.

Fifteen by Ricardo Dague [Comp98]

IFDB page: Fifteen
Final placement: 25th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Is there a genie at work? No sooner did I wish (in my review of In the Spotlight) for a “storyless” game which strung together a number of logic puzzles, than along comes Fifteen. Fifteen takes its name from the traditional slide puzzle, with fifteen tiles arranged in a 4 x 4 grid, with the sixteenth spot left empty for tiles to move into. Fifteen also includes an odd-even puzzle (similar to the sentient stones in Spellbreaker) and a more traditional IF puzzle of rescuing a cat from a tree. All the puzzles are quite well-implemented, and the slide puzzle is done especially well; its interface allows for commands which string a number of moves together quickly and easily. This was much appreciated. In fact, Fifteen is almost the sort of thing I was musing about enjoying in my previous review.

Still, I finished the game feeling like I ought to be more careful what I wish for. See, Spotlight was “storyless IF” in the sense that there was really no plot, just a puzzle. However, what little prose there was in the game was richly written, and often funny. Contrast this with Fifteen, which (according to its author) takes its cue from Scott Adams’ Adventureland. Adams’ games are models of brevity, and Fifteen is just as terse, if not more. Here’s a typical room description: “Kitchen: Exits are south, east and north.” Now that’s brief. Don’t get me wrong — I recognize the nostalgia value of such an atmosphere, especially if you were raised on Scott Adams adventures, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I like to have at least a little feeling of immersion in my IF rather than unadorned puzzles. I find it very telling that even though Fifteen includes many more rooms and several more puzzles than Spotlight, the Inform file for Fifteen is actually 8K smaller than the Inform file for Spotlight. Fifteen is basically raw puzzles; it’s all the way over at the extreme end of the puzzle to story spectrum, and that’s too far for my taste.

Nonetheless, Fifteen is clearly quite well-done, for what it is. I found no bugs in the code, and what little prose there is is error-free. The puzzles, as I said, are implemented well, and the author’s ability to make me feel like I’m playing a Scott Adams game is nothing short of remarkable. But Fifteen is still not that all-puzzle game that I’m looking for — it’s too spare and empty, and because of this it fails to create the interest needed to sustain its intense puzzle-orientation.

Rating: 6.2