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!

Dungeon by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2001.]

IFDB page: Zork

Archaeology

Zork I was the first text adventure game I ever played, and I played it a lot. That game occupied many, many hours of my time and, to this day, it remains one of only a few Infocom games I was ever able to solve without hints, due solely to my stubborn and relentless attention to it. Between those marathon childhood sessions and the occasions on which I’ve replayed it since, I have walked those underground caverns many times, and their geography is so fixed in my mind that I think if I should ever find myself transported there, I could navigate with ease. Or, at least, that’s how I used to feel, before I started playing Dungeon and got my internal map thoroughly whacked.

Dungeon is the predecessor to the Zork games; it was MIT’s answer to Crowther and Woods’ Adventure and, much like that game, it lived on a mainframe, since its prodigious size was too great for the personal computers of its day. When the authors decided to make a commercial go of the text adventure business, they chopped Dungeon into three sections, rearranging the geography and adding some new elements to each chapter, especially the second and third. I’ve played the Zork games many times, but I had always wanted to play the mainframe version in order to better understand just what was added and what subtracted. So when I opened the WinGlk version of Andrew Plotkin’s C translation of the game, I was prepared for some shifts in layout compared to my deeply-graven memories of Zork I.

What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the way in which Dungeon gleefully confounds any sense of actual geography in exchange for making the game map another obstacle to be overcome. In Dungeon, connections that line up properly (for example, leaving one room to the south and entering the adjoining room from the north) are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, you may go west and find that to get back to where you came from, you have to go west again. In a recent article about crafting a good setting for fantasy IF [1], Emily Short addressed this tendency:

[In] the ideal IF setting, the parts of the setting relate to each other in comprehensible ways. Things are located sensibly. I dislike mazes not only because you do have to map them but also because they interfere with and scramble up the intuitive sense of place that I otherwise build up as I play.

In this sense, almost the entirety of Dungeon functions as a maze, and any coherent sense of place that might emerge is bound to get smacked down as soon as the next exit is explored. I have a pretty good knack for mapping in my head, and thus don’t tend to make a map while playing IF but, with this game, there was no way I could pursue that strategy. Thus, grumbling, I hauled out my copy of GUEmap and tried diligently to record the tortured web of interconnections that make up the Dungeon landscape. When I finally finished, I uploaded the results to GMD so that other players like myself won’t have to struggle through the game’s mazes on their own.

And oh, the mazes — in addition to the general illogic of its structure, Dungeon also sports several mazes, all of which carry the “warped connections” tendency to its furthest extreme. Of course, when seen from the historical perspective, these mazes make sense: Adventure had mazes, and since mazes are one of the easiest kinds of puzzles to create, it follows that the game attempting to top Adventure would have mazes of its own. What Dungeon does, though, is to twist the knife: not only does it present the player with mazes, it confounds the typical “drop item and map” strategy by having an NPC come along and remove or rearrange those items, taunting the player with comments like “My, I wonder who left this fine hot pepper sandwich here?”

When viewed with a modern eye, obstacles like this make clear how different is the stance of modern IF from its ancestors. Dungeon set itself up unambiguously as the player’s antagonist, and it wasn’t particularly concerned with telling a story, nor even with describing a world. Plot is nonexistent, and fabulous treasures are described with perfunctory lines like “You see nothing special about the sapphire bracelet.” Instead, Dungeon puts its energies into confusing and confounding the player, and wacky map connections are but the tip of the iceberg. Along with the aforementioned mazes, there’s the light source, which always runs out at the worst possible times. There’s the Round Room, guaranteed to tangle any map. There are the “secret word” puzzles, some of which still perplex me to this day, even though I know how they operate. And of course, there’s the thief, whose annoyances are both numerous and legendary. Dungeon wants nothing more than to see you fail, and it’s not overly concerned with how much fun you might be having. As Robb Sherwin asserted on rec.games.int-fiction recently [2], “Zork hates its player.”

Today’s IF, by contrast, works a bit harder to collaborate with the player, with the aim of creating a shared experience, both in setting and plot. Even the Zork games moved in this direction, at least in comparison to Dungeon, mitigating some of the latter game’s greatest excesses by straightening out many map connections, allowing more flexibility with the permanent light source, and providing a bit more description from time to time. The ways in which Infocom itself engineered the shift from “text-based puzzle games” to actual interactive fiction is a subject for another article, but what’s become clear is that where the emphasis was once on opposition, it has shifted steadily to cooperation.

To my mind, this shift is both appropriate and necessary, and what playing Dungeon illuminated for me is that this movement towards collaborative IF is not the same thing as the concurrent movement towards “literary IF”, though they are often confused for one another. I can envision a game that, like Dungeon, has no particular literary pretensions, but unlike Dungeon, isn’t trying to undermine its player through the use of arbitrary techniques like twisty map connections and unreliable light sources. I would assert that collaborative IF doesn’t need to tell a story, and it certainly doesn’t need to aspire to literary greatness, but it does need to work with the player to create a rich, interactive world, and it does need to be concerned with giving the player a positive, fun experience. Of course collaborative IF can be puzzleless, but it needn’t be — puzzles can be part of the fun, as long as they aren’t geared towards forcing restarts after 800 moves, or making the player do tedious, menial work.

The move away from antagonistic IF is the reason why things like mazes, limited light sources, and starvation puzzles are met with a chorus of jeers these days, but the elimination of these elements doesn’t necessarily dictate anything in particular about how literary or puzzleless a game might be. Instead, the change makes the whole experience of IF more about fun than bloody-minded perseverance; playing Dungeon makes it clear how necessary this change was, and how far we’ve come since those mainframe days.

REFERENCES

[1] Short, Emily. “Developing A Setting For Fantastical Interactive Fiction”, 2001.

[2] Sherwin, Robb. “Re: nevermind”. rec.games.int-fiction, 2001/06/05

Interview from SPAG [Misc]

[Duncan Stevens interviewed me in SPAG #31, the 2002 IF competition special. It’s rather odd to be interviewed in one’s own zine, but SPAG has a tradition of interviewing the top three finishers in the IF comp, and I won that year. However, when I won the next time, SPAG interviewed finishers 2-4. As with the other interviews, I’ve edited the text and added links as appropriate. The first paragraph is in my voice.]

For the annual competition issue, SPAG traditionally interviews the highest-placing authors in the comp, but I faced some rather unprecedented challenges when putting together this issue’s interviews. For one thing, since I won the comp, there really ought to be an interview with me, but for me to interview myself would be a little… unseemly, as Primo Varicella might say. As he has so often in SPAG‘s history, Duncan Stevens came to the rescue, crafting a set of interview questions which I could then answer without feeling too much like I had multiple personality disorder. Thanks, Duncan…

Paul O’Brian, author of Another Earth, Another Sky

SPAG: Well, you often ask SPAG interviewees to tell a bit about themselves, but SPAG‘s readers may not know much about you, so — out with it. Name, rank, and serial number?

PO: Okay, fair enough. I’m 32, which put me in my teen years during the Infocom boom — just about the perfect age to be, since I was old enough to understand and succeed at the games and young enough to have lots of free time to devote to them. I’ve lived in Colorado all my life, save for one ill-starred year in New York City, and I currently work in Boulder at the University of Colorado, where I got my degrees. My job there is in the Financial Aid office, as an “IT professional,” which basically means that I do all sorts of technical stuff, from programming to maintaining the network to creating queries that pull data from the university’s mainframe.

I’ve been married for a little over six years, to someone who isn’t an IF aficionado but who is wonderful about supporting my work and my ambitions. I’m very verbally oriented (you may have noticed) and love the complex uses of language. I also really enjoy programming, so of course I’m a perfect candidate to love IF. Aside from that, my other passions are music and comics, the latter of which has made the Earth And Sky series such a fun project to do.

SPAG: How did you get interested in IF, and what led you to start writing your own IF?

