The Lurking Horror [Infocom >RESTART]

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

After playing the ten games I’d initially mapped for our Infocom journey, Dante and I did play one more. This time, we were following a chain of interest for him. I’ve mentioned before that Dante’s favorite author is N.K. Jemisin. At the time of our Infocom odyssey, Jemisin’s latest book was The City We Became, which is a riff on (among many other things) H.P. Lovecraft, taking into account not just his otherworldly imaginings but also his racism, sexism, and general paranoia.

To help Dante understand the broader context behind Jemisin’s work, I gifted him a volume containing all of Lovecraft’s fiction. After he’d cruised through that, I just happened to mention that there was a Lovecraft-y Infocom game, should he be interested. He was!

Thus, we dove into The Lurking Horror, Infocom’s alchemical combination of a college game and a Lovecraft homage. I have strong, scary, and wonderful memories of playing this game myself, freshman year of college. I was at NYU, sick with a bad cold on Halloween night, and therefore alone in my dorm while everybody else was out at the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. I wasn’t tired enough to sleep, and I’d never gotten that far in The Lurking Horror, so I fired it up and played for hours, orange letters glowing against black on my 1988 monochrome monitor. I vividly remember encountering its eerie scenes, and how the game salvaged my otherwise disappointing Halloween.

Returning to the game with Dante in 2021, we saw almost immediately how the passage of time had warped some of its initial atmosphere:

>x terminals
This is a beyond-state-of-the-art personal computer. It has a 1024 by 1024 pixel color monitor, a mouse, an attached hard disk, and a local area network connection. Fortunately, one of its features is a prominent HELP key. It is currently turned off.

Oh how this passage rings with unintentional comedy now. I mean, when I was playing in 1988, a color monitor still seemed pretty fancy, but now? Not so much. Same with a mouse, an “attached” hard disk, a local area network, and a 1024 by 1024 pixel display. That display also prompted this exchange:

Dante: Isn’t that a square?
Me: Yes, computer monitors used to be squares.
Dante: WHAT?!?

And yes, I did say 2021 above. It’s taken me so long to get to this post that Dante himself is now in college!


The Lurking Horror is a Dave Lebling creation, and as with Spellbreaker, it’s a clinic on interactive fiction writing and design. In particular, this time around I was deeply impressed by Lebling’s use of objects to bind and further threads of the game at various layers, from tone to theme to puzzles.

Take the smooth stone, for instance. I’d argue that it’s one of the best, most effective objects in any Infocom game, doing multiple kinds of work at once. First, it’s a vital weapon against some of the otherworldly threats that the PC faces. As such, it’s useful at several different points in the game, cropping up in the plot rhythmically, like a heartbeat.

Cover to The Lurking Horror

We’re trained in the very beginning of the game that there’s a connection between freaky monsters and this stone, but we don’t get to actually throw the stone at the monster in that initial dream sequence. Thus, when we actually do get to throw it at a monster, the action is that much more satisfying. For us, that was the maintenance man — we knew the stone was powerful when it left a burn mark on his forehead. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually vanquish him.

Next was the dark flier that attacks us in the weather observation dome. Here, the stone doesn’t leave a mark — in fact it goes through the creature entirely — but the monster reacts nevertheless, retreating when we throw the stone inside, and following the stone over the edge when we throw it outside. For the first time, the stone is the answer to a puzzle, and thus its significance builds further.

Threats like the rats and the professor aren’t otherworldly, so the stone doesn’t work on them, which further helps define its purpose, and also sets up one of the game’s best one-off jokes:

>throw stone at professor
You miss. (Now you know why few technical schools make it to the Rose Bowl.)

Finally, at the climax of the game, it’s the smooth stone that is the key to victory — and perhaps a sequel? Thus Lebling uses the smooth stone object to create a unity, tying the beginning of the game to its end.

That’s not all, though. There’s a symbol scratched on the stone, described in Lebling’s signature combination of evocation and understatement: “The symbol, on close examination, appears to have been carved into the smooth stone, perhaps with a claw. The symbol is like nothing you’ve ever seen, and yet somehow you know it has meaning.” Lebling uses the power of text here in just the same way Lovecraft did — evoking “the undescribeable” in a way no illustration could possibly manage. That symbol is also a recurring theme, appearing in such places as the Chinese food carton, the rat brand, the altar, and the tattoo on the mummified hand.

Every time we find one of these symbols, there’s a sense of the walls closing in, as whatever unholy truth it signifies invades our world from another direction. The COMPARE verb is golden here, though sometimes there can be a bit of awkwardness getting the game to understand what we mean. When it does, though:

>compare carved symbol to tattoo
Allowing for the different media in which the symbols are executed, they are identical.

