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.

PAX East Part 3: Do You Like Movie? [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the fourth in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly and the links ever so much more.]
*************************
In the afterglow of the panel, intentions were formed in the direction of dinner. Boston residents Dan Schmidt and Liza Daly kindly guided us to a fabulous sushi restaurant: Samurai. Delicious food, wonderful company, beer — what’s not to love? Only one thing, it turns out: the place was too small to accommodate the 12 of us at one table, so Emily, Rob, Dan, and Liza ended up at their own table beyond earshot of ours. And we got split up just as I was in mid-sentence with Emily: “I think some topics that didn’t get touched in the storytelling panel were–”

(For the record, the rest of the sentence was “integrating hints adaptively into the story in a way that feels seamless, and exploring PC emotion — how and whether to convey it.”)

After dinner, we paid the check (or rather, Stephen paid the check and we paid Stephen) and headed back towards the convention center to get in line for GET LAMP! Then, confusion ensued as we realized we’d inadvertently left behind Christopher Huang and Sam Kabo Ashwell. We went back, they weren’t there, we milled, we shivered, we went back to the convention center and found that they were in line ahead of us. It was like a French farce, only huge and freezing cold.

Anyway, we hung out in line for a while, then made our way into the “theater” — really just another convention center room with a projection screen set up. We got seats in the back, but the point is: we got seats. Others in the room ended up against the walls, on the floor, etc. There weren’t enough chairs, but everybody got into the room, which is a decidedly good thing. Jason was contemplating a second showing if they’d had to turn people away, but that showing would have started around midnight.

And now, a discursive aside about GET LAMP. About four years ago now (actually, now that I look at it, exactly four years ago today [“today” in this case being April 2, 2010, the day I originally posted this piece –2022 PO]), I got an email from somebody I’d never heard of, a guy named Jason Scott. He claimed to be a filmmaker, working on a documentary about IF. He wanted to know if he could interview me. I checked out the website, and he looked legit — for one thing, he’d already completed one such project, a huge multi-episode docu about BBSes. So I told him I’d be delighted to talk IF with him sometime.

Then, nothing until January of 2007, when I suddenly got notice that Jason would be in town in a few weeks, and did I still want to be interviewed? I sure did, so on a snowy Saturday night we met inside my deserted workplace (this was back before everybody at my job was working weekends) along with Robb Sherwin (who was apparently the guy who gave Jason my name — thanks Robb!) and his girlfriend Dayna. Jason set up his camera and asked questions. I blathered for 90 minutes, wondering if any of this was remotely usable. Then Jason took us out to dinner at an excellent French restaurant. All in all, not a bad night at the office.

Jason interviewed a bunch of other people throughout 2007, and then GET LAMP seemed to go dark for a while. Work continued sporadically, but it was hard to see what the endpoint would be. But last year it caught fire again. Jason lost his job and rather than look for another one, he ran a Kickstarter project to raise $25,000, and damned if he didn’t do it, and even go beyond. To me, that was a huge statement about the confidence and trust he’s built in the community of people around him. He used the money to pay living expenses while he finished GET LAMP, with the result that he was able to premiere it at PAX East. What he showed wasn’t the final cut of the movie, but rather a 70-minute “mix” tailored to the PAX audience. The whole shebang is going to be a 2-DVD set, with boatloads of bonuses, games (including my own), and even a branching path at one point in the movie. Heh. He’s sending me a copy, because I was an interviewee — a very classy move, according to me.

So that brings me back to PAX. What I can say about the movie I saw is this: I loved it. Yes, there were a few pieces that needed some technical polish, and a couple of spots that made me cringe a bit, but overall, WOW. It conveys what’s special about IF with such passion and cleverness, and it brings in some angles that feel fresh. It’s touching, it’s funny, it’s very effective at conveying information, and it’s quite entertaining. Also, it’s 70 minutes of very smart people discussing something about which I care deeply, so it’s pretty much made for me.

Top 5 terrific things about GET LAMP

1. Egoboo. Yes, okay? It was quite gratifying to see myself managing to speak somewhat coherently about IF in the clips that featured me, and I felt quite honored to be placed in a context alongside people whom I hold in very high esteem.

2. Insight. A lot of thoughtful people had a lot of thoughtful things to say. Some of them I’ve heard a thousand times already, but they’d feel fresh to somebody for whom this was a new subject. Others felt fresh to me too. One example that sticks out: Jason Shiga observing that when you’re a kid, you don’t get to make a lot of choices. You don’t decide where to live, where to go to school, how to spend much of your time. When you’re in that situation, having a game offer you control of the story you’re in can be a very satisfying feeling indeed.

