Spellbreaker [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Spellbreaker
[This review contains many major spoilers for Spellbreaker and some mild to moderate spoilers for Zork and Enchanter series games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

When I first started listening to the Beatles as a kid, I listened to the hits, and to me they were all just Beatles songs. Before too long, I could feel the differences between the early stuff (i.e. the red album) and the later stuff (the blue album.) From there I moved away from hits collections into regular releases, and my ears began to pick up the Paul songs, versus the John songs, versus the George songs, versus the Ringo songs. Sufficient listening, reading, and attention got me to the point of fine discernment, understanding the subtle but unmistakable differences between Rubber Soul Paul vs. Revolver Paul, or between Let It Be George and Abbey Road George.

Where am I going with this? The voices within Infocom, pretty clearly the Beatles of interactive fiction, reveal themselves similarly given sufficient attention. At first they all feel like just Infocom games, but we can start to pick out the styles after a while. There’s the brash, prolific, and eclectic Meretzky, the cerebral Blank, the ambitious and enthusiastic Moriarty, and so on. Spellbreaker belongs indelibly to the voice of Dave Lebling, possibly the finest writer of the lot, and a creator who lovingly balanced sober themes with dry humor, biting understatement with mathematical intricacy. Not only that, this is classic mid-period Lebling, a flowering of IF’s potential before the chillier days of commercial retrenchment set in.

>EXAMINE WRITING AND STRUCTURE

Spellbreaker was one of my favorite Infocom games when I was playing them in the ’80s, and I was particularly excited to share it with Dante. Looking at the game now, I think it holds up quite well, though I do have some critiques here and there. In particular, Lebling’s writing really shines. Just in the introduction alone, there are so many artful touches. For instance, when Sneffle of the Guild of Bakers complains about the gradual failing of magic:

>examine sneffle
Sneffle is a small doughy gentleman whose person is splotched here and there with flour.

“Doughy” is a rich word to describe a person, and using it for the baker, without piling on the puns, evokes a strong visual, especially combined with his comical flour-splotches. Then there’s the subtle evocation of Shakespeare when: “In the blink of an eye there stands at the podium, not the orator, but rather a large orange newt.” Eye of newt indeed, and something wicked this way comes.

This game also has some of Infocom’s most vivid imagery, and memories of playing it as a teen have stuck with me strongly through the years. In particular, the “beautiful blue carpet with a strange design of cubes” is something I’ve always wished would manifest in this world. I would buy it in a snap. (Though I’d probably want to haggle the price.) Etsy carpet-weavers, make me an offer. Here’s your product description:

>examine blue carpet
This is a carpet of unusual design. It is blue, beautifully woven and has a pattern that looks different each time you look at it. Sometimes, for example, it's an array of cubes pointing upward, and other times it's the same array pointing downward. There is a jaunty fringe around the outer edge.

In Spellbreaker, which by certain lights is Zork VI), Lebling finds himself in the position of finishing a second trilogy, and tonally he makes some similar choices to what Zork III did. Not that this game is anywhere near as bleak and radical as Zork III was, but it shares a similar feeling of somber grandeur. The ruins and the abandoned castle, in particular, give the same sense of desolation. The Ouroboros snake and the rat-idol, like the Royal Puzzle and the Technology Museum, are once-important landmarks left mouldering and forgotten.

Compared to the “fight the Big Bad” plots of the previous two Enchanter-series installments, this a darker and more adult finale, with richer textures and deeper pleasures than the other two. I’ll have more to say about the plot-level comparison with Zork III when I discuss the endgame, but for now I’ll leave it with the observation that the notion of magic slowly failing is a wonderful metaphor for coming of age, and this game moves IF from innocence to experience in a beautiful and gentle way, which encompasses the seriousness of Zork III but leaves much more room for playfulness than that finale did.

The cover of the Infocom grey box for Spellbreaker

Much of the fun in an Enchanter-ish game is the way that you can use your magic to make changes to yourself and the world around you, and Spellbreaker is no exception. Usually, when an IF game wants to surprise and delight, the author needs to anticipate actions that the player wouldn’t expect to see implemented, and give some fun response to those actions. However, Spellbreaker (and the Enchanter series broadly) gets mileage out of a different technique, which is to allow harmless alterations of the world that enrich the player’s experience without requiring any foresight on the part of the author.