That’s good for a chill.

Most important of all, the stone functions as a symbol itself. We slip into an eerie dream, find the stone, and then when we wake up, the stone is there in our hand. Thus it represents the intrusion of the unconscious world of dreams into the waking world — our first definitive evidence that something uncanny is happening. That’s the essence of Lovecraftian horror — the sense that the dimensional barriers have become weak, and that unspeakable abominations from beyond are creeping into our ordinary world.

To throw these supernatural elements into sharp relief, Lebling employs a deep naturalism throughout many other parts of the game. Settings like the elevator, the computer lab, and the snowy streets are utterly ordinary, setting us up to be that much more shocked when we encounter eerie presences that don’t belong.

Image from the back cover of the game, showing the disk and feelies including the GUE ID card and the "GUE at a Glance" guide.


That naturalism works through to the puzzles too, such as the very satisfying and logical puzzle of the maintenance man. There’s glass you can’t safely shatter and reach through without some kind of protection — thus the electrician’s gloves, which themselves quite reasonably crop up in a technical storage area. There’s a cord that must be severed — hence the fire axe behind the glass. To stop the zombie you must take advantage of its clumsiness — hence the floor wax, which of course the janitor would have. All of it feels perfectly natural and logical, letting us use the ordinary objects of our world against something that shouldn’t be in it.

Just as we use the maintenance man’s floor wax against him, so too do we find other objects that strike ironic counterpoints as they become puzzle solutions. There’s a sacrificial knife which helps save us from becoming a sacrifice. The urchin steals bolt cutters, which we liberate and then use to free the other urchins. Sure, they’re puzzle solutions, but they also deepen the theme and the mood when they tie story elements together, feeling not just correct for the puzzle but incredibly apt for the entire fiction. These marvelous grace notes show the hand of the master at work.

It’s also a brilliant choice to make the PC explicitly a technology-oriented student at a technology college. In contrast to the fantasy trappings of the Zork and Enchanter games, this PC-as-techie feels very grounded in our world, carrying around things like a crowbar and a flashlight. A tech focus helps solve many of the puzzles, and it also throws into sharp contrast the deeply non-technological Lovecraft aesthetic, providing a background against which the slithering and undulating monstrosities feel even more alien.

Speaking of the crowbar, can we just give a shout-out to the crowbar for a second? I love having a crowbar in an IF game. Moments like this made us cheer:

>remove manhole cover
You can't get a good grip on it; it's heavy and in a steel ring; impossible to just drag it away.

>pry cover with crowbar
You lever the manhole cover aside, and crusted dirt falls into a dark, partly obstructed hole below.

Same with opening the steam valve at just the right time to cook the attacking rats. But by far my favorite use of the crowbar is in my favorite puzzle of the game: the elevator/chain puzzle. This is a beautiful piece of IF design — so well-done that it’s one of the main things I remembered, 30 years on from my first playthrough of The Lurking Horror.

In that playthrough, I figured out how to get into the elevator shaft pretty early on — using the crowbar not just to open the doors but to hold them open, which is what makes this puzzle such a great use of that object. Once that was done, though, it took me for-EVER to figure out how to secure the chain. I seem to recall having a conversation with my dad that helped light the way. In our playthrough, it took a very long time for Dante to think to pry open the elevator doors, but once he did and found the chain, the notion of padlocking it occurred to him in pretty short order.

Again, the entire thing is a highly mechanical solution, engineering a combination of tools in conjunction with each other to achieve the desired effect. I’ve written in the past about how location descriptions inevitably act as a determining factor for the viewpoint character, but here’s an instance where well-crafted puzzles are doing the same. The kind of applied scientific and mechanical knowledge necessary to traverse this game seems like just the sort of thing MIT sorry, GUE Tech would want to be teaching.

While the PC is clearly a techie, the hacker is probably the best emblem in the game of tech school culture. At first, he seems pretty much like a stereotype, albeit a funny and well-implemented one. He sets up the initial narrative drive by telling the PC to search for the Lovecraft server in the Department of Alchemy, and enacts a typical IF NPC function of “give x to get y”.

Cover of G.U.E. at a Glance: A Guide for Freshmen.

However, the hacker appears again at the climax, and this time he has agency. He’s pursued his own investigation, having a parallel adventure that begins… whenever the player last left the computer lab. He becomes heroic in this scene, which makes his subsequent possession all the more horrifying. What’s more, he’s discovered that the stakes are much higher than just GUE Tech: “That thing there, whatever it is, and those wires, are interfaced to the whole campus net. And that means it’s tied into all the nets, commercial, government, even military, potentially.” The threat is now a synthesis of eldritch and modern — the horrors from beyond infecting the levers of power in our world.