3. The section on blind players. Jason very astutely taps into the subculture of blind IF players, for whom this is one of the only feasible genres of computer game available. One of his subjects, Michael Feir, was somebody I kept in contact with when I was editing SPAG. Michael was the longtime editor of Audyssey, a gaming zine for the blind. Anyway, this section of the film had some wonderful pieces to it. I loved the woman who observed that one of the skills IF helps you build is mental map-making, and suggested that playing IF has made her more confident when she’s exploring an unfamiliar place. And Austin Seraphin is great, cracking that when a game tells him, “It’s pitch dark. You can’t see a thing,” he just thinks: “So what does that matter?”

4. Infocom. Dave Lebling, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Stu Galley, Marc Blank, Brian Moriarty, Amy Briggs, et cetera. These names lit up my teen years so much they may as well have been rock stars. This movie had fantastic footage of each of them, telling great stories from the company’s heyday and offering perceptive opinions about the form in general. What a pleasure it was to see their faces, hear their voices, and get to know them a little better.

5. Explanatory power. I am very, very accustomed to getting befuddled stares when I talk about interactive fiction. I love that such a compelling visual text exists, that can introduce the subject to somebody new with both the intellectual clarity and the emotional weight it deserves. I’m very hopeful that it’ll bring a fresh wave of enthusiasm into the IF community itself, and that I can use it with my friends and family to shed some light on my ongoing fascination.

The best part of all, though, wasn’t so much the film itself as the moment it created. Jason sums it up: “this had, by dint of using my film as the stone in the stone soup, become the largest assembly of interactive fiction folks in history. Creators, players, and legends were going to assemble on PAX East, and make it something very, very special.” That’s exactly what happened, and nothing exemplified it more than the panel after the film:

* Dave Lebling (Zork, Enchanter, Spellbreaker, The Lurking Horror)
* Don Woods (Adventure, need I say more?)
* Brian Moriarty (Trinity, Beyond Zork, Wishbringer)
* Andrew Plotkin (So Far, Spider And Web, Shade)
* Nick Montfort (Twisty Little Passages, Ad Verbum, Book And Volume)
* Steve Meretzky (A Mind Forever Voyaging and so many other great games that just the thought of typing them out exhausts me.)

Again, Jason will release the footage at some point, so I’m not going to try to recap the panel. Suffice it to say that it was an unbelievable confluence of talent and history, a great discussion of IF, and oh by the way Meretzky is FREAKING HILARIOUS. Stephen later asserted that Steve Meretzky must be on every panel, everywhere, from now on. I quite agree.

After the film, I got to shake the hands of some legends and thank them for the huge positive impact on my life. We toddled on back to the suite, buzzing. The conversation there felt infused with joy; it glowed in the dark.

It’s hard to explain what this day meant to me. It was one of the best days I’ve had in years and years. Jason said to me later, “This weekend is like one big hug for you, isn’t it?” He’s not wrong. It was emotional, even more so than I expected, to be a part of this gathering — Rob called it the “IF Woodstock.” I tried to say so in the suite, though I’m not sure how articulate I was. I felt filled with love, for interactive fiction, for the IF community, and specifically for these people who shared this experience with me. It was vivid, elevating.

After the party broke up, I grabbed a taxi back to my hotel (the T had long since closed), and before I went to bed, posted this on Facebook:

Back when I was active in the interactive fiction community, and also going to conferences for work, I used to daydream about an IF conference where we’d have bunches of key people from the past and present, panels about various aspects of the form, face time with all these people I just knew as words on a screen, etc…. Today said: “I’ll see your dream, and raise you an IF movie!”

PAX East Part 1: The Suite Life of Zarf & Co. [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the second in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly.]

*************************
There were further travel adventures after the plane arrived — I found my way to the subway without any trouble, and got off at the right stop, but it was dark and raining, and I was quite disoriented. Lucky for me, there appeared on the horizon a lovely Au Bon Pain with free wireless access. I ducked in and got my bearings over a delicious lemon danish & chocolate-dipped shortbread. Mmmmm… empty calories. Also, let’s hear it for the Internet — it was so great to 1) figure out the right path to my hotel via Google Maps, 2) write Laura to tell her I’d made the plane, and 3) look up sunrise tables to figure out when I’d have a little light on my side.