One example of this is how you can frotz various things — the loaf of bread, the roc, et cetera — to make a lantern out of some unassuming object or imagine a puzzle component glowing uncharacteristically. This sort of pleasure was available in previous games, but Lebling adds another layer in Spellbreaker — the ability to label objects with arbitrary names, injecting your own sense of order or humor into the game’s world. Beyond Zork copied this quality but with less success, because (aside from the convenience factor of not having to type out “pterodactyl” all the time) its use was totally superfluous to the game.

Spellbreaker, by contrast, gives us a load of identical items — the cubes — which must be distinguished from each other in order to accomplish a successful playthrough. The ability to label these cubes in whatever way makes the most sense (or seems the most fun) to the player allows us to inject our own personalities into the game’s world. It’s such a pleasure that the Invisiclues even included a section titled “What did we name the cubes here at Infocom?”

Structurally, too, the game feels mature. Rather than a big, sprawling dungeon (like the Zork trilogy games) or a compact trunk full of puzzles (like Enchanter and, to a lesser extent, Sorcerer), Spellbreaker incorporates many dimensions and many sub-maps, which sometimes link into larger maps. Lebling themes these dimensions around fundamental elements, forces, and concepts, allowing players to feel that their travels are not only traversing a map but encompassing, via metaphor, the full universe of the game. Each new discovery not only expands the world but enriches it as well — rather like the mapping version of how the spell mechanic deepened the Zork game model. The ability to travel via cube gives us new angles on previously visited locations, as well as new locations, just as the ability to cast spells gave us new angles on puzzle-solving, along with all the old ones that were still available to us.

>COMPARE SPELLBREAKER TO D&D

One of those spells, “snavig”, proves particularly entertaining. This spell allows the PC to transform into any nearby creature, which not only underpins several puzzles but is also an imaginative delight. In particular, Spellbreaker breaks the trend of grue avoidance and lets us become a grue at last! This in turn enables one of the most fun Easter eggs in the game:

>snavig grue
You feel yourself changing in a very unpleasant way. Your claws feel odd, and you have an uncontrollable tendency to slaver. You gurgle vilely to yourself, worrying about the presence of light. Directly in front of you, a horrific creature recoils with a look of shocked surprise. It scuttles off, perplexed.

>slaver
You do that very well for such an inexperienced grue.

It’s fitting that Lebling, the inventor of the grue (for IF purposes), got to flesh them out with such panache here. Spellbreaker would be Lebling’s last grue-infested game.

“Snavig” feels indebted to the “polymorph” spell from Dungeons and Dragons, and it’s one of a few clear D&D tributes in this game. I’ve written before about IF’s connections to the classic tabletop RPG, and it’s worth mentioning again that Dave Lebling was a member of Will Crowther’s D&D group, which influenced Crowther’s genre-founding cave-exploration simulator. Besides polymorphing, the game strikes another D&D note when it lets you pry a gem out of the eye of a giant idol, a clear homage to the classic painting on the cover of the first edition Player’s Handbook.

The painting on the cover of the first edition AD&D Player's Handbook, by David Trampier. Two burglars are prying a gem from the eye of a huge demon statue, while various adventurers wait in the foreground by the body of a slain lizard-man.

The game’s biggest and best D&D tribute, though, is the magic zipper — a Bag of Holding in all but name. Just as frotz removed light source puzzles and rezrov removed locked door puzzles, so does the magic zipper remove inventory limit “puzzles” by allowing the player to carry a functionally infinite number of items. (How I wish it had been in Beyond Zork!) And just as these games found ways to create light and lock puzzles despite frotz and rezrov, this game finds a way to make the removal of inventory limits a detriment to the player, by including a puzzle that requires an inventory object to be sitting on the ground.

>ANALYZE PUZZLES

This puzzle — the gold box — has a great concept, but in practice it’s just underclued. In case it’s been a while: each cube has an exit that seems impassable, but it turns out that it really goes to wherever the gold box is if the gold box is keyed to that cube. However, because it’s counterintuitive adventurer behavior to not carry around everything you can, Dante and I never had occasion to find this out without turning to the hints, despite the fact that we knew the gold box was important and we understood it could be tuned to different cubes. The puzzle feels reminiscent of those puzzles in Zork II and Enchanter where you need to not have a light source.