PO: The long answer to this question is the editorial I wrote for my first issue of SPAG, number 18. In a nutshell: my dad is a computer enthusiast, and we were sort of “first on the block” with a home computer — initially an Atari 400, then upgrading to the sooper-big-time Atari 800. The first games I played on those machines either came in cartridge form or on cassette tapes, but shortly after he acquired a disk drive, he brought home Zork I for us to try together. He loves to bring home the coolest new things, and that was especially true when I was a kid; at that point the cool new thing was Zork. He lost interest in it before too long, but I was enchanted, and became a major Infocom devotee for as long as the company existed.

I learned about the Internet right around the same time I was writing a paper about IF for a graduate class, and so of course some of my first Gopher searches were on “Infocom” and “interactive fiction.” That led me to Curses, and once I figured out that there was a freely available language that would let me write Infocom-style games, suddenly a childhood fantasy was within reach. Being an Infocom implementor is still my dream job — pity about living in the wrong time and place for it.

SPAG: You’ve written four games now. What keeps you writing IF?

PO: Well, in the case of the last game and the next one, it’s the fact that I’ve made a promise to myself and to the audience that I won’t leave the storyline hanging. Other than that, I suppose it’s just the fact that I seem to have an unflagging interest in the medium. My first game was written to fulfill my dream of writing an Infocom-ish game, as I said above. LASH was just an idea that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, and I knew that IF was the perfect medium for it. A lot of the drive to write the Earth And Sky games has to do with the fact that I really, really wanted to play a good superhero game, and I wasn’t entirely satisfied with any of the ones that had been released up to that point. So I wrote it because I wanted to play it.

SPAG: Another Earth, Another Sky is the second in a series. What led you to make a full-blown series out of this story, rather than a single self-contained game?

PO: One of the things I loved about superhero comics as a kid was their episodic nature. I really dug the way the stories just kept going and going, with characters and themes woven through the whole thing, disappearing and reappearing as the saga unfolded. Now, with the emphasis on story arcs that can be collected into trade paperbacks, that’s becoming less true in comics, but when I decided to write a superhero game, I knew it needed to be episodic. Besides, I really wanted to take another shot at the competition, and didn’t want to write something so big that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the comp. Also, as a corollary to that, I guess, I really wanted more and faster feedback than writing the whole thing as an epic would have given me. LASH took a very long time to write, and I wanted my next piece to be a bit smaller in scope.

SPAG: The first installment was essentially a superhero game, but Another Earth, Another Sky has sci-fi elements along with the superhero aspect. Is the series becoming a sci-fi series, or are there more genre twists ahead?

PO: I wouldn’t say it’s becoming science fiction, really, and I didn’t set out to do any genre blending with this game. What is true, though, is that these games are heavily influenced by the old Marvel comics from the 1960s, particularly The Fantastic Four — one of the reasons I chose “Lee Kirby” as my pseudonym for the first game was to acknowledge my debt to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who wrote many of those early comics. The tropes of alien invasion and Big Science were intrinsic to many of Lee and Kirby’s stories, probably as an outgrowth of the science fiction comics that preceded that period’s big superhero revival, so that’s why you see those themes reflected in my games. Ultimately, though, I see superheroes as more a subgenre of fantasy than of science fiction, if the division has to be made.

SPAG: There seem to be allusions to other IF games here and there in AEAS — the setting for a large part of the game is reminiscent of Small World, the dome in the desert evokes So Far, the underwater scene has echoes of Photopia, and the touchplates reminded me of Spider and Web. Or am I imagining these connections?

PO: I wouldn’t say you’re imagining them, but I also didn’t consciously try to pay homage to any of those games with the elements you mention. However, I have played all of them, and there’s no question that everything that goes into my brain has an influence on me. Lots of people have mentioned the Small World connection, and I certainly remember feeling delighted with an IF landscape that formed a sphere, but the idea of having the PC be able to travel between disparate locales by means of superhuman leaps came more from old issues of The Hulk than from any particular IF game.

SPAG: The game is sprinkled with Emily Dickinson quotes. Any particular reason for relying on that particular poet?

PO: Well, aside from the fact that she’s pretty much my favorite canonical poet, Dickinson was also part of the genesis of the series. I went through a period where I decided to read every Dickinson poem, but I found it too exhausting to just read them one after another, so I interspersed them with comics. Indulging in this weird combination while thinking about what I wanted to write next gave birth to this superhero series where the codenames are some of Dickinson’s favorite touchstones, and the protagonists are named after the poet and her brother. The title and part of the inspiration for Another Earth, Another Sky came from the Dickinson poem that begins “There is another sky.”

SPAG: Will the third installment wrap up the series?

PO: That’s the plan at this point. I love writing these games, but it’s a little disheartening to realize that each episode takes about a year to complete. I certainly wouldn’t rule out further Earth And Sky games somewhere down the line, but I’ll be ready for a break from them once the third episode is finished.

SPAG: Any other plans for more IF writing?

PO: Beyond the third Earth And Sky game, I’m not sure. I think I’ll probably want to turn towards writing static fiction for a while, but I plan to keep editing SPAG, and I don’t see myself leaving the IF community unless it seriously deteriorates. So I’d say there’s an excellent chance I’ll find myself struck with some great IF idea and banging out code again sometime in the future.

Interview from Terra d’IF [Misc]

[I was interviewed in 2004 for Terra d’IF, an Italian interactive fiction zine. Roberto Grassi was the interviewer. I’ve cleaned up the text and added some links as appropriate.]

Head shot of Paul O'Brian from 2004

(Me in 2004!)

> ASK PAUL ABOUT PAUL

I’m a 34-year-old computer programmer and father-to-be, living in Colorado and working for the local university. I’ve been married for 8 years, to a woman who isn’t an IF enthusiast herself but is unfailingly supportive of me and my kooky hobbies. I guess I’ve been hanging around the IF scene for about ten years now. Wow. I have very strong interests in writing, gaming, and programming, and since IF lies at the crescent between these, it’s a natural fit for me. The fact that I have warm memories of 1980s Infocom doesn’t hurt, either. My other interests include comics (as players of the Earth And Sky games have no doubt surmised), music, and trivia.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT HIS IF (with particular reference to IFComp Winning)

Of course, I’m thrilled and proud to have won the competition. It’s been interesting to watch the mini-controversy that the win has caused on the newsgroups, with some people voicing the opinion that my game didn’t deserve to beat its closest competition. To some degree, I can sympathize with this point of view — Luminous Horizon‘s writing doesn’t measure up to the dazzling prose and evocative themes of Blue Chairs, and its puzzles feel pretty desultory next to something like All Things Devours.

I don’t think it’s for me to say just what qualities enabled the game to win despite these shortcomings, but I can tell you that I really try to put a lot of craft into my work. Part of why it takes me so long to produce each game is that I pour a great deal of effort into providing dozens and dozens of NPC quips, unusual parser responses, and situation-appropriate text. I like to think that effort makes a difference in how people receive the game. In addition, I try to make each game I release an improvement over the last one, which is why Luminous Horizon lets you switch between PCs and contains an integrated hint system.

As for my earlier stuff, I still get nice email about LASH, and overall I’m happy with the way that game turned out, though of course with another four years of experience, I now look back at some parts of it and wish I’d done them a little differently. This is even more true of Wearing The Claw, my rather cliché-ridden debut. At that point, I was so excited to even be able to produce IF at all that I wasn’t paying enough attention to producing interesting writing, though given my nascent writing skills at the time, I’m not sure I’d have been able to do much better even if that was my focus. Lately, I seem to have stumbled into a groove for producing games that have a fairly broad appeal, and I’m pleased that lots of players seem to be having a good time with them.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT OLD IF

The first game I ever played was Zork, and it’s still one of my favorites. However, I played its predecessor Dungeon a few years ago, and found myself going crazy with frustration. Some parts of Zork may seem capricious, but compared to the way Dungeon tangles its map connections, snuffs light sources, and gleefully confounds the player at every turn, Zork feels infallibly logical. This experience gave me some insight into what I see as one of the most important shifts that’s happened in IF development: the shift from antagonism to collaboration.

