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!

Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies by Øyvind Thorsby [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2007.]

IFDB Page: Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies

Attack Of The Yeti Robot Zombies announces two facts right upfront. First, it is a “try-to-win-on-the-first-attempt game”, which means that while SAVE, RESTORE, and UNDO have not been disabled, players are honor-bound not to use them. Secondly, the game tells us that “Examine, look at, look inside, look under, look behind, look and search have not been implemented.” I was surprised to discover that the latter aspect threw me off much more than the former one did. It turns out that examining things is so ingrained into my IF approach that having that feature disabled made me feel like an amputee. Frequently, I would try to examine an item before being reminded: no, that limb is missing. Taken together, what these features present us with a game in which the crossword has decisively defeated the narrative, to use Graham Nelson’s terms.

AOTYRZ presents a world, but it’s only scraps of clothing over otherwise bare puzzles. The title monsters are a perfect example of this. What on earth could a “Yeti Robot Zombie” be? A cybernetic duplicate of an Abominable Snowman who was killed and then revived to be even more mindless than it was before? Is there any universe in which that makes sense? Aren’t “robot” and “zombie” mutually exclusive categories, since something that was never alive can’t be killed and brought back to life? The game doesn’t know, and it doesn’t care. It might as well be called “Attack Of The Generic Monster Placeholders,” because that’s all that the YRZs are. If you don’t believe me, just try examining one.

So, given that this is a puzzle game whose story is sputtering and gasping for breath, how are the puzzles? Mixed, I’m afraid. I took the “win-on-the-first-attempt” rule rather seriously, and ended up feeling quite disappointed at the number of times I had to learn the game’s mechanics by dying. Now, in its defense, AOTYRZ does go some reasonable distance towards making the game winnable on the first try. Similar to Wishbringer (though quite a bit cruder), it gives the player a resource which can be used as an alternative solution for all the puzzles. This resource can only be used a limited number of times — fewer than the number of puzzles — which means that some of the puzzles must be solved in order to win on the first attempt. That’s not too bad though, because some of the puzzles are pretty easy.

However, unlike Wishbringer, it is impossible to win the game (near as I can tell, anyway) without using that resource a couple of times. There’s no way to know this fact in advance without some outside information, which throws a serious obstacle into the path of anybody trying to win on the first attempt. The game chided me every time I used the resource rather than finding the cleverer solution, and after a couple of rounds of this, I felt the message was clear: there will always be a better solution available, so I should always figure it out and use it. Then, a few puzzles later, the game hit me with a situation for which there was no better solution. Even worse, this situation was so thinly implemented that it almost seemed to be a bug rather than a change-up. It was there that my first attempt at AOTYRZ ended in ignominious death.

From that point forward, since I had to restore, I tried some alternative solutions, and found that while some were rather nifty and scrupulously fair, others were impossible to use without either knowledge from a prior life or some pretty lucky guesses. Also, a note to game designers: if something is chasing me, and you block my path with something I can move, please allow me to use that something to block the door behind me. Thank you.

Once it wasn’t my first attempt anymore, I started having a lot more fun with AOTYRZ. Yeah, it’s a bare puzzle game, but some of the puzzles are pretty snappy, and the plot (such as it is) moves along at an enjoyable clip. In addition, while the game world’s implementation is necessarily sparse due to the absence of EXAMINE, what’s there is competently constructed — I didn’t find a single bug. The writing isn’t quite as flawless. There are a number of typos, some of which serve up some unintentional (but very funny) comedy. My favorite comes in a cutscene where the PC is receiving remote instructions from a guide:

“The teleporter worked.” you say in the phone.
“It did? Really? That’s great! Now walk up the stairs and you will find two doors. It doesn’t matter which one you take, both will lead to a roof.”
“Then what?”
“On each roof there will be a helicopter. I assume you know how to fly one?”
“Off course.”

Oh, well is there anybody there who can fly a helicopter without going off course? Anyway, those moments aside, the writing serves its purpose well enough. I can’t muster a huge amount of enthusiasm for AOTYRZ — it takes a pretty audacious approach and then fails to provide a sufficient follow-through. However, if you don’t mind an IF world with no depth and you don’t worry too much about really winning on the first attempt, the game can provide a pleasant diversion for an hour or two.