Armed with this information, I walked to my hotel as the sun rose, and asked them if there was any way I could pretty please get into a room early so I could grab a nap before proceeding with the rest of my day. Unfortunately, they’d been sold out the night before, so they didn’t have any rooms open that early. They took my phone number and suggested I grab a leisurely breakfast — they’d call me when something opened up. The rain had turned to snow at that point, so I opted to stay within the hotel. They had a cafe with a nice (albeit hotel-expensive) breakfast buffet, so I camped out up there for the next couple of hours until they finally called me with the good news.

Got a room, got into bed. Blessed sleep.

At 12:30 I arose, cleaned up, figured out my train path, and headed over to the IF hospitality suite. This was a room in the Hilton arranged by Andrew Plotkin (aka Zarf) on behalf of the People’s Republic Of Interactive Fiction (a Boston-based IF group) to be a welcoming space for PAXies interested in IF. They printed up friendly fliers and everything (click images for larger versions):

Photocopy - the front side of a flyer advertising "The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction" Hospitality Suite at PAX East 2010, listing various IF-related events at the con and in the room.

Photocopy - the back side of a flyer advertising the IF Hospitality Suite at PAX East 2010 - a faux IF transcript about finding the suite.

When I got there, I was pleased to find that it was pretty crowded! Not only that, it was full of people I’d known online for more than 15 years! Zarf was there, of course — we’d never met, although we’ve been in the same community since 1995. Also there was the estimable Stephen Granade, another guy I’ve known since the very beginning but never been face-to-face with. A few people I’d met at an IF gathering several years ago, so I wasn’t completely overwhelmed with face-to-name energy, but still, it was pretty amazing.

Top 5 awesome things about the IF suite

1) The swag! Robb Sherwin put together a great IF promotional CD (this, but updated with newer stuff) to give out to visitors. There was also a nifty postcard, with art on the front and a handy how-to on the back. Plus: badge ribbons, stickers, buttons, and nametags!

2) The food! Zarf & co. were kind enough to provide lots and lots of chips, M&Ms, and soda, and others brought delicious treats as well. Across the hall, Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch even provided beer! Woo hoo!

3) The energy! At any given moment, there were usually two or three conversations going — newbies connecting with veterans, different subsections of the community interconnecting, people getting acquainted who had never really met before. People talked about IF, and also about their lives, what was happening at the conference, and what was for dinner that night.

4) The special guest stars! Don Woods, co-creator of the original Adventure, came to an IF panel and chatted with folks. I got to hang at the edge of a conversation between Emily Short and Steve Meretzky, so I got to thank the latter for his work, which has meant a lot to me over the years. Especially A Mind Forever Voyaging. Wow. Jason Scott hung out for a while doing his larger-than-life, bursting-with-anecdotes thing. It was a bit like a bunch of indie bands hanging out together, and then occasionally Paul McCartney or Robert Plant might drop by.

5) The people! I suppose this is a superset of the previous one, but holy cow, this room was PACKED the entire weekend! There was something really special about this locus of passion and force about IF. I loved talking to people who were new to the scene. I loved talking to people who had become community celebrities in the time I’ve been out of the loop. I loved talking to people I’ve known for years from the other side of a screen. I loved being in that room.

Eragon by Unknown [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2006.]

IFDB Page: Eragon

Eragon Vs. Bygone Era

IF aficionados have often made the argument that the medium could have a commercial comeback if marketed in the right way. Forget gamers, the line of reasoning goes. Instead, interactive fiction should be sold in bookstores, right alongside the books, appealing to an educated, literary audience that sees “all words no pictures” as an advantage rather than a drawback. After all, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of Infocom’s biggest hits, and it seems reasonable to conclude that that game drew much of its audience from people who loved the books. (Leave aside for a moment the tremendous overlap between fans of those books and computer nerds.) Perhaps the beginning of this IF resurgence might be text games appearing on author websites, inviting fans of that author to experience their favorite fictional world interactively, possibly re-enacting some key scenes, or filling in some narrative gaps from the paper stories.

I’m not sure I believe that IF will ever experience a commercial comeback on any significant scale, but I love the idea of skilled authors with large fanbases creating text adventures. Consequently, I was excited to learn that Christopher Paolini, author of the “Inheritance Trilogy” of young adult fantasy novels, had placed a text adventure on his site, set in those books’ universe. I’ve never read Paolini’s work, but his books seem to be popular with the kids, what with the first one spending months on the New York Times’ bestseller list and having over a million copies in print. The fact that such a popular author was offering interactive fiction based on his books seemed quite promising to me, and I was eager to check it out. A web browser is a lousy place to play a text adventure of any size, given that Zplet doesn’t provide for SAVE and RESTORE, so once I found the game I dug the zcode file out of my browser cache and played it locally. It would be nice if the author’s web site had provided an easier option for downloading the game file, but that’s a forgivable lapse. I fired up the game, all energized about the bright possibilities.