However, those light source puzzles were hinted at — perhaps obliquely (especially in the case of Zork II), but hinted nonetheless. No such luck in Spellbreaker, and consequently it stumped us. Maybe if the opened “impassable” exit felt a little less rigid, even when you’re holding the box? Or if the phrasing when trying to put anything other than a cube in the box was a parallel to trying to go through the impassable exit? There needs to be something more to link the box to what it does — otherwise it’s hard to imagine many people actually figuring this out rather than stumbling upon it by flailing blindly. Perhaps I’m overstepping in that speculation, but it was certainly the case for us. Ironically, an inventory limit might have helped here, but what would have helped much more is better cueing.

The gold box puzzle is one of a few places where it felt like the game was trying to live up to its “Expert” difficulty rating. The last third (or so) of Spellbreaker has several puzzles which require quite a bit of patience — the octagonal rooms, the flat plain, and worst of all the cube piles. As you can probably tell from that summary, Dante and I found them a mixed bag. There was a certain elegance and satisfaction to the first two, but we face-planted completely on the last one. According to the Invisiclues, those cube piles are “a variation of a classic coin-weighing puzzle” — one coin may be heavier or lighter than 11 identical others, and you have to figure out which with only three weighings — but we never did solve it. We just got through it with dumb luck (and a lot of save and restore). None of these math/mapping/logic puzzles were as enjoyable for us to play through as the first two-thirds of the game, but that may be mainly a matter of taste. Except for the coin puzzle, at which I shake my fist one last time.

>WHAT IS MAGIC?

As I’ve mentioned, the cubes tie the game together and thematically traverse numerous fundamental concepts. As you progress through the game, you move from exploring the classical world of material elements — fire, earth, air, water — into an immaterial realm of concepts — connectivity, time, mind, life, death. Further, while the classical elements may make up our world, some of those more conceptual elements underpin the virtual world of the game. Connectivity suggests pointers in code, and the “No Place” of the mind cube is like a null pointer, or a null value. Connections between nodes run underneath the game at the code level, and within the game at the map level, not to mention that the title “String Room” is itself a string within the game’s code, along with every other snippet of language it contains. The binary oppositions (light/dark, life/death) evoke the ones and zeroes underneath it all.

Finally, there is magic, which is what happens when creatures like us from the material world use life and mind over time to interact with the virtual environment. Immersion is the closest we get to magic, and Spellbreaker is a masterfully immersive game — Dante and I made the fewest notes of any Infocom playthrough, because we found the experience so involving.

But startlingly, our final aim (it emerges) is to eliminate magic. There’s another interesting parallel with Zork III here. In that game, you become the owner of creation, by gathering the elements that distinguish its ownership. Here, you become responsible for creation by gathering the elements that define its existence, and what you must protect it from is yourself, or at least the worst version of you. Then, rather than safeguarding a dungeon of wonders, you must create a universe of mundanity.

The final screen from a winning playthrough of Spellbreaker.

The notion of a literal, magical shadow self echoes Zork III once again, wherein you must strike your shadow self down with a magical sword, then show compassion to it. Here, rather than a mystical test imposed by a godlike figure, your shadow is the result of magic itself, an “evil twin” that grows in power every time you cast a spell. Thus, if you eliminate the magic, you eliminate the evil.

It’s a nice thought, and Spellbreaker sells it skillfully, but it’s pretty problematic on inspection. The magical shadow only literalizes a truth — that the exercise of power is itself a creator of potential corruption. In 2022 it is painfully evident that even in a world without magic, we must regularly contend with humans controlled by their shadow sides in their desire to obtain and retain power. If only we could so simply remove the element of our existence that creates this quality, but we would have to remove ourselves. The problem isn’t magic — it’s humans.

There’s a less allegorical way to interpret this, though. In the end, what your shadow does is to create — implement — a universe. Your job is to remove the magic from the center of that universe. (We replaced it with a chunk of rye bread (providing light), a slyly still-a-little-bit-magical keystone.) The idea of turning a miraculous universe into an ordinary one (replacing mages with scientists) feels on one level like a counterintuitive, anti-creative notion. But it is an intriguing one for a magical world running on a scientific platform.

Also, there is this: perhaps solving puzzles unwinds the magic. Once you’ve played through Spellbreaker, it’s done. Sure, you can explore nooks and crannies here and there, but it has been dismantled for you. A solved puzzle is like a deconstructed hypercube — mysterious and compelling in its original form, but just a set of lines once it’s been taken apart. We can appreciate the elegance of what it was, but to solve it is to take the magic from the center of it. That is, until you allow sufficient time to pass, and revisit it with someone new along. Then it malyons back to life, ready to dance its enchanting little jig once more.