Consequently, the solution must combine magical and technical elements as well. The PC hacks apart a power line with an axe, but only because a magically animated hand has shown the underwater location of the line. We use electricity from that power line to damage the beast, but its final defeat comes from the mystical smooth stone. And we were happy to see the hacker back on his feet in a final moment, rationality and science triumphing (albeit exhausted) over irrationality and the demon-haunted world at last, just as it did in the end of Spellbreaker.


How about the engineering of the game itself? Well, it has its moments. I was quite impressed in the opening scene that even though there’s an assignment in the PC’s inventory, “click paper” knows just what to do:

>click paper
You click the box for your paper, and the box grows reassuringly until it fills most of the screen. Unfortunately, the text that fills it bears no resemblance to your paper. The title is the same, but after that, there is something different, very different.

Of course, I figured out later that this is because you can’t call the assignment a paper, even though it’s specifically described as “Laser printed on creamy bond paper.” (Another funny moment of what was cutting-edge in the 80s feeling quaint now.) Not to mention, the text implementation of the of the computer’s GUI, with its many boxes, leads to this awesomely anticlimactic moment in the final scene, a tightly timed scene which demands so much repetition that you may forget to step into the right room before trying to open the electrical panel box:

>open box. unscrew coax.
You see no YAK editor.
You can't see any coax here.

Another great bit of unintentional comedy came up when we tried to get ourselves out of the forklift:

>turn on lights
You can't reach the light from within the forklift.

Please use compass directions instead.

You can't go that way.

You are now on your feet.

Good thing we remembered our lessons from the boat in Zork I! Okay, I guess I said “it has its moments” and then went straight into bloopers. So let’s look at some genuine hits.

The Lurking Horror was mid-to-late-period Infocom, and we can see some notes of kindness creeping into the house style, even in this horror game. For example, the door south from the Infinite Corridor warns us before going through:

Remember, this is one of the doors that's always locked at night. You won't be able to get back in if you go out.

This could have been handled by a sign on the door, but instead the parser itself intervenes, with an “are you sure?” style message. Of course, we can still go through! And then freeze to death. But that’s fair enough, given the warning, and much fairer than earlier games would have been.

The game also features some nice object description handling, to adjust to interactions that change their state:

>cut slime with knife
The knife touches the curtain, and immediately some of the slime attacks, flowing almost intelligently onto it. The knife is now covered with slime.

>x knife
First, it's covered with slime. This small knife is clean, sharp, and has a long, thin blade and a wooden handle. Only the tip of the blade appears at all dull or used.

“First, it’s covered with slime” is an accurate — and amusing — way to keep the game’s object descriptions consistent with the change in state enacted in the previous command. Also, hat tip to the evocative description indicating that only the tip of the blade is used — a fantastic way to convey “this is a stabber”.

Finally, there are some nice little touches with randomized text. The elevator graffiti is a great example — various snippets that convey the university’s culture, including “I.H.T.F.P.”, which I had to look up. Also, there’s a bit in the death message that says, “something gnawing on your nose thinks it’s pretty wonderful”, except that the body part changes at random — ears, tongue, fingertips, and so forth. That’s kinda fun.

We saw that death message an awful lot, because there are a couple of pretty tightly timed and unforgiving action sequences in the game: the attempted sacrifice with the professor and the aforementioned final scene. I’m of two minds about this approach. On the one hand, it can be very tedious to run through the same scene over and over again, making tiny adjustments each time. On the other hand, making the timing so unforgiving created a huge sense of triumph when we were actually able to thread the needle. Given the horror genre, this might still be the best way to pull off the “narrow escape” trope in IF.

And because this is a horror game, I’ve saved the most horrifying parts for last. Behold, if you dare:

  • There’s a sleep timer. And going to sleep kills you. Granted, there’s a mitigation available — the Coke bottle — but that’s a finite resource that only delays the end.
  • There’s a light limit, without any mitigation. You run out of light, you gotta start over.
  • There are TWO kinds of inventory limit — the typical Infocom double whammy of “you’re carrying too many things” and “your load is too heavy.” And of course, getting low on the sleep timer makes the latter limit even stricter. This was especially painful in the final scene, when we kept figuring out things we needed, and had to trundle all the way back through the maze to pick up whatever item from the room where we’d piled everything up.
  • Did I mention that there’s a maze? There’s a maze.

As is pretty much always the case with these Infocom games, we had to restart in order to optimize our playthrough against the game’s timers, in this case both light and sleep. Who know that when I named this the “Infocom >RESTART project”, it would play out so literally? Not a fun way of extending the game’s playtime.