Old-school IF does everything it can to undercut and frustrate the player, and the pleasure of playing it comes from the challenge of triumphing over all these obstacles. As time has gone on, though, we’ve seen more and more IF that tries to work with the player to create an experience of fun or drama. That’s why things like mazes and hunger timers have fallen out of favor — the few current games that include them tend to be strongly informed by the games of fifteen or more years ago. Of course, both approaches can be useful, but personally, I find participating in a story much more pleasant than slogging through restart after restart to overcome arbitrary barriers, so I prefer that even puzzle games eliminate the tedious parts to let me focus on the interesting parts. All Things Devours is a great example of a game that does this.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT CURRENT IF

I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I have difficulty finding the time to play most current IF. I’ve managed to keep up with the competition, both because it only takes place once a year and because I know I won’t be spending more than two hours on any given game. However, given that next year at competition time I’ll have a four-month-old child around the house, I’m trying to shift my focus to non-comp-games, which I can approach under a little less pressure. I got a copy of Kent Tessman’s Future Boy! for Christmas, and I’m looking forward to playing that and Andrew Plotkin’s The Dreamhold soon. Of course, I’ll have to balance them with work on SPAG and on updating the Earth And Sky games, not to mention the other demands of actually having a life. Sigh.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT FUTURE IF

I’m not much of a prognosticator, so I don’t have any grand predictions about where IF will go in the next ten or twenty years. I don’t even have a wish list, really. I do think that right now, several different strands of IF are healthy and growing, from outright literary games to sophisticated puzzlers, and I don’t expect general IF development to lurch suddenly towards one side or the other. The use of pictures and sounds in IF is growing too, and that may continue to expand as the tools to produce multimedia content get easier and easier to use. I guess my basic expectation is that IF will continue to thrive as an underground niche hobby, with occasional eruptions into tributaries of the mainstream.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT HIS FUTURE RELEASES (and commitments, i.e. SPAG for instance)

I don’t have any new games on the drawing board at this point. I do plan to continue with SPAG for the foreseeable future — the 2004 comp issue will come out as soon as I receive the last interview I’m waiting for. Aside from that, my first priority is to update my rather dusty web page, then to produce an updated version of Luminous Horizon that takes into account all of the feedback I’ve received during and since the competition. Then I want to go back and update the first game to include the same kinds of graphical sound effects that the other episodes use, and from there I’m thinking of trying to package them in some quasi-seamless way and maybe promote them a bit beyond the IF world. I really have no idea how long all that will take, so I haven’t really formed any plans beyond that point.

Paul O’Brian’s games are here. [I took the liberty of replacing a defunct link to Baf’s Guide with one to the IFDB.]

IF Haikus [misc]

[Inspired by a haiku movie reviews site, I posted some IF haikus to the newsgroup, which started a fun thread. These could be construed as a bit spoilery, in a certain light.]

Zork I

I’m in a dark place
Without a lantern. I hear
the footsteps of grues.

Zork II

All my things are here
But I’m floating above them,
helpless. Damn wizard!

Curses

I can’t find the map.
I never knew my house was
so complicated!

Spider and Web

Yes. No. Yes. Oh, I
thought you were telling the truth.
Let’s try it again.

Photopia

Oh, I’m starting to
understand it all now. That
means I — stop. Stop. Stop!!

Landscape and Character in IF [Misc]

[The following article was my contribution to the 2011 IF Theory Reader]

If we reduce interactive fiction to its essence, we can view it as a triangular relationship between three basic elements: Landscape, Character, and Action. It’s possible to write IF without objects, plot, NPCs or myriad other ingredients, but as soon as that first room description appears, it introduces a landscape, just as the first prompt ushers in the concept of Action.1 I would further argue that the interaction between these two elements inevitably creates some concept of Character. The character that emerges is the being that would perform the actions selected when presented with the landscape (and situation) at hand. Even if that character is not human, not organic, or not even embodied (an omniscient narrator, for instance, though that voice is almost never used in IF because of the form’s powerful insistence on connecting Action with viewpoint), Action must have an agent, and that agent is what we call the Player Character.

In this formulation, the only one of the triumvirate completely under the game’s control is Landscape. Action is entirely in the hands of the player, and Character lies halfway between the two. That last statement may require a bit more unpacking. If Character is determined by Action, why isn’t it entirely in the hands of the player as well? The answer is that while Action does determine Character, it isn’t the sole determining factor. The game itself can shape character by statements as blatant as “You’re Tracy Valencia,” or by something as subtle as a particular word choice in a parser response. However, I would contend that while blatant character-shaping statements and even subtle nudges from default responses are far from inevitable in IF, some sense of landscape must be included in any IF game, and that both the design and the description of this landscape are extremely powerful factors in determining character. It is my aim in this essay to examine the ways in which Landscape influences and creates Character, and to raise what I hope will be some interesting questions about the nature of their interrelationship.

MAP DESIGN

[This section contains minor spoilers for Adventure, Planet Of The Infinite Minds, Strangers In The Night, and Suspect. It contains medium-level spoilers for Lost New York and Stone Cell, and major spoilers for Shade and 1981.]

Space is continuous. The landscape of interactive fiction, however, consists of discrete units, connected to each other in various ordinary and sometimes extraordinary ways.2 By convention we call these units “rooms”, but in fact they can be anything from a tiny subsection of a room to an entire town, country, planet, or universe. How does a game’s subdivision of continuous space affect our perception of the character in that game? Let’s look at some examples.

An illuminating comparison exists between two pieces of IF with urban settings: Neil DeMause’s Lost New York (1996) and Rich Pizor’s Strangers In The Night (1999). In the former, the character travels through Manhattan and other areas of New York City during various points in history. The game frequently compresses neighborhoods, boroughs, and other such swaths of territory into single rooms, albeit lovingly described ones:

Lower East Side
The scene around you is one unmatched in any other time and place in human history: Acres of identical four- and five-story tenements packed cheek-to-jowl with people, people who spill out onto the sidewalks and fire escapes in search of a little space, a little air. The el tracks continue down the street to the north and south; to the east, the tenements seem to stretch on forever, though you're pretty sure they eventually end at the East River shore.

Within each time period, these areas connect to each other directly, even though they may have been separated by miles in reality. Occasionally, a “traveling message” such as “You trudge north for close to a mile, finally arriving at…” will interpose itself between locations, but more often the traveling interval passes instantaneously and without comment.

Strangers In The Night, on the other hand, painstakingly sets out its generic city map as a street grid, and provides almost no description for the lion’s share of its locations:

Broadway and 11th
You are at the intersection of Broadway and 11th Avenue. To the southwest is the security door for your apartment building; the Broadway Sineplex (which a few downtown residents still consider an amusing name for a movie theatre) lies to the northeast.

>n
Broadway (10th & 11th)

>n
Broadway and 10th
One of the streetlights is dim here; the shadows that are cast against the sidewalk are oddly deformed, giving the corner an otherworldly feel.

>n
Broadway (9th & 10th)
Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm starts blaring it's [sic] Call of the Wild to the concrete jungle. This is followed a few moments later by the sound of figerglass [sic] crunching and safety windshields shattering until the alarm ceases.

>n
Broadway and 9th

>n
Broadway (8th & 9th)

>n
8th and Broadway
Carl Tuck's Coffehouse [sic] is to the southeast.

At first glance, it might appear that about half the locations contain room descriptions. In fact, however, only the first and the last do; the dim streetlight and the car alarm are random atmospheric messages that can pop up in any street location. In fact, the only time a non-random message, or a description of any kind, appears is when the location adjoins the entrance to a puzzle-solving area, or to the PC’s home. The game’s city grid is comprised of about 80 locations, all of which may well have been compressed into one room in Lost New York.