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!!

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.

Zork III [Infocom >RESTART]

Cover of Zork III

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

Zork III opens in this location:

Endless Stair
You are at the bottom of a seemingly endless stair, winding its way upward beyond your vision. An eerie light, coming from all around you, casts strange shadows on the walls. To the south is a dark and winding trail.
Your old friend, the brass lantern, is at your feet.

Check out those adjectives! “Endless”, “eerie”, “strange”, “dark”. Immediately the game’s tone differs radically from its predecessors. Where parts 1 and 2 were light, playful, and adventurous, Zork III feels austere, somber, ominous. If not for the appearance of the brass lantern and the Elvish sword, it would hardly seem like it belonged in the same set as those other games.

>EXAMINE NEW TONE

Speaking of which, let’s talk about that sword. In Zork I, we find it hanging above the trophy case in a house. In Zork II we simply find it lying at our feet when the game begins. Zork III takes it to a much different emotional place, as just south of the opening room we find a junction, containing this:

Standing before you is a great rock. Imbedded within it is an Elvish sword.

Try as we might, we simply cannot pull our sword from this rock. (Though try often enough and we’ll get a jokey response from the game.) Up to this point, the sword has been a casual knockoff of Tolkien tropes, right down to the way it would glow in the presence of danger. It lived in a decidedly non-Tolkien world, existing side-by-side with robots and inflatable boats. Here, suddenly, this sword has taken on a mythic, Arthurian resonance. Now it’s not just another treasure to be collected, but something signifying destiny, echoing the Dungeon Master’s words in the opening text of the game — “Seek me when you feel yourself worthy!”. The SCORE command reinforces this theme: “Your potential is 0 of a possible 7, in 34 moves.”

The terms have changed, fundamentally. Where scores in the previous installments numbered in the hundreds, and incremented whenever a puzzle was solved or a treasure collected and stored, here the score is measured in a mere seven notches. Not only that, the game describes it as “potential” rather than “score”, and updates it without notice, sometimes after moves that are seemingly disconnected from any puzzle-solving activity.

Descriptions, too, take on a quality of solemn awe. There were incredible vistas in the previous two games, but the most remarkable ones tended to be sunlit — the volcano, the Aragain Falls. Compare that to the Flathead Ocean:

You are at the shore of an amazing underground sea, the topic of many a legend among adventurers. Few were known to have arrived at this spot, and fewer to return. There is a heavy surf and a breeze is blowing on-shore. The land rises steeply to the east and quicksand prevents movement to the south. A thick mist covers the ocean and extends over the hills to the east. A path heads north along the beach.

This is a marvelous image — an underground ocean! We’ve seen a reservoir, and a stream, and even a glacier, but this use of water feels like it comes from a different register, statelier and gloomier. We are in a much more serious & sad landscape now, nowhere near the unicorns and hot pepper sandwiches of previous games. Even when this game pays off the running “Hello Sailor” gag from the previous two games, it does so with an ancient mariner on a Viking-esque ship, sailing off through the mist — a grand and somewhat melancholy image. When the locations aren’t awe-some, they’re still solemn: a creepy crawl, a foggy room, a damp passage. There’s a distinct lack of cheer in this game.

What’s going on here? Primarily, I think it comes down to the fact that the Infocom Implementors had run low on pieces of the mainframe Zork to adapt for microcomputers. Zork I and Zork II covered the vast majority of that original mainframe game, leaving just a few set pieces for Zork III — pretty much just the mirror box, the royal puzzle, and parts of the endgame. As a result, they could create a game with its own sense of thematic unity, freed (mostly) from the hodgepodge aesthetic of mainframe Zork.

Map of Zork III

The theme that they chose reflected Infocom’s increasing seriousness about the potential of text adventures, or as they would come to be called, interactive fiction. In fact, I would argue that Zork III is the first game to cross the threshold from text adventure to interactive fiction. While Zork II had introduced an element of story with its wizard, Zork III brought a consistency of tone and style alongside an emphasis on actual character development for the PC — the journey to worthiness signaled first by the sword in its stone. At this time, Infocom was developing games like Starcross and especially Deadline, which would take the fictional element even further, so it’s little wonder that they gravitated towards seriousness and heft for Zork III.