Unfortunately, that energy evaporated almost immediately. The first thing I did was turn transcripting on, and saw this:

Start of a transcript of
Eragon
Eragon.
Release 1 / Serial number 050712 / Inform v6.30 Library 6/11 SD
Standard interpreter 1.1 (4F) / Library serial number 040227

Uh-oh. Debugging verbs left on: not a good sign. Also, what’s with the subtitle being just the title with a period added in? Finally, where’s the author credit? Did Paolini actually write this game, or did he leave his name off because some employee or fan of his is the real author?

Having played the game, I’d put my money on the latter. Both in terms of design and prose style, Eragon feels like the product of a member of its intended audience: readers in their early teens. At the very least, given the number of comma splices and grammatical missteps in the game, I think it’s safe to say that this prose has never seen the services of a professional editor. The milieu of the game itself feels like Tolkien with just a few of the serial numbers rubbed off — apparently you’re a dwarf in the tunnels under “Farthen Dûr”. Your quest is to warn the “Varden” (i.e. the good guys) that an “army of Urgals” (i.e. orcs) is approaching. In the process, you’ll come across some magic dust that makes people fall asleep, mysterious runes concealing hidden rooms, huge underground chambers, and so forth. It’s bog-standard stuff.

As for the game itself, well, I wish the news was better. It’s not that this game is out-and-out terrible. Worse games get submitted to every single IF competition. However, it suffers from some very serious flaws. The worst of these is the way it deploys a kind of “selective parsing” that makes it feel like a product of 1983, despite having been produced with Inform 6. Several times throughout Eragon, I found that the parser would claim not to understand a particular formulation, only to specifically require that formulation at a later point. This kind of thing is simply unacceptable in a text adventure — if you tell me a command is not understood, don’t expect me to try it again. A variation on this is the way that at certain junctures I found myself wrestling with the parser, trying to communicate a specific idea, only to learn that the game would only accept the most generic command possible, doing all the rest of the heavy lifting itself. Here’s an example, altered to remove spoilers:

>X TRAP DOOR
The stone trap door is covered with finely carved runes and etchings
of intertwined dragons. There is an empty space in the center, just
about the size of the marble orb.

>PUT ORB ON DOOR
Putting things on the Trap Door would achieve nothing.

>PUT ORB IN CENTER
I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer
to the commands list for help.

>OPEN TRAP DOOR
The door is locked, and simply impassable.

>PUT ORB IN STONE
You can't put something inside itself.

>X CENTER
I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer
to the commands list for help.

>USE ORB
The orb slips perfectly back into place, becoming one with the door.
The door, now unlocked, automatically begins to slide open, dragging
heavily along the floor.

The puzzles themselves are pitched at a good level for kids, but any kid would be driven crazy by how frequently this game fails to parse.

Alongside the technical failures is some highly irritating design, the centerpiece of which is a large maze. This maze isn’t terribly challenging — the game is kind enough to give each location a distinctive name, like “Maze M18”, “Hallway H6”, and so forth — but it is so, so dull. Wandering through one empty location after another, following the left hand wall, is not my idea of a good time. Hilariously, the game helps orient you by telling you that you hear singing, loudly or faintly, from a particular direction, but when you get to the source of the sound it seems to forget that it ever mentioned singing. There’s a person there, but I never saw her sing. In addition, there are several spots where I flummoxed the game by doing things in a different order than it expected. For instance, there’s a library section where I thumbed through the books and was told, “Upon realizing that this is not the book you are looking for, you return the book to its place on the shelf.” Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet met the character who told me what book to look for, which made that message rather nonsensical. I’d venture to guess that the game was written to a walkthrough and not playtested thoroughly enough to uncover its hidden assumptions. Tons of formatting errors, capricious capitalization, and logical lapses add to the unpolished feeling.

I realize that all this criticism is negative, and I don’t mean to be too discouraging, especially if Eragon was written by some young Paolini fan as a labor of love. I think the lesson that emerges from this game is that although it would be great for popular writers to offer interactive fiction based on their works, they should probably do so in collaboration with experienced IF authors if they’re unfamiliar with modern IF themselves. After all, even Douglas Adams didn’t try to write the Hitchhiker’s game himself — the participation of Steve Meretzky helped ensure that the game would not be a hash of bugs and mainframe-era game design cliches. Similarly, modern authors would do well to avail themselves of the knowledge contained within the modern text adventure community. Combining a popular writer’s skill and imagination with the technical expertise and experience of an established IF creator would be most likely to result in a game that puts both the author’s works and interactive fiction itself in the best light. Without that creator’s insight, you run the risk of games like Eragon, which makes IF fans want to avoid more Paolini and Paolini fans want to avoid more IF.

Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (book review) [Misc]

[I wrote this review when the book was released, and also posted an abbreviated version at Amazon.]

Book cover for Twisty Little Passages
Just over ten years ago, I was holed up in the University of Colorado at Boulder‘s Norlin library, researching interactive fiction. I was a grad student in English, and had a final paper due in my Literary Theory class. Activision had recently released the Lost Treasures of Infocom bundle, reawakening my childhood love of IF, and I felt inspired to write a paper that connected reader-response theory to the actual reader-responsiveness of text adventures. I wanted to cite and to engage with previous academic work on IF, but unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, it had received very little serious critical attention. Sure, I found a few articles here and there, but what I really needed was something substantial, something that offered a critical vocabulary for talking about interactive fiction, that placed it in a literary context, and that presented a basic history of the form.

What I needed was Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages. How strange and funny that ten years later, the paper I wrote for that class finds itself cited in the first book-length academic treatment of interactive fiction. True, the citation only occurs in a passing (and correct) dismissal of reader-response theory as anything but a very limited way into talking about IF, but it makes me feel like part of history nonetheless. Montfort’s book is just what IF needs to establish its rightful place in the scholarly discourse surrounding electronic literature, and indeed literature, full stop. It never fails to be informative, and frequently succeeds at being sharply insightful about the literary elements of IF.

However, Twisty Little Passages is quite suitable for readers outside the ivory tower as well. Though the book is clearly aimed at an academic audience, Montfort’s prose is blessedly jargon-free, clear, and effective, with generous doses of humor thrown in for good measure. Even in its most theoretical moments, the book manages to balance impressive rigor with unfailing clarity, a feat all too rare in literary theory. Consequently, it’s an entertaining read for general audiences and English professors alike. If you’re an IF aficionado like me, you’ll find Twisty Little Passages enlightening and fun, and if there’s anyone in your life who genuinely wants to know what interactive fiction is and why they should care, hand them this book.

Just the bibliography alone is a noteworthy achievement; Montfort has synthesized the already extant body of formal IF scholarship and mainstream coverage with much of the important amateur IF theory produced by people like Graham Nelson and Emily Short. Also included are a range of other contributions from the IF community and pieces covering the book’s other concerns, including riddles and computer science. In addition, there is a formidable collection of IF works cited, a list comprising much of the most influential interactive fiction of the past thirty years.

Something else that the bibliography makes clear is the value of Montfort’s personal connections. It’s peppered with references to emails and private conversations with some of the leading lights of IF history: Robert Pinsky, Graham Nelson, Steve Meretzky, and others. Montfort’s ability to gather such firsthand information highlights one of the most important things about Twisty Little Passages: not only is it the first book-length treatment of interactive fiction, it is the first formal treatment I’ve seen that approaches IF from the inside out, rather than from the position of a quizzical spectator. Montfort’s extensive experience in both the academic and IF communities lends him a brand of authority that previous commentators on IF lacked.

Of course, authority only gets you so far — it’s what you do with that authority that counts. That’s what makes the first two chapters of Twisty Little Passages such a particular pleasure: Montfort not only knows what he’s talking about when it comes to IF, he’s got quite a bit of original insight to offer about its literary and theoretical contexts. As with many works of literary criticism that seek to approach an underscrutinized area, the project of this book’s first chapter is not only to expose the topic’s theoretical underpinnings but to define and delimit a specific vocabulary for use in discussing it. Montfort does an excellent job of providing a clear definition of IF (and indeed of making the case for the term “interactive fiction”) and of defining a set of terms to identify the subcomponents of the IF experience. For example, according to the book, a session is “what happens during the execution of an IF program. [It] begins when an IF program starts running [and] ends when the program terminates”, while a traversal is “a course extending from a prologue to a final reply, and from an initial situation to a final situation” — thus a traversal can encompass many sessions (as frequently happens in the case of long, complex games), or a session can encompass many traversals (as happens with short games with high replay value.) Of course, at bottom the choice of terms is more or less arbitrary, but it is crucial that we be able to name the various parts of the IF experience — they are our stepping stones to more sophisticated discussions. Twisty Little Passages lays this groundwork admirably.