It’s a natural impulse to discuss these choices as they relate to game design, or to talk about their successes and failures in creating immersion or facilitating strategy. What may not be so natural is to think about how these choices influence the way we think about the player character; I would contend that consciously or not, we perceive these two characters differently based on the way the games construct their surroundings. What we know about the PC of Lost New York is that she3 knows New York City well enough to identify its various areas instantly, even as they appeared over a hundred years ago. In fact, the game’s easy recognition of areas such as “The Goats” and “Ladies Mile”, not to mention the copious historical detail infused into many room descriptions, creates a tension between the game’s identification of the PC as “a tourist” and what we know about her from her subsequent experiences.

Someone who could wander through New York’s past with so much information at hand must be intimately familiar with the city, either through experience or study. Her interest and perception is mostly broad strokes — she’s more interested in generalities of an area than in its specific details, and her sense of history is sweeping rather than finely grained — but her knowledge is quite comprehensive. Even if the game had insisted that this was the PC’s first trip to the city, we would have to conclude that she is someone who for whatever reason has immersed herself in New York City history; how else to explain such detailed knowledge in the midst of the extraordinary experience of time travel? If the game proved unable or unwilling to address and resolve this question, that lacuna could hardly be anything but a flaw in the work, just as it would be in a novel where the main character knows things she shouldn’t.

Unlike the PC of Lost New York, the character in Strangers has almost no interest in ordinary detail, let alone history. He never finds himself musing about ironies or architecture as he treads the streets, and in fact usually notices nothing but the bare identity of the location. Together with the game’s specification of the PC as a vampire, these facts can lead us to a few conclusions about this character. He sees the city not as human tapestry or even interesting backdrop, but rather as a sort of maze he must navigate in order to locate prey. The lack of room descriptions impels us to move quickly from one location to the next, replicating the urgency of the character’s thirst for blood. His disinterest in local color might even be seen as an undead disdain for the fleeting effluvia of mortal life. The game’s overall presentation isn’t quite strong enough to give this effect full potency, but all the same we know quite well that there is a significant difference between these two characters. The Lost New York PC, even if she were a vampire searching the streets for prey, couldn’t help but notice the landscape and be aware of its heritage, while the Strangers PC could be thrust into any time in the city’s history and would evince a similar disregard for anything but the most minimal details of place.

On the other end of the detail spectrum from Strangers is Andrew Plotkin’s Shade (2000), where the entirety of the action appears to be taking place in the player character’s studio apartment. In this one-room environment, however, movement is possible, and the game responds to this movement not by placing the character in a new room (as is the case with most IF), but rather by making a series of alterations to room description and scope for the current room. If the PC is in the center of the apartment, for example, the game first mentions objects close at hand, such as the computer desk and stereo, while reserving mention of the kitchen and bathroom areas for the later parts of the room description. When that character moves to the kitchen, however, text about the counter, the refrigerator, and such occupies the beginning of the room description. The desk and stereo are still visible from that location, and still mentioned, but are only visible, not accessible for touching or other manipulation until the character returns to the center of the apartment.

When Shade was released, this approach to map design was hailed as an innovative subversion of the conventional IF map, which it is. It is also a fitting choice for characterization purposes. The overlapping, connected nature of the apartment landscape makes clear to us that this is an environment with which the character is intimately familiar, and that even while he inhabits one area of it, his awareness of the other areas does not abate. The map design makes the apartment belong to the character in a way that it would not were it separated into discrete rooms. This sense of familiarity, of safety, and of enclosure makes the game’s later revelations all the more powerful, as the familiar dissolves into the strange, and safe enclosure into fatal exposure.

A similar effect, the subdivision of one room into many separate locations, appears in a variety of games, including Infocom’s Suspect (1984) and Steve Kodat’s Stone Cell (1999). In the former, it’s a grand ballroom that the game presents as nine separate locations, and the effect is to make the room feel enormous. The character in Suspect is a reporter at a party being given in a mansion, and the game’s map design underscores her sense of awe at the opulent surroundings — where the house’s owner’s perception of the ballroom might be closer to that of the character in Shade, the guest’s mind demands more concrete conceptual boundaries in order to take in the scope of the area.

Stone Cell achieves a different effect by performing the same gridlike subdivision on a much smaller room, the eponymous stone cell. Room descriptions and common sense tell us that this room is much smaller than the ballroom in Suspect, so the game’s partitioning of that space, rather than conveying immensity, instead reflects the PC’s awareness of the room’s tiniest details as a result of his imprisonment. What makes this design particularly effective is that the game initially presents the cell as one location, then expands it into a grid after the character sleeps, thus reflecting not only the character’s growing familiarity with his surroundings but also his growing desire to scrutinize each detail of the premises in hopes of escape.

The opposite effect is available, too, when games compress the extremely large, even the inconceivably large, into a single room description. One of the more extreme examples of this technique occurs in Alfredo Garcia’s Planet Of The Infinite Minds (2000), where the character might find himself here:

The Beginning of Space
All around you, distant suns flicker and twinkle. Painfully bright points of light seem to appear suddenly from out of the ether, as another retracts into obscurity. En masse, the effect renders a carnival of vibrant colours and astonishing beauty.

The simple fact of the character’s existence in this location tells us something about that character: that she has transcended humanity, attaining a sort of bodiless, godlike status. Since the game starts with the PC as a simple librarian, its transportation of her to such an abstract vista carries with it the implication of personal disembodiment and removal from reality as well. What’s more, her ability to know that the location is “The Beginning Of Space” rather than, say, a Christmas tree festival viewed through a hangover, suggests a metahuman omnipotence that we must assume has been granted to the character, at least temporarily.

The connection between map design and character stretches to the deepest roots of IF, for the majority of Adventure‘s (1976) map is named and divided in ways that would make sense to a spelunker. From the way that the game comfortably names areas of the cave as “rooms”, and indeed even the names of those rooms, which draw on caving vocabulary such as “Bedquilt” and “Y2”, we can clearly identify that the character in that game is an experienced cave explorer. Thus, even in the earliest days of IF, when games made virtually no overt effort to characterize the PC, character was already emerging as a function of landscape. The character in Adventure, while unraced, gender-neutral, ageless, nameless, and faceless, was nonetheless made distinct from the player herself by the way he perceived the landscape of the cave, seeing rooms and twisty little passages where a different character might have experienced the area quite differently.

In the hands of a skilled author, the effect of landscape on character can make for a portrayal that is very striking indeed. Take, for instance, Adam Cadre’s 1981 (2001)4. The first room description of the game is as follows:

New Haven, Connecticut
New Haven. The worst place on earth. The town is dirty and industrial, the students are sloppy, everything is horribly expensive. And you had to cash in $3600 of your stock to get here. But it was necessary. Four years at this place is enough to ravage anyone. You have to rescue her, your first true love.

Her dormitory lies to the north.

Already, we can see a dramatic narrowing of scope occurring. The character is so unconcerned with the details of his location that he compresses an entire town into one unit, dismissing all of it as “the worst place on earth.” Then the broad outlines of location gain sudden, sharp focus: “Her dormitory lies to the north.” The contrast between the vague, reviled whole of New Haven and the focus on the dormitory, set apart in its own line, suggests to us that the character’s concentration on his goal is unhealthy, perhaps even obsessive, and moving north confirms this suspicion:

New Haven, in her dormitory
You're standing in front of her door. It's closed. It's always closed. You've shoved approximately one hundred poems and letters under that door. You figure she's probably read about half of them.

Scope narrows even further here, from one building to the tiny area in front of one of that building’s doors. The room descriptions certainly confirm our impression of the main character’s unbalanced and obsessive nature, but even without them, the basic funneling performed by the map design would get the point across admirably. When we discover that the PC is John Hinckley, Jr., and that the door in question is to Jodie Foster’s dorm room at Yale, the revelation is terrifically powerful, because via its map design, the game has already taken us directly into the viewpoint of its would-be assassin.