>TAKE SWORD’S FIGURE

At the same time, moving to a new thematic register introduced new demands on the form, demands which its limited interface and draconian space constraints weren’t always prepared to handle. Take the hooded figure, for example. As we wander the thematically-on-point Land of Shadow, at some point or another we will encounter “a cloaked and hooded figure” who carries his own brightly glowing sword. When this happens, “From nowhere, the sword from the junction appears in your hand, wildly glowing!” This is one of those moments where the score increments without telling us — a puzzle has been initiated, not solved, but our potential has increased.

We’re meant to battle this figure, but not kill it. When it’s helpless before us, we are to remove its hood, prompting this scene:

You slowly remove the hood from your badly wounded opponent and recoil in horror at the sight of your own face, weary and wounded. A faint smile comes to the lips and then the face starts to change, very slowly, into that of an old, wizened person. The image fades and with it the body of your hooded opponent.
The cloak remains on the ground.
Your sword is no longer glowing.

Great, right? Straight out of Joseph Campbell, or at least The Empire Strikes Back. The idea is that we treat this opponent differently from the troll or the thief, showing compassion rather than murdering it, and in doing so we see ourselves in our foe, along with a hint of the ascension to come.

The problem is this: you can pick up very easily on the concept of the challenge and still not have the faintest idea how to achieve it. Dante and I attempted so many actions with the hooded figure, and were rebuffed at every turn. We tried talking to it. We tried giving bread to it. We tried “help figure”. We tried telling it to go away. We tried kissing it. We tried disarming it, stumbling in the process into weird parsing failures:

>take sword
You already have it.
The hooded figure attempts a thrust, but its weakened state prevents hitting you.

>take sword from figure
You already have it.
The hooded figure attempts a thrust, but its weakened state prevents hitting you.

>take figure's sword
The hooded figure isn't in the sword.
The hooded figure attempts a thrust, but its weakened state prevents hitting you.

>take sword's figure
You already have it.
The hooded figure attempts a thrust, but its weakened state prevents hitting you.

>[whatever man]
I don't know the word "[whatever".

Every one of these attempts was met with either confusion (as above) or some flavor of flat refusal — “The hooded figure does not respond to your words.” It’s the quintessential IF communication breakdown. We understood what we wanted to do. We understood that the game wanted us to do it, or something very like it. We just couldn’t make all the various ways we could think of to enact the concept connect with the one specific way that the game had prepared for the concept to be enacted. A more modern game — I’m tempted to say a better game, but I know the limitations of the early Z-machine — would have found ways to either let those alternate solutions stand as solutions, or respond to them in ways that hinted us toward the right answer.

>PUT RING ON SEAT

We ran into a similar issue with the time machine and the golden ring. Well, eventually we did — first we had to struggle through a bunch of false starts trying to figure out what the heck to even do with the time machine. See, we found our way to the Technology Museum well before we ever went into the Jewel Room, so right off the bat we got into the machine, set the dial to 000, and:

>press button
You experience a brief period of disorientation. The area around you seems to be solidifying! Rock formations close in on you and before you can react you are engulfed in stone!

** You have died **

An Apple ][ or something would have printed “END OF SESSION” after that and returned to a command line, but the Windows Frotz interpreter we were using just shut down! It was “[Hit any key to exit]” and goodnight, Gracie. Dante, especially, was stunned. “We perma-died!” he said. This was in stark contrast to the friendly death-evasions we were granted in the previous two games.

Then we perma-died a bunch more times, testing out the various possibilities of the time machine. Mind you, we had no idea what era to aim for, so we were just flailing around. From teleporting into solid rock, we eventually found ourselves… shot with ray guns? In these instant death scenes, the overall grim tone of the game turns suddenly comedic, as “a row of military people who, if appearances do not deceive, have the cumulative intelligence of a not yet ripe grapefruit” shoot us with a “waffle-shaped implement.” “Killed by a waffle!” said Dante.

Illustration of the Dungeon Master from Zork III

Even once we found our way to the Jewel Room, and therefore the sign hinting at what year to specify, we still struggled mightily with this puzzle. First of all, we found no clue at all that the machine can be pushed from place to place, but okay, let’s set that aside. It falls into the realm of fair, just barely. Much less so was the puzzle around transporting the ring back from the past. Once again, we couldn’t match exactly what the game had in mind, even though we had the idea.