Speaking of “not a fun way to extend the game’s playtime”, a maze — no matter how thematic or atmospheric — is still a goddamned maze. There is no intellectual pleasure to solving this kind of puzzle, just sheer bloody-mindedness. Now, it turns out that there’s a mitigation for this one as well, and I found it when I played the game as a college student. However, Dante and I did not find it, and in the meantime I’d forgotten about it, so we had to map the maze the grueling, old-fashioned way. Both tortuous and torturous.

These are artifacts of old-school IF, the kind that Infocom was evolving through during their history. It’s too bad they were still lingering on for the creation of this game, because otherwise it is absolutely stellar. Still, what’s a Lovecraftian tale without an infestation from things that simply SHOULD NOT BE?

Moonmist [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover image from Moonmist

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

“Dimwit!” she cries with outflung arms.

Other amusing moments:

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

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

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

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

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

I’m watching you… OCEAN.


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

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

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

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

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

>x rhino
You can see nothing special inside it.

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

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


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

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

>turn on lantern
Okay, it is now on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Temple by Johan Berntsson [Comp02]

IFDB page: The Temple
Final placement: 9th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are some scenes that are so iconic, so familiar, that they almost transcend cliché, gaining the power to singlehandedly drag a game into the realm of the tired and hackneyed no matter what other scenes surround it. Such a scene is the sacrificial altar. You know the one — bloodstained altar, hooded priest, big scary dagger, chanting cultists. IF authors have been thinking about it as far back as Zork III, no doubt in tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, who in turn more or less stole the riff from the Aztecs, I think.

The Temple prominently features a sacrificial altar scene, and I wish I could say it throws in some fresh new twist that reinvigorates the whole thing, but… it doesn’t, really. The game is a Lovecraft pastiche, which itself has become a bit of an IF cliché, what with Lurking Horror, Theatre, Anchorhead, HeBGB Horror, Awakening, and lots of others. I think it may be time to declare a moratorium on the genre unless you’ve really got a new and interesting take on it. The Temple has no such take, and consequently the entire experience felt a bit overfamiliar to me.

The lackluster, error-ridden writing didn’t help matters either. One significant danger in creating a work that pays homage to a skillful author is that your own writing may suffer badly in the comparison, and that’s exactly what happens here:

Before A Dark Tower
This area in front of an old tower offers a nightmarish view over a
monstrous tangle of dark stone buildings. Most buildings are
elliptical, built of irregular-sized basalt blocks of irregular size.
None of them seem to have any doors or windows. There is a square
further down to the southwest. The sole passage to the tower is
through the door to the north.

“Irregular-sized basalt blocks of irregular size?” “Elliptical” buildings? (They’re oval-shaped, I guess? I’m assuming the ovals are lying on their sides, though even then it’s hard to picture something so curved being made out of “blocks”, no matter how irregularly sized.) Where Lovecraft’s vistas were (at their best) ineffable, this is just inept.

The coding is better, but still rather spotty, because there’s a distinct split in the implementation. NPCs and objects are coded pretty well, with the main NPC able to understand a respectable range of queries and capable of interesting independent action. Most first-level nouns are implemented, and outright bugs are fairly few. On the other hand, there is a severe dearth of synonyms for both actions and objects, and the game made me struggle with some of the worst verb-guessing problems I’ve encountered in a while. In particular, there’s a rather critical action that I was totally unable to make the game understand without resorting to hints. I knew exactly what I needed to do, but the half-dozen ways I came up with of expressing it were summarily rebuffed — only the game’s approved syntax won the day. Problems like this should have been caught in testing.

So now that I’ve railed on the game for being unoriginal and unpolished, let me take a moment to point out something I really liked about it. Early on in the action, you acquire a sort of “sidekick” NPC, who follows you through most of the story, and who himself becomes the crux of an optional puzzle. There were several things I liked about this NPC. First, as I mentioned above, he was well-implemented, responding to lots of sensible queries, including many of the things mentioned in his responses to the PC’s initial questions (second-level conversation topics, I suppose.) Also, he serves an interesting purpose in the story’s structure, functioning as a sort of nominal hint system in his sporadic knowledge of the environment.

Best of all, he and the PC really function as a team in several instances. I’m writing a series of games that ostensibly feature a PC/NPC team, but thus far I’ve copped into having the PC do most of the work while the NPC has some excuse for being out of the action. I thought The Temple was an excellent example of how to really create interdependent action between a PC and an NPC, and it got me excited about the challenge of doing so in my next game. For that alone, it repaid the time I gave to it.

Rating: 6.8