ROOM DESCRIPTIONS

[This section contains minor spoilers for A Change In The Weather, Heroes, Varicella, and Zork I. It contains medium-level spoilers for Once And Future and Wearing The Claw, and major spoilers for Nothing More Nothing Less.]

Of course, in 1981 it’s more than just map design that clues us into the character — the room descriptions themselves make it clear that we are seeing the game’s landscape as filtered through one individual’s highly idiosyncratic viewpoint. Short, choppy sentences give the text a jittery feel, contributing to the general tone of uneasiness. We know the character has some access to wealth because of the “$3600 of your stock” line. We also know the character is either a heterosexual male or a homosexual female from the reference to the true love as “her.”5 And we certainly know how he feels about New Haven.

Cadre is particularly skilled at bringing character across through room description, as in this example, the first room in Varicella (1999):

Salon
You've funneled the lion's share of the palace improvements budget -- and most likely the tiger's share as well -- into renovating the salon... not that the Philistines you live among are equipped to appreciate it. From the plush Quattordici chairs to the handsome volumes in the library to the imported Ming tea service to the steward you hired to attend to your grooming needs, this is an oasis of taste and comfort in what is otherwise a fairly uncomfortable and tasteless building. Ah, well. When you become Regent you'll have greater latitude to redecorate. The arched windows overlook the western gardens, while the exit leads east.

This description follows several paragraphs of introduction, which announce the player character as one Primo Varicella, Palace Minister to a recently deceased king, and Machiavellian schemer for the throne. Even without that introduction, though, this room description would frame the character aptly. From the “lion’s share” clause we know that the character is in charge of improvements to a palace, and from the room name we know that he is in the Salon mentioned in the first sentence; therefore we can conclude that he is employed by the palace in which the game begins — a succinct way to bring across Varicella’s position and occupation. Moreover, the phrase “live among” tells us that he resides at the palace as well. The “tiger’s share” clause gives us an example of his sardonic humor, and the “Philistines” reference an example of his snobbery. His identification of the chairs and tea service, and the contrast to the “uncomfortable and tasteless” remainder of the building, communicate clearly that this is a man of very strong preferences, a persnickety aristocrat whose refined tastes run to the extremely expensive. Finally, the character’s ambitions, and the drive behind them, are summarized neatly: “When you become Regent you’ll have greater latitude to redecorate.” Just by seeing one room through this character’s eyes, we learn all the essential facts about him that will carry throughout the game.

If there’s a continuum that measures the degree to which a game’s room descriptions blatantly shape character, it’s fair to say that Varicella is probably on the extreme end of it. Does that mean that the room descriptions of games on the other end don’t shape character at all? Predictably, my answer is no — the effect is just a bit more subtle. To illustrate, let’s compare descriptions from two different games, neither of which has character as its focus. First, from Andrew Plotkin’s A Change In The Weather (1996):

Rocky Outlook
A wide angular tongue juts out from the hillside. The park stretches off to the north and west, a vast expanse of luminous meadowland, patched with the dark emerald of forest. The streams are already shadowed in their beds. In the distance, a lake reflects red fire, beneath the greater fire that leaps silently on the horizon.

A trail leads southwest down the hill, towards the bridge. From where you stand, it turns southeast and continues upward, deeply cut into the hillside. A narrower trail leads more steeply up to the east.

Zork I (1981) by Infocom offers a location that is very nearly analogous:

Rocky Ledge
You are on a ledge about halfway up the wall of the river canyon. You can see from here that the main flow from Aragain Falls twists along a passage which it is impossible for you to enter. Below you is the canyon bottom. Above you is more cliff, which appears climbable.

Though their locations may be similar, these two characters are very different indeed. Weather‘s wanderer takes the entire first paragraph to describe the area with intense, poetic language. The words don’t directly narrate the emotions felt by the character, nor impute opinions like the descriptions in Varicella, but they deploy vivid adjectives like “luminous” and “dark emerald”, and powerful metaphors — the tongue of rock, the red fire of sunset reflected in a lake, the setting sun as a “greater fire that leaps silently on the horizon.” This is a character whose soul is moved by the grandeur of a natural landscape. Only after this reverent depiction does the character notice practical details: the trails and where they lead.

Zork‘s PC, on the other hand, goes directly for the practical. She mentions the river’s passage only in terms of whether she can enter it. What she notices about the cliff is that it is climbable. Though the natural scene — a canyon, a river, a waterfall — is probably quite impressive, the description is almost entirely mechanical. There are no rapturous sentences about the stark rock of the cliff or the sparkling river. Adjectives are almost entirely absent, and where they do exist their purpose is highly prosaic: “river” further identifies “canyon”, as “Aragain” does “Falls” and “canyon” does “bottom.” Other descriptors exist solely to describe travel options: “impossible” and “climbable”. Indeed, she sees every element of the scene only in terms of how it can be manipulated or traversed, and this viewpoint is consistent throughout the game, just as the intense description of natural phenomena is a constant in Weather. Both games’ main focus is puzzle-solving, but when we compare how their characters each view a similar scene, it becomes clear how different the characters are from each other.

Comparing the PCs of two different games illuminates important differences between the characters, and the effect is even more potent when several points of view are available within the same game — instead of seeing how two different characters view analogous locations, we get to see how they view the exact same location. Several recent games have made use of this technique: J. Robinson Wheeler’s Being Andrew Plotkin (2000), Stephen Granade’s Common Ground (2000) and my own LASH (2000) among them. The current apex of POV-diversity, though, probably belongs to Heroes (2001) by Sean Barrett. This game offers a minimal landscape of something like a dozen locations, but gives five different viewpoint options through which to view it. For instance, the opening location of the game as viewed by a Zork-like adventurer:

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.

a King:

Avenue
This broad avenue leads right into Temple Square, the heart of fabulous New Oldtown. Towering over the square to the east you do perceive your stark white Temple of Justice, beautiful and well-appointed, offering a statement to the neighborhood: this, this is what progress is about. Sadly, the buildings around you are scarcely up to this new standard; Baron Ventillado's house north of the square is much more satisfactory. How you hate having to come here. This would all be so much simpler if Blackhelm were found dead one morning, but it's never happened yet, despite your best efforts.

a thief:

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.

a mage:

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.

and finally, a dragon:

Open Tunnel
We were surrounded by the man-things' structures, structures of dead trees and rock and distortions of iron. Beneath us we felt the arrangements of stone into a path for man-things' mobile receptacles. We could smell hints of the Crystal along the path to the east.

Where the adventurer just sees a temple, the King sees the temple as his own possession, a symbol of his attempts to renovate and improve the city. Where the mage sees leaning buildings distorting the street’s pristine geometry, the thief sees those same leaning buildings as a source of precious shadow. Through the use of a past-tense, second-person plural voice, Heroes renders the dragon’s viewpoint quite alien, and emphasizes that dissonance by showing us how the dragon sees the street: an “open tunnel”, contrasted with the more irregular shapes of nature and constructed by contemptible “man-things.” Heroes takes excellent advantage of Landscape’s ability to reveal Character, and through its use of multiple viewpoints, it leverages the power of the Landscape-Character axis to accomplish something more: the revelation of Landscape via accumulated details from a variety of characters. The descriptions coalesce in the player’s mind to create a picture of the location that is much more complete than any one viewpoint could provide, while at the same time establishing distinct portraits of each viewpoint character.

Other games have made use of changing room descriptions in order to demonstrate change or progression in a single PC, or to give us that character’s revised perspective as a situation changes. Nothing More, Nothing Less (2001) by Gilles Duchesne is a case in point. The first puzzle of this slice-of-life game takes place in a bathroom, initially described like so:

Bathroom
I’ve seen bigger bathrooms, but must admit this smaller one suits our needs well. There’s a small sink with a cabinet under it, a mirror, a bathtub (equiped [sic] with a shower head and curtain) and a toilet.