Clearly we were supposed to somehow store the ring in the time machine. It’s not at all apparent why we could transport ourselves but not our possessions, nor why the time machine’s seat was immune from this property, but we quickly put together that the seat was a container, and therefore crucial to the answer. However, it turns out that the seat is two different kinds of container, and we only used one kind: putting things on it. We can put things on the seat and they travel from the present into the past. Voila!

Except, we can’t put things on the seat and have them travel from the past into the present. Why? It’s never explained, and in the end made the whole thing feel buggy, like maybe the present-to-past thing was an unintended accident. Not to mention, it makes for straight-up bugs like this:

Sitting on the seat is:
A golden ring (being worn)

This was after we’d already experienced the frustration of having some other logical approaches in the same section fail — sneaking past the guards with our invisibility potion, or using our magical-morphing key to unlock the museum door. Finally, in desperation, we looked at the hints and found we were supposed to LOOK UNDER SEAT, at which point the game cheerfully says, “You notice a small hollow area under the seat.” This is the very definition of a guess-the-verb puzzle, especially when the response to EXAMINE SEAT is “There is nothing on the seat,” which strongly cued us to believe that the seat is a surface for placing things onto. Dante said, “We had the right idea — it was the game’s fault we couldn’t solve this puzzle.” I quite agree.

On the other hand, once we do solve the puzzle, the plaque in the Jewel Room reads:

The plaque explains that this room was to be the home of the Crown Jewels of the Great Underground Empire. However, following the unexplained disappearance of a priceless ring during the final stages of construction, Lord Flathead decided to place the remaining jewels in a safer location. Interestingly enough, he distrusted museum security enough to place his prized possesion, an incredibly gaudy crown, within a locked safe in a volcano specifically hollowed out for that purpose.

Oh Zork. That was awesome. All is forgiven — I love you again.

>PUT OTHELLO BOARD ON TABLE

Other puzzles were much more satisfying. The Royal Puzzle is one I’ve solved numerous times in my life, but it’s so complicated that I’m always starting from scratch each time. That’s a characteristic of many puzzles in Zork III — where other episodes tended towards conceptual puzzles like the riddle, the prayer, or the cyclops, this game favored mechanical puzzles like the time machine, the mirror box, and of course the Royal Puzzle. While previous games (especially Zork II) spread many small puzzles across the game to create the layers of a larger goal, this game builds multiple layers into many individual puzzles.

The Royal Puzzle, for its part, certainly has numerous mini-goals to accomplish, all using the same basic mechanic. It pushes up against the limits of text games, resorting to crude ASCII maps of each location, and it certainly pushed up against the limits of our mapping capabilities. Dante and I ended up pressing an Othello board into service to track the borders, the movable pieces, and the goals. Solving it felt quite triumphant.

The opening screen of Zork III

As great as that was, though, for me in this playthrough the most thrilling puzzle was the Scenic Vista. That’s the one where you find a magic viewer that can take you into Zorks past, present, and future, and in the process visit some objects and places that will help you later on. Probably I loved this one the most this time because of the circumstances — playing through the games in succession with Dante was a bit like having that magic table, revisiting familiar landscapes with a new purpose in mind. Also, I find it hilarious that while Zork III resolves the “Hello Sailor” question, the broken timber is still a red herring.

And then there’s the earthquake. This is another paradigm shift from previous games — aspects of the dungeon change on a timer, not based on any action of ours. On the one hand, it’s another piece of the shift towards story and away from game — events in the world are not centered on the PC, and happen for their own reasons. On the other hand, as an interactive experience it amounted to a way that pieces of the game could close off, or open up, completely outside our control.

We came upon the broken aqueduct very late in our progress, and had pretty much forgotten about the earthquake. It took us a very long time to figure out what to do… and then realized we had to replay. So yay, another way Infocom found to force us to restart. No light limits this time, but yet another time limit snapped the game into an unwinnable state which we didn’t find until we’d played large swaths of it, including the “who would ever want to replay that?” Royal Puzzle. Once again, I ran through it by myself, Dante waiting for me to finish so the fun part could resume. Though on the bright side, our travails at the Aqueduct View and subsequent Aqueduct prompted him to observe, “Whenever there’s a location in Zork that has ‘View’ in its name, you can bet that you’ll be visiting the place that it is a view of later.” That was enjoyable.