On the whole, this book seems more interested in surveying the territory of IF than in making unified arguments about it, but the exception to this is chapter two, where Montfort makes the case that the most important literary progenitor of IF is the riddle, and takes a counterpoint to the most famous analogy and contextualization of IF from the last decade:

The riddle, like an IF work, must express itself clearly enough to be solved, obliquely enough to be challenging, and beautifully enough to be compelling. These are all different aspects of the same goal; they are not in competition. An excellent interactive fiction work is no more “a crossword at war with a narrative” (Nelson 1995a) than a poem is sound at war with sense.

This is a brilliant and entirely convincing comparison. Montfort gives us a brief history of the riddle, and draws the necessary parallels to demonstrate IF’s similarities with it, leaving us with a new paradigm within which to view interactive fiction. Best of all, this angle of approach allows IF to be both story and game, both art and amusement, without detracting from the value of either.

Chapters three through seven, indeed the bulk of the book, are devoted to delineating the history of IF, from its mainframe beginnings to the current amateur renaissance. It’s an entertaining journey, and Montfort’s encapsulation of IF history is concise, approachable, and extremely informative. I found it a little frustrating, though, because it must of necessity skim over the ground rather quickly, especially as it moves into the Infocom era and beyond. Consequently, there are many moments of intriguing literary analysis of IF games, but they end almost as soon as they begin — practically every page contains material that could make a full article in itself. By the time I reached the end of the book, a sort of epilogue that takes inventory of the various ways in which the tropes of interactive fiction have made their way into our culture, I was already wishing for a sequel, one that assayed a more in-depth discussion of games like Mindwheel and Photopia instead of the tantalizing tidbits we get here.

Montfort has already done some of this sort of work, such as an article written with Stuart Moulthrop for an Australian digital arts conference, analyzing the role of Princess Charlotte in Adam Cadre’s Varicella. However, not much work of that sort could appear without Twisty Little Passages preceding it, just as in-depth conversations can rarely occur prior to introductions. This book creates a foundation for the inclusion of IF in literary discussions, and for further examination of specific IF works. Perhaps if we look back on IF criticism in another ten years, we’ll see that introduction as the most important service Twisty Little Passages performs.

Paul O’Brian
11 January 2004

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.

Zork Zero [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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

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

>EMBIGGEN ZORK. G. G. G. G.

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

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

>X CANNONBALL
There's nothing special about the cannonball.

>X UNICORNS
There's nothing unusual about the herd of unicorns.

>X FJORD
It looks just like the Flathead Fjord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of Zork Zero

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

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

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

>RECOGNIZE ZORK TROPE. G. G. G. G.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>LAUGH. G. G. G. G.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of Zork Zero's Flathead Calendar feelie

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

>REMEMBER PUZZLE. G. G. G. G.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (book review) [Misc]

[This is a review I wrote in 2004, of the first book-length academic study of interactive fiction: Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages. I also posted a version of this review on the Amazon page for that book.]

Just over ten years ago, I was holed up in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Norlin library, researching interactive fiction. I was a grad student in English, and had a final paper due in my Literary Theory class. Activision had recently released the Lost Treasures of Infocom bundle, reawakening my childhood love of IF, and I felt inspired to write a paper that connected reader-response theory to the actual reader-responsiveness of text adventures. I wanted to cite and to engage with previous academic work on IF, but unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, it had received very little serious critical attention. Sure, I found a few articles here and there, but what I really needed was something substantial, something that offered a critical vocabulary for talking about interactive fiction, that placed it in a literary context, and that presented a basic history of the form.

What I needed was Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages. How strange and funny that ten years later, the paper I wrote for that class finds itself cited in the first book-length academic treatment of interactive fiction. True, the citation only occurs in a passing (and correct) dismissal of reader-response theory as anything but a very limited way into talking about IF, but it makes me feel like part of history nonetheless. Montfort’s book is just what IF needs to establish its rightful place in the scholarly discourse surrounding electronic literature, and indeed literature, full stop. It never fails to be informative, and frequently succeeds at being sharply insightful about the literary elements of IF.

However, Twisty Little Passages is quite suitable for readers outside the ivory tower as well. Though the book is clearly aimed at an academic audience, Montfort’s prose is blessedly jargon-free, clear, and effective, with generous doses of humor thrown in for good measure. Even in its most theoretical moments, the book manages to balance impressive rigor with unfailing clarity, a feat all too rare in literary theory. Consequently, it’s an entertaining read for general audiences and English professors alike. If you’re an IF aficionado like me, you’ll find Twisty Little Passages enlightening and fun, and if there’s anyone in your life who genuinely wants to know what interactive fiction is and why they should care, hand them this book.