However, after the character urinates6, the toilet clogs and begins to overflow. Unprompted, the game reprints the room description, which now reads as follows:

Bathroom
I’ve seen bigger bathrooms, but must admit this smaller one suits our needs well. There’s a small sink with a cabinet under it, a mirror, a bathtub (equiped [sic] with a shower head and curtain) and a toilet.
Right now, my attention is also grabbed by: the toilet tank. Water keeps flowing from the tank, nearing the bowl’s edge.

The room description stays the same, but the game adds a sentence to demonstrate that the character’s attention has become focused on one particular aspect of the room: the toilet tank. This sentence serves gameplay purposes, indicating that the toilet tank is in fact implemented and thereby hinting toward the solution of the “overflowing toilet” puzzle. In addition to this, the attention sentence demonstrates a shift in the character, showing us his revised perspective as well as the fact that he’s quick-witted enough to think immediately of the toilet tank in this crisis. The other sentence is typical of IF room descriptions, indicating an action currently taking place in the room and lending urgency to the character’s desire to solve the puzzle. After the character opens the tank, lifts the toilet float, and fixes the stuck valve to stop the toilet running (alas, too late to prevent water flowing onto the floor), the game once again reprints the room description, this time altered considerably:

Bathroom
I’m now standing barefoot in some icy water. I’ve seen bigger bathrooms, but must admit this smaller one suits our needs well. In fact, at this very moment I’m terribly glad the floor isn’t bigger, as it would only mean more water to remove. There’s a small sink with a cabinet under it, a mirror, a bathtub (equiped [sic] with a shower head and curtain) and a toilet.
Right now, my attention is also grabbed by: my towel.

There are several changes, doing several different sorts of work within the description. The first, the “icy water” sentence, indicates a change in the room itself, one that is reflective of situation rather than character, though of course the way the character chooses to relate this situation — emphasizing discomfort by noting his bare feet and describing the water as “icy”, conveying a mood of urgency without panic — does accomplish some characterization. A later sentence takes a fact of the bathroom addressed by earlier descriptions (its small size) and relates it to the new situation, revealing a practical and rather optimistic side to the viewpoint character. This sentence also demonstrates that the character’s perspective, while pragmatic, is not particularly scientific, since a larger floor wouldn’t actually mean more water to remove, only a greater surface area from which to remove it. Later, we get a new “attention” sentence; the toilet tank is no longer in focus, and instead the character is thinking of his towel. Note that this towel was not mentioned in any of the previous room descriptions, because the character had no particular need of it. Nothing More, Nothing Less makes extensive use of this technique, heightening realism by filtering not only the general experience of landscape through the PC, but also specific points of focus as well. Finally, once the toilet is plunged and the water toweled and mopped, the PC has showered, and his feline nemesis has entered the room, the bathroom’s description changes to this:

Bathroom
This a bathroom, of which I’ve seen more than enough in the last minutes. Come to think of it, I’ve seen enough of it for the whole day. And the presence of that hairy pest doesn’t improve my morale. Azrael licks one of his paws, while keeping an eye on me.

The character’s perspective on the bathroom has changed once more, marking the end of his progression from bland interest, through urgent focus, and resting finally at mild exasperation. The emotional registers aren’t extreme, but the room descriptions convey very clearly the changes taking place within the character as a response to the changes that occur around him. In games like this, Landscape does even more shaping of Character than usual by virtue of its changing prose.

A final aspect of how Landscape reveals Character lies in the concept of elision: what rooms does the game avoid describing, and how do those gaps influence our understanding of the character? Many games take the character, via non-interactive cut-scenes, or even simple transitions, through landscape that we never get to see from the PC’s perspective. My experiences as an author have taught me about this phenomenon; in my first game, Wearing The Claw (1996), I elided an entire sea voyage. In practical terms, I made this choice because I didn’t have the time, energy, or skill to implement the journey as an interactive experience, but its absence from the game couldn’t help but affect the PC’s characterization. His reluctance to relate the details had to be explained somehow, so I made him someone who is deeply intimidated by the ocean, someone who would want to block out the experience of being at sea as much as possible:

Soon you find yourself at sea for the first time in your life, and you learn that the rocking and swaying of a small boat on a choppy sea does little to relax you. Nausea swells and recedes like the the [sic] waves beneath you, and though the journey to the isle of the Goergs takes little more than an hour, it ends none too soon for you.

I’m not willing to make the claim that elision always contributes to characterization — sometimes cuts are in place just to serve a story’s structure, leaving things unimplemented even though the character certainly would notice them. However, there are times that what isn’t described is just as important as what is. These sorts of gaps are particularly noticeable when they contrast with the player’s expectations, as happens from time to time in Kevin Wilson’s Once And Future (1998). One particularly memorable absence in that game is the matter of the cat: late in the game, Frank Leandro (the PC) is required to obtain a bit of cat hair for a magical recipe, and conveniently enough happens across a stray cat who sheds a bit into his hand and rides his shoulder for a while. A while later, that cat jumps into the chimney of a boarded-up house (chasing a bird) and disappears. Frank has a sword that cuts through anything, but the game forbids him from cutting through the boards to find the cat, saying “You could, but there’s not much point to it.” So however much the player may want to make sure that the kitty is okay, she is constrained by Frank’s disinterest; the inside of the house isn’t part of the map, because Frank doesn’t see the point of exploring it.

A PC-CENTRIC VIEW OF INTERACTIVE FICTION

[This section contains minor spoilers for The Beetmonger’s Journal, medium-level spoilers for Hamlet (the Shakespeare play), and major spoilers for Photopia.]

It’s possible that objections may arise to some of the points I make above, on the grounds that what I ascribe to character could just as easily be seen as a particular author’s writing style, a game’s depth of implementation, or even the formal constraints of IF itself. It’s quite true that I’m taking a PC-centric view — this is how I experience interactive fiction, and it’s easy to feel that it’s simply how the form works, but I certainly acknowledge that there are other, equally valid approaches. It’s also true that the PC is not the only possible point of view within a work of Interactive Fiction. In The Beetmonger’s Journal (2001) by Scott Starkey, for instance, some very nifty POV-jumping occurs in sections where the PC is the hero of some stories being read by the frame characters — from time to time those characters are interrupted in their reading, and we get a small cut-scene from their point of view.

However, what I would argue for is the extreme difficulty of disconnecting the point-of-view from the Player Character at the point of action. The IF prompt implies a certain kind of remote control: the player is to type in an action which will then be executed within the game. Invariably, this action is performed by the PC. Indeed, this is the very definition of Player Character. Similarly, landscape descriptions, especially when that landscape is available for traversal and manipulation from the game prompt, almost cannot help but be filtered through the PC, because all the knowledge conveyed in them is available for use at the point of action. If room description were to convey something that the PC couldn’t possibly know, such as the color of an object when the character is blind, the result would be severe cognitive dissonance for the player. If we type “OPEN BLUE DOOR” and the blind PC is able to do so, we must conclude that the PC is not blind after all — that’s how powerful the connection is between Character and Action. Because Landscape, Character, and Action are so intimately connected, it’s quite difficult to avoid making Landscape a function of Character, especially as the two get nearer and nearer to Action.

Given this PC-centric take on IF, it’s worth asking what possibilities reveal themselves as open or closed in its light. We’ve already seen some of what’s opened, from Heroes‘ cumulative place-building to Shade‘s resonant evocation of the familiar, and no doubt future games will continue to explore the power of the Landscape-Character axis. Conversely, one element that seems rather alarmingly curtailed is the possibility of dramatic irony. For instance, imagine Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an IF game, in which the player controls Hamlet, but is allowed (as a reader) to see Polonius stepping behind the arras in the queen’s bedroom. In order to retain the dramatic irony of the scene, Hamlet must stab the arras and inadvertently kill Polonius, but why would the player order him to do so, knowing what Hamlet doesn’t? In other words, how can the player be allowed to know things that the character doesn’t if that knowledge is expected to facilitate dramatic irony? The only answer I can think of is to force the PC’s actions, to make Hamlet stab Polonius no matter what the player orders, but as soon as that happens, the interactivity drops out of the IF game, and thus Action is removed from the equation. I’m not prepared to contend that this sort of dramatic irony is impossible, but the game that solves this problem will be a major breakthrough.