>LEAN ON STAFF

Finally, we made our way past the guardians, employing another complicated and multi-layered mechanism, and reached the endgame at last. We had figured out at this point that we were supposed to be emulating the Dungeon Master himself, and were excited to see what final challenge the game had in store for us. Then we found it and… were thoroughly confused. We took many, many runs at this final puzzle, but couldn’t make a lick of sense out of what was supposed to be going on — shades of the Bank of Zork. After numerous iterations of this, we said:

>lean on staff
Are you so very tired, then?
>YES

Finally, we looked at the hints and… were STILL confused. Oh, we knew how to solve the puzzle. We just didn’t know why that was the solution. We read several Internet accounts of how to solve this puzzle, and found ourselves no further enlightened. Why cell 4? What… just what?!?

The puzzle just seems so arbitrary, so at odds with the many clever constructions that preceded it. I mean, it’s possible I’m just too thickheaded to get the brilliance at work here, but whatever the case, it was an anticlimactic ending to the trilogy. The final text about the treasure and the power and the ascension and all was cool, but it would have felt much more exciting had it been the culmination to a challenge befitting the trilogy, and for us it just wasn’t.

Nevertheless, it was the end of a long and mostly pleasant road. It was a joy to replay this trilogy with Dante on board, and we set our sights next on… the beyond.

What’s next for >INVENTORY

With the publication of my Identity review, I’ve now completed the journey of reprinting every IF Competition review I wrote between 1996 and 2004. There are over 300 of them!

As I said in this blog’s first post, I intend it to house not just my comp reviews, but everything else I’ve written about IF. So now that the comp reviews are all here, I’m going to cast around for everything else of mine I can find on the topic (newsgroup posts and SPAG editorials excepted… for the most part) and get it in here.

That means a few different things:

  • Essays I’ve written about IF
  • Interviews I’ve given
  • Solicited reviews I’ve written
  • Reviews I wrote for the onetime paying home of longer works, Mark Musante’s IF-Review
  • Reviews of commercial adventure games
  • Miscellaneous stuff — correspondence, haikus, IF material from my other blog, etc.

I’m also planning to spruce up the site a bit with easier indexing of its material, and better links from IFDB. In addition, along the way I’ve found it in me to write some new stuff too! The Infocom >RESTART reviews are the first piece of that — so far I’ve written up my experience of playing Zork I and Zork II with my teenage son, and there’s more of that to come. (You can probably guess which one is coming next.)

Beyond that, I’ve found myself curious about what lay beyond the horizon after 2004 in comp-world, so I’ve decided to play and review some games from 2005. As you might expect, this will happen in fits and starts — my life has changed considerably since that era — but so far it’s been a lot of fun. So once I’ve collected and deposited all the stuff I listed out above, there will be new comp reviews! Uh, of very old games. But still new to me!

So although the 1996-2004 comp reviews are done at last (after 16 months!), there is a lot more inventory to unpack! I hope someone finds it useful — it’s been tons of fun to revisit it all.

Zork II [Infocom >RESTART]

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

Dante and I fired up Zork II right after finishing Zork I, and yep, it’s another text game from the early 1980s. There’s still no “X” for “EXAMINE”, still lots of obviously amazing things described as “nothing special”. We were more ready for that this time, which perhaps threw more light on the next layer of dissonance between that era of text adventures and the mid-’90s renaissance: the specific affordances introduced by the Inform language and libraries.

>COMPARE INFORM TO INFOCOM

Dante cut his IF teeth on Inform games, so he found interactions like this pretty annoying:

>put string in brick
You don't have the black string.

>get string
Taken.

>put string in brick
Done.

Inform would have simply handled this at the first command with the bracketed comment “[first taking the black string]”, then moved right on to “done”. (Some later Infocom games took initial steps down this road too.) Furthermore, we couldn’t refer to the resulting compound object as a bomb, even though it was clearly a bomb — granted, that’s not something Inform would have done automatically either, but it is a pretty frequent occurrence in modern text games.

Another instance Inform handles nicely but Zork II does not:

There is a wooden bucket here, 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet high.

>in
You can't go that way.

>enter
You can't go that way.

>enter bucket
You are now in the wooden bucket.