Just the bibliography alone is a noteworthy achievement; Montfort has synthesized the already extant body of formal IF scholarship and mainstream coverage with much of the important amateur IF theory produced by people like Graham Nelson and Emily Short. Also included are a range of other contributions from the IF community and pieces covering the book’s other concerns, including riddles and computer science. In addition, there is a formidable collection of IF works cited, a list comprising much of the most influential interactive fiction of the past thirty years.

Something else that the bibliography makes clear is the value of Montfort’s personal connections. It’s peppered with references to emails and private conversations with some of the leading lights of IF history: Robert Pinsky, Graham Nelson, Steve Meretzky, and others. Montfort’s ability to gather such firsthand information highlights one of the most important things about Twisty Little Passages: not only is it the first book-length treatment of interactive fiction, it is the first formal treatment I’ve seen that approaches IF from the inside out, rather than from the position of a quizzical spectator. Montfort’s extensive experience in both the academic and IF communities lends him a brand of authority that previous commentators on IF lacked.

Of course, authority only gets you so far — it’s what you do with that authority that counts. That’s what makes the first two chapters of Twisty Little Passages such a particular pleasure: Montfort not only knows what he’s talking about when it comes to IF, he’s got quite a bit of original insight to offer about its literary and theoretical contexts. As with many works of literary criticism that seek to approach an underscrutinized area, the project of this book’s first chapter is not only to expose the topic’s theoretical underpinnings but to define and delimit a specific vocabulary for use in discussing it. Montfort does an excellent job of providing a clear definition of IF (and indeed of making the case for the term “interactive fiction”) and of defining a set of terms to identify the subcomponents of the IF experience.

For example, according to the book, a session is “what happens during the execution of an IF program. [It] begins when an IF program starts running [and] ends when the program terminates”, while a traversal is “a course extending from a prologue to a final reply, and from an initial situation to a final situation” — thus a traversal can encompass many sessions (as frequently happens in the case of long, complex games), or a session can encompass many traversals (as happens with short games with high replay value.) Of course, at bottom the choice of terms is more or less arbitrary, but it is crucial that we be able to name the various parts of the IF experience — they are our stepping stones to more sophisticated discussions. Twisty Little Passages lays this groundwork admirably.

On the whole, this book seems more interested in surveying the territory of IF than in making unified arguments about it, but the exception to this is chapter two, where Montfort makes the case that the most important literary progenitor of IF is the riddle, and takes a counterpoint to the most famous analogy and contextualization of IF from the last decade:

The riddle, like an IF work, must express itself clearly enough to be solved, obliquely enough to be challenging, and beautifully enough to be compelling. These are all different aspects of the same goal; they are not in competition. An excellent interactive fiction work is no more “a crossword at war with a narrative” (Nelson 1995a) than a poem is sound at war with sense.

This is a brilliant and entirely convincing comparison. Montfort gives us a brief history of the riddle, and draws the necessary parallels to demonstrate IF’s similarities with it, leaving us with a new paradigm within which to view interactive fiction. Best of all, this angle of approach allows IF to be both story and game, both art and amusement, without detracting from the value of either.

Chapters three through seven, indeed the bulk of the book, are devoted to delineating the history of IF, from its mainframe beginnings to the current amateur renaissance. It’s an entertaining journey, and Montfort’s encapsulation of IF history is concise, approachable, and extremely informative. I found it a little frustrating, though, because it must of necessity skim over the ground rather quickly, especially as it moves into the Infocom era and beyond. Consequently, there are many moments of intriguing literary analysis of IF games, but they end almost as soon as they begin — practically every page contains material that could make a full article in itself. By the time I reached the end of the book, a sort of epilogue that takes inventory of the various ways in which the tropes of interactive fiction have made their way into our culture, I was already wishing for a sequel, one that assayed a more in-depth discussion of games like Mindwheel and Photopia instead of the tantalizing tidbits we get here.

Montfort has already done some of this sort of work, such as an article written with Stuart Moulthrop for an Australian digital arts conference, analyzing the role of Princess Charlotte in Adam Cadre’s Varicella. However, not much work of that sort could appear without Twisty Little Passages preceding it, just as in-depth conversations can rarely occur prior to introductions. This book creates a foundation for the inclusion of IF in literary discussions, and for further examination of specific IF works. Perhaps if we look back on IF criticism in another ten years, we’ll see that introduction as the most important service Twisty Little Passages performs.