The work that’s probably come the closest to this grail is Adam Cadre’s justly revered Photopia (1998). Thanks to its fragmentation of the narrative line and its array of POV characters, when the climactic scene arrives, we know all the awful freight of what’s about to happen. We also can’t stop it — in order to achieve its dramatic irony, Photopia must remove our power to act. There’s an argument to be made that this sort of moment becomes even more powerful in interactive fiction, the useless prompt underscoring the inevitability of the character’s tragic fate. That’s as may be, but it doesn’t change the fact that PC and Action are still inextricably connected, and the only way the PC can be made to do something inevitable is to remove control from the player. Photopia cleverly makes the inevitable moment a car accident, thus giving the PC only a split-second to react (and thus providing a plausible context for lack of choice) and making his default desires identical to the player’s desires (STOP THE CAR!), but in the final analysis, the moment is still achieved by removing control from the player, and indeed the great majority of the criticism directed towards Photopia has been of its non-interactivity.

If Action is to retain its place in the IF triangle, Landscape and Character must remain inextricably connected. Their powerful bond to each other creates many exciting possibilities for the development of both, possibilities that have begun to be exploited in the last several years, and which no doubt will continue to yield opportunities for development. What’s also true is that noticing this connection and its potential still only scratches the surface of character development and landscape exposition in IF. Character can be revealed not just through landscape, but through objects, plot, direct narrative, and many other devices. In turn, while character is the primary lens for landscape, that landscape can alter greatly from the passage of time, from plot events, from NPC actions, or hundreds of other vectors, and each change to character and landscape deepens both. We’ve only just started finding the techniques, and it’s a heady feeling. We’re at the beginning of an art form — there’s much more undiscovered territory to explore.

Endnotes

1 A note about terms here: First, I should note that by “interactive fiction”, I refer to text IF. Some of the points here are certainly applicable to graphical or mixed-media IF as well, but some may not be. Secondly, the general concepts of Landscape, Character, and Action aren’t meant to be taken too literally. IF could be (and in many cases has been) created with a map of entirely abstract locations, or one location, or location descriptions that consist entirely of describing what’s absent. Similarly, actions might involve no actual action (WAIT, for example, or THINK), and a character can be anything from an intrepid adventurer to an ear of corn. However, I would contend that these elements are present in some form in all IF — indeed, the absence of these elements (such as the absence of landscape in Eliza) removes the work from what might reasonably be called interactive fiction.
[Back to reference]

2 This trait isn’t entirely restricted to text games, but while no text game offers continuous space, some graphical games, such as Half-Life and Zork: Grand Inquisitor, do in fact offer a continuous, unbroken environment through which the PC travels. In that case, map design becomes a much less powerful factor in fixing Character, and in fact it might be argued that in those cases, the term “map design” has more or less lost its meaning, and might be better called “level design” or something similar.
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3 The subject of how description influences our perception of PC gender could occupy another entire essay, and is out of scope for this one. Consequently, in the case of games that don’t explicitly specify the gender of the PC, I’ll rather arbitrarily select one, trying to hit a more or less even ratio between the two.
[Back to reference]

4 1981 is credited to the pseudonymous A.D. Mcmlxxxi, and Cadre has never claimed credit for it. In private correspondence, he explained that this is because the game was a bit of a rush job, not polished enough for something he would put his own name on. He agreed to be credited for the game in this essay on the condition that I put in a note explaining that he “wasn’t actually trying or anything with that one.” That 1981 is the game Cadre produces when he isn’t even breaking a sweat is a testament to his skill as an author.
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5 Or a bisexual of either sex, it probably should be said.
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6 This is one of the very few times that excretion has appeared in an IF game without being a function of rather dodgy toilet humor. Instead, the game plays it completely straight — just another element in its realistic scenario.
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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.

Enchanter [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Enchanter
[This review contains lots of major spoilers for Enchanter, plus spoilers of various sizes for lots of Zork games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Having finished all the Infocom games with the word “Zork” in their names, Dante and I turned our attention to the game we glimpsed when Zork III‘s Scenic Vista let us see the future, the game that would have been called Zork IV but instead became Enchanter. Infocom made a great call by keeping the Zork brand off this game, because its primary mechanic fundamentally separates it from the original trilogy.

That basic mechanic — spellcasting — is dynamite. Instead of accumulating more and more objects, the PC of this game accumulates skills, sometimes even superpowers. Sure, some of these skills are comically puzzle-specific, but even so, every new spell added to the spell book makes the PC feel more capable and powerful. Rather than just some wandering kleptomaniac who knows how to put rod A into slot B and goes around doing various versions of that again and again, the Enchanter protagonist feels like an organically growing and improving being.

That sense of growth and improvement works well in tandem with the plot, too. That’s right: plot. There’s more story in Enchanter than in all the original trilogy games put together. Yes, wisps of story had started to appear with the Wizard of Frobozz and the Dungeon Master, but this game gives us a full-fledged quest plot with dramatic stakes, not just a shambolic treasure hunt.

As plots go, it’s fairly rudimentary and rather logically flawed — we’re really placing the fate of the realm in the hands of someone with almost no skills? Okay, I guess there’s a prophecy or something, but it’s all a little pat and strains credulity. (Comp99’s Spodgeville Murphy ably parodies this notion with its line, “Another champion must be sought; an idiot unskilled in anything but adventuring…”) Still, compared to the Zork trilogy, a plot framework like this is a quantum leap forward. And having established that the PC starts with very few skills makes the skill-building experience that much more exciting and rewarding.

>EXAMINE ADVENTURER

So Enchanter distinguishes itself from Zork both by its level of character specificity and its level of narrative drive, and it’s clearly well aware of the comparison, because it plays up the contrast to hilarious effect via its inclusion of the adventurer NPC. He’s the source of most of the game’s best jokes, and we were exactly the right audience for them, having just played through five Zork games. Some of our favorite lines:

  • The adventurer stares at his possessions as if expecting a revelation.
  • The adventurer pulls out his map, a convoluted collection of lines, arrows, and boxes, and checks it briefly.
  • The adventurer asks for directions to Flood Control Dam #3.
  • The adventurer waves at you and asks “Hello, Sailor?” Strange, you’ve never even been to sea. [Even better, if you respond to this by giving him something, say your loaf of bread:] A wide smile comes over his face as he takes the loaf of bread, as though your action resolved for him some great mystery.
  • The adventurer offers to relieve you of some of your possessions.
  • [If the enchanter follows you onto the illusory stairs, which support you but not him:] The adventurer seems to have dropped out of existence. In a voice that seems to recede into the void, you hear his final word: “Restore….” You muse about how a mere adventurer might come to possess a spell of such power.
  • The adventurer attempts to eat his sword. I don’t think it would agree with him.

So this is clearly the Zork adventurer, and even the way you acquire him — from the other side of a magical mirror — has a wonderful resonance with the teleportation mirrors of Zork I. But in case you thought perhaps he’d warped in from another universe or something, the details of the Gallery location dispel that idea immediately:

Gallery
The east-west corridor opens into a gallery. The walls are lined with portraits, some of apparently great value. All of the eyes seem to follow you as you pass, and the entire room is subtly disturbing.

>examine portraits
The portraits represent a wide cross-section of races. Elves, gnomes, dwarves, wizards, warlocks, and just plain folk are all here. Some of them are known to you, such as Lord Dimwit Flathead of the Great Underground Empire, depicted here in excessive detail, and the Wizard of Frobozz, shown in a typical pose of anguished bewilderment.