Again, Inform would have simply filled in the blank with “[the bucket]”, unless there were multiple enterable objects or map vectors in the player’s scope. And even then, it would have asked a disambiguating question rather than simply complaining, “You can’t go that way.” In fact, we could go that way.

Finally, Inform provides authors with a couple of easy facilities for avoiding “I don’t know the word [whatever]” when the player tries to reference nearby nouns. Those two magical tools are scenery objects and aliases. Thus, where Zork II gave us this:

Cobwebby Corridor
A winding corridor is filled with cobwebs. Some are broken and the dust on the floor is disturbed. The trend of the twists and turns is northeast to southwest. On the north side of one twist, high up, is a narrow crack.

>examine cobwebs
You can't see any cobwebs here!

Inform would have allowed an author to create a scenery object called “cobwebs”, and give it aliases like “webs”, “broken”, and “cobs”, so that even if she didn’t want to write a description of them, references to any of those nouns would result in a message along the lines of “You don’t need to refer to that in the course of this game.” That object could appear in multiple rooms, which I’m guessing is the flaw Zork II ran into here, since it clearly knew the word. I should also mention that it’s not just Inform that helps with extra objects, but the more relaxed memory constraints of the .z5 and .z8 formats (not to mention Glulx) compared to the .z3 that Zork II inhabits. Those early Implementors were trying to fit so many clowns into one tiny little car.

In any case, it’s worth a moment to just meditate in gratitude to Graham Nelson and his helpers for creating so many little helpful routines to smooth out the IF experience. Text adventures are forever changed, for the better, as a result of that language and its libraries. (That’s not to take anything away from TADS or Hugo, of course — I’m just thinking of how z-machine games specifically advanced.)

Box cover from Zork II

While the early z-machine had some pretty austere limits, some other limits were built into the Zork II experience by design. I’m thinking here of the inventory limit and the eternally damned light limit, which was even more frustrating here than in the previous game. I dunno, I suppose it’s possible that there was some technical root for the inventory limit, but it sure feels like it’s imposed in the name of some distorted sense of “realism”, a notion which flies out the window in dozens of other places throughout the game. Even if we accept the magic, the fantasy, and the allegedly underground setting (with features that feel less and less undergroundy all the time), there are just many things that make no physical sense, like easily scooping a puddle into a teapot. We can do that but we can’t carry however many objects we want to? (Again, Inform rode to the rescue here with the invention of the sack_object.)

That light limit, though. There’s no technical reason for it, and it caused us to have to restart Zork II TWICE. Not only that, it’s even crueler than its Zork I version, both because there is no permanent source of light in the game (unlike the lovely ivory torch from part 1) and because there are so many ways in which light can be randomly wasted by events beyond the player’s control. Chief among these are the Carousel Room and the wizard.

Zork I had a Round Room too, and it was entirely harmless. The Carousel Room is another story. It’s the kind of thing that sounds like a fun way to confound players, and it is, but in the case of my playthrough with Dante, we didn’t defeat it until very late in our time with the game — probably about the 75% mark of the time we spent on the game overall. That means a lot of our transcripts consist of us trying to go a direction, failing, trying again, failing, rinse, repeat, all the time ticking through that light limit, since of course all the rooms involved are dark. And it’s not as if the game makes it obvious what or where the puzzle to stop the room even is.

By itself, this direction-scrambling behavior would be quite annoying. When coupled with the fact that our light source is on an unalterable timer, it’s infuriating. Now add to that an NPC who can come along and waste your time with spells like “Float”, “Freeze”, or “Feeble”, all the time wasting yet more light, and you have one deeply frustrating game mechanic. This is that hallmark of early text games, where forced restarts were seen as adding to the “challenge.” A challenge to one’s patience, certainly. As before, Dante sat out those replay sessions.

>EXAMINE WIZARD

Since we’ve arrived at the topic, let’s talk about the Wizard of Frobozz. As has been extensively documented, Zork began life as a mainframe game, too large to fit into the microcomputers of its day, so when its implementors formed Infocom to sell it on the home PC market, they had to split up the mainframe game into pieces. That meant that the nemesis of the original game, the thief, appeared and was dispatched in the first installment of the home-version trilogy.

The thief was compelling. He could pop into your world at the most inconvenient times and create havoc, but you also couldn’t finish the game without him. With him gone in the first game, who would serve as the new adversary? Enter the Wizard. Dante was excited the first time the Wizard showed up — “