Beyond Zork [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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

>CONNECT IF TO RPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of Beyond Zork

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

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

>KILL INVENTORY LIMIT

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

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

>get fish cake
Your hands are full.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>CRY ABOUT TEAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>ENJOY GAME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Infocom >RESTART Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes by Sean Barrett [Comp01]

IFDB page: Heroes
Final placement: 3rd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

The intersection of landscape and character in IF is a highly fertile one, and Heroes reaps a great harvest from it. Now, I should qualify this review with the statement that I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours, and therefore missed what looked to me like it might be an additional payoff in the game’s structure. So in describing what I found in the game, I might not be telling the whole story about what’s there. With that caveat in mind, the game’s gimmick is this: set up a fairly simple landscape and a basic goal, then allow the player a choice of five viewpoint characters, each of which share the landscape and goal.

This structure makes Heroes a sort of five-games-in-one, where each subgame enhances and deepens the others, since one character might have an insight or knowledge about the situation that the others lack. In addition, seeing the game’s location through five pairs of eyes allows juxtapositions that simultaneously intensifies our understanding of the location and the character. For instance, a fairly basic area, as seen through the eyes of an adventurer, a thief, and an enchanter:

Temple Way
The grimy, ramshackle buildings of Oldtown dutifully try to reform
themselves as you progress east down Temple Way, but nothing besides
the temple itself makes any real pretense of belonging anywhere other
than Oldtown. Or rather, nothing besides the temple and Baron
Sedmon's nearby mansion.

Shadowy Road
Sturdy, functional buildings lie in and out of shadow on the road to
the temple square. Simple architecture, devoid of handholds; closely
spaced buildings, devoid of alleyways; uncut walls, devoid of
windows: the builders in this area knew how to encourage amateurs to
go elsewhere.

East-West Road
Randomly arranged paving stones form this street, proceeding east
towards a more attractive arrangement. The darkened buildings lean
sloppily over the edge of the street, reducing the energetic
potential of the strict east-west layout. West the road leads back
into the seething mess that is Oldtown.

I can’t say enough about how much I loved this. Because the characters are each limited to their own viewpoints, but we are able to see them all, the game gives us a far more complete and interesting picture of the area than any single viewpoint could provide. In addition, because we have seen the area through other eyes, we gain insight into the viewpoint character by noticing what that character does and doesn’t observe. Where the adventurer simply notices what ways are open for travel, the enchanter observes how those avenues impinge on a geometrically-oriented magic system; where the enchanter notices only the direction of the walls’ lines, the thief notices the lack of handholds and windows.

Some games have begun to explore this dynamic — Wishbringer and LASH displayed the changes of a landscape and the shifting meanings attendant to that change, while Being Andrew Plotkin gave us a variety of characters whose reactions to a particular area conflicted, to wonderful comic effect. Heroes takes the next step, opening up an endlessly fascinating vista.

Correspondingly, the game’s design also reflects a diversity of viewpoints. Each character has the same goal, but none of them will go about it in quite the same way. The adventurer’s method combines both NPC interaction and object manipulation, first learning what an NPC wants in order to stop being an obstacle, then obtaining that desideratum through various clever mechanical operations and trickery. The difference between this and the enchanter’s method is similar to the difference between the PC of the Zork series and the PC of the Enchanter series — instead of pushing, pulling, turning, and moving things, the mage casts spells that have different, but equally useful, effects. The thief utilizes shadows and rooftops, while the king depends almost completely on NPC interactions such as gossip and courtly intrigue.

It’s just a lovely idea, and for the most part, the game carries it off very well. In addition, several neat choices appear to prevent the game from ever becoming unwinnable, but not by preventing missteps on the part of the player. Instead, as it becomes clear that an action may have closed off the game, Heroes offers the player opportunities to undo the consequences of that action, or to take another shot at the crucial action. After playing so many games in this comp that really do close off without warning, it was a great joy to realize that in this game, I didn’t have to restart after all, especially since restarting would have meant starting each viewpoint story from the beginning.

With all this going for it, Heroes easily would have scored a 10 from me (by which I mean somewhere between 9.5 and 10.0) if not for a few problems. For one, a couple of the puzzles appear to lack sufficient information about their components, making it very tough to guess their solutions. At least one other had a solution that appeared to contradict some of the stated rules of the situation. In addition, there were a number of instances where I felt that the game failed to give me enough feedback about whether I was on the right or wrong track, or where a perfectly valid idea was unimplemented (even if just with a failure message that provided a clear reason for denying the action.)

Finally, and most problematic, one of the sections appeared to be broken in such a way as to allow its main puzzle to be bypassed entirely. Heroes is an ambitious project, and in some ways it’s not surprising that the game should still be pretty rough around the edges. Its problems prevent it from reaching the very top echelon of competition games, but what it does have to offer is dazzling indeed.

Rating: 9.4