The adventurer himself has a satisfying reaction if you happen to catch him wandering into this location:

The adventurer stops and stares at the portraits. “I’ve met him!” he gasps, pointing at the Wizard of Frobozz. He doesn’t appear eager to meet him again, though. “And there’s old Flathead! What a sight!” He glances at the other portraits briefly and then re-checks his map.

The cover of the Enchanter folio package

So while the contrast between the enchanter and the adventurer makes it clear that Enchanter isn’t Zork IV (despite what the Scenic Vista suggests), it is an extension of the Zork universe. Dante and I, having skipped around in time a bit, had already seen the union of spellcasting-Zork and treasure-hunting-Zork in the later games, and in fact some of our discoveries here helped explain throwaway references in those games, such as Beyond Zork‘s casual mention that “Aggressive ad campaigns and the deregulation of ZIFMIA spells have made Miznia’s Jungle Skyway the fifth biggest tourist attraction in the Southlands.” In Enchanter, Zifmia can only summon beings of great magical power or beings you can see, but apparently later the rules loosen up enough that it can be used for casual travel. The idea that spell restrictions are largely the product of bureaucratic regulations is a funny one, considering that they’re really the product of technical limitations and the necessity to constrain combinatorial explosions in game design.

>GRIPE ABOUT TIMERS

If only Infocom had done a little deregulation of their other limits. For whatever reason, designers Marc Blank and Dave Lebling decided to impose three different timers in this game: one for hunger, one for thirst, and one for sleep. That’s on top of the never-stops-being-annoying inventory limit, which felt particularly draconian here. Infocom’s previous game, Planetfall, also inflicted these three timers on players, so I guess Enchanter just had the misfortune to fall into the period of IF evolution between, “Hey, these timers make the game more realistic!” and “Hey, these timers make the game a lot less fun.”

The thirst timer isn’t terrible — there’s an endless source of water available, though occasionally you may have to trundle over to it. Still, it’s mostly just an annoyance. Food, on the other hand, has a hard limit — there’s a loaf of bread that lasts something like 7 meals, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Enchanter continued Infocom’s streak of making us replay games, and that hunger timer was a big part of how it did so. (The other part was finding out we’d locked ourselves out of victory in our first few moves — more about that in a moment.)

Then there’s the sleep timer. While not as unforgiving as the hunger timer, it did introduce a whole new way to suddenly lose — you can get robbed while you sleep! Apparently this is the best use for the Blorb spell, but you have to learn that the hard way. Incidentally, Dante and I played a bit of Enchanter together when he was much younger, and this bedtime theft (combined with me saying, “We’ve been robbed!”) upset him so much that he dropped the game completely.

On the other hand, Enchanter does a few things with its sleep timer that make it almost worth having. For one, there’s a puzzle that flat-out requires sleep. Fall asleep on a beautiful bed, get rewarded with the location of a new scroll you’d never have found otherwise. That’s easy enough. Even more enticing, though, are the hints you get while dreaming. These dreams make perfect sense with the character, a novice spellcaster with the potential for greater power, and a connection to the mystical forces of the universe. Plus, they can help get you unstuck — always appreciated. One of those dreams brilliantly hinted us toward the solution to a puzzle:

After a while, your sleep is disturbed by a strange dream. You are wandering in a darkened place, for you have no light or other possessions. You feel that you are being watched! You are surrounded by faces, their eyes following you. They drift in and out, staring at you with proud indifference. One face, brightly lit (unlike the rest), draws you closer and closer. As you touch it, you wake.

It took a few repetitions of this before we caught on — and the game gets increasingly insistent about signaling that this is a hint — but finally we understood that it referred to the Gallery, and further understood what we had to do, given that a nearly identical puzzle appears at the end of Zork II. Unfortunately, that was also when we realized that we’d locked ourselves out of victory.

See, one of the most satisfying parts of Enchanter is the way it obviates some of the recurring frustrations of earlier Zork games. For a player who has struggled with one lock after another, possessing a Rezrov spell feels marvelously empowering. Never again, locks! (Not true, but it still feels great when Rezrov pops something open.) Similarly, the Frotz spell meant that our days of struggling against light limits were over at last! “Frotz me” was one of the first commands we typed once we understood that the PC could finally be its own light source. Which is great… except when you need darkness. It wouldn’t be until Spellbreaker that Infocom would allow the “Extinguish” verb to undo a “Frotz me”, so… RESTART!

Photo from the Enchanter package showing the disk and feelies

Unfortunately, there was no spell that improved our carrying capacity, which meant that we were frequently told that we were carrying too many things already. Usually an annoyance, this behavior became downright infuriating with a grabby fellow like the adventurer around — when we opened up a new location, he would charge right in and take everything we hadn’t been able to pick up, which tended to be most things, given the game’s insistence on inventory limits. One silver lining: there was a lot of comedy value to be had from checking out the adventurer’s inventory, which besides his own sword and lamp was generally made up of our castoffs:

There is a bedraggled and weary adventurer standing here. He is carrying a sacrificial dagger, a lighted portrait, a dusty book, a purple scroll, a sword, and a brass lantern.

He’s like a sillier version of the Zork I thief, or maybe a deranged magpie who doesn’t restrict himself to just the shiny objects.

The adventurer focuses entirely on objects, while the enchanter cares much more about scrolls, whose physical presence is ephemeral, but whose contents can be used over and over. Put another way, the adventurer’s power comes from having things, while the enchanter’s power comes from knowing things. For kids whose knowledge greatly outstrips their wealth, this is a pretty appealing formulation.

The mind-body split between these two characters also figures into the game’s puzzles, in which the adventurer can ignore mental barriers such as illusions, breaking through with a basic physicality that can pave the way for the enchanter. On the flip side, the enchanter can use a spell (not an object) to change the adventurer’s mood, so that he’s willing to cooperate. I would totally play a game (or for that matter, watch a TV show or movie) in which these two team up for a whole story to solve problems.

>ANALYZE PUZZLES

The puzzles in Enchanter overall are quite clever and fun on average. We particularly enjoyed the Unseen Terror puzzle, with its ASCII art and its multi-step luring and trapping mechanic. Figuring out the right combination of spells and objects to get the sacrificial dagger was another favorite. Oh, and the rainbow turtle! That one was a little awkward with its syntax, but once we understood how to tell the game our idea, it was quite a thrill seeing it work.

The final puzzle, however, stymied us for quite some time, and here is where Enchanter‘s spell-specific puzzle gimmick shows its weakness. See, when there’s one spell and only one spell that can resolve a situation, you’re at an impasse unless you’ve found that spell, but you likely don’t even know you’re at that impasse. Now, one could argue this is really no different than a Zork game, in which there is often one and only one object that can unlock a puzzle, but I think there’s a qualitative difference.

Because objects are concrete items that tend to have very specific or limited capabilities, it’s more clear when you’re missing one. Say you find a bolt that needs turning — it’s pretty certain that a sword or a hot pepper sandwich is not going to do the job. You clearly need a wrench. Now say you find a fire-breathing dragon. Could you make it your friend, or change it into a newt, or talk to it? Well, why not? Those all seem like reasonable solutions to the problem, and if they don’t work, it’s only because the game rather arbitrarily decides that they don’t. When it turns out that you must have a “quench an open flame” spell, you might justifiably cry foul, especially when a dragon is much more like a hostile creature than an open flame. By building the skills and powers of the PC, Enchanter comes closer and closer to risking logical breaks by deciding that those powers are only allowed to apply to some situations and not other, very similar situations.

The other weakness of this scenario is that the Gondar spell (the open-flame-quenching one) is only available from searching a second-level noun — that is, an object mentioned in the description of another object rather than the description of a room. Given how many first-level nouns go undescribed in Enchanter and all its predecessors, expecting that kind of search behavior seems a little beyond the pale. We needed a hint to get there.

Once we got that hint, and were sufficiently Gondared, the climactic sequence of the game became finishable, and we finished! Banishing Krill was as satisfying as we’d hoped, and we were excited to know that much more IF with this fun spellcasting mechanic awaited us!

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!

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.