Splashdown by Paul J. Furio [Comp04]

IFDB page: Splashdown
Final placement: 8th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Apparently, malfunctioning slower-than-light starships with passengers in cryogenic sleep have replaced isolated scientific complexes as the go-to comp game setting this year. Of course, in fairness, we did have a scientific complex in All Things Devours, though it wasn’t underground or in Antarctica or anything. Oh, and I guess my own entry could be considered an “isolated scientific complex” game, sort of. Still, the malfunctioning starships are making a strong showing this year. Happily, Splashdown is leagues ahead of its competitor, Getting Back To Sleep, though they both feel rather too much like Planetfall knockoffs.

One refreshing difference is that at least Splashdown acknowledges its debt to Steve Meretzky, not to mention the fact that its implementation is (pardon the pun) light-years ahead of GBTS‘s creaky homebrew. The game even provides a nifty PDF feelie that rivals Infocom in quality. Nevertheless, there are times when Splashdown feels just too derivative, especially when it introduces a cute little robot companion who follows the PC around, spouting random funny dialogue and helping out with the occasional puzzle. Sound familiar?

Besides that, there’s the fact that the crux of the story really doesn’t make much sense. Apparently, the ship is heading off to colonize a distant planet, but something goes wrong, so its computer picks a random colonist to reanimate, in hopes that this person can address the problem. This random colonist is the PC, natch, and if it were me, the colonists would be doomed, because I certainly didn’t win the game my first time through. Isn’t this an unbelievably dumb disaster plan? Why in the world wouldn’t there be a designated person to reanimate in situations like this? Putting the fate of 500 (or maybe 300, depending on whether you believe the game or the hint files) people in the hands of some randomly selected dude isn’t a strategy I can see even the most dunderheaded government or corporation assaying.

That complaint aside, Splashdown presents an entertaining story and a believable setting. I particularly enjoyed figuring out the reason why the ship malfunctioned, a comic situation worthy of Meretzky. There are a nice variety of puzzles, and they’re blended pretty seamlessly into the story, which I greatly appreciate. Somehow, though, many of these puzzles felt rather counterintuitive to me. Looking back at my transcripts, I see a few different root causes for this problem. One issue is that the game’s description of certain objects doesn’t really jibe with my understanding of how those objects ought to work in real life. In particular, I don’t expect a spigot to do anything useful unless I turn a faucet or turn on a pump or something, and if I do so, I expect that spigot to start spouting whether or not it has anything attached to it. These assumptions played me false as I was flailing around Splashdown‘s ship, trying to figure out anything to do that would make any sense at all.

Another issue is that I had the sense that I was missing just a little bit of documentation. In one or two of the final puzzles, I only knew what I needed to do because the hints told me so, not because of anything in the game that gave me the clue. This may be down to a case of me being slow on the uptake, or it may be that the game makes a few too many assumptions about how familiar players are likely to be with its setting. Finally, in some situations, too few verb forms are implemented. Particularly on one of the initial puzzles, I grasped the concept of what needed to be done, and tried a few different ways of expressing it, only to be rebuffed each time. Consequently, when I saw the solution in the hints, I felt annoyed rather than relieved.

Actually, the lack of synonyms and alternate verbs plagued me outside of the puzzles as well. For instance, there are cryotubes in the game that can’t be called “tubes.” There is no good reason not to provide those sorts of synonyms. In addition, one section of the game requires a lot of talking to the computer, using syntax along the lines of COMPUTER, DISPLAY HELP SCREEN. You can’t call the computer COMP or anything like that, and you can’t just say, for example, DISPLAY HELP, or better yet, HELP. Given the number of times I had to type out commands like this, I was mighty annoyed at the lack of abbreviations after a while.

On the other hand, the implementation is almost comically rich in a couple of areas, particularly the cryotubes themselves. There are 125 of these implemented, each with its own personalized nameplate. I was so gobsmacked at this that I had to examine each one, and was rewarded with occasional jokes and geeky insider references. And so the ship’s systems gradually failed as I went around autistically reading nameplates, but I loved it. Despite the occasional moment of breathtaking implementation, though, Splashdown feels like it’s not quite out of beta yet. There are a considerable number of typos, and sloppy formatting is rampant, especially when it comes to the robot companion’s random dialogue. In addition, I encountered a few minor bugs and glitches here and there. I hope very much that the author takes reviews and feedback to heart and releases a post-comp edition of this game. With some polish, I think it could be a really fun Infocom-style ride.

Rating: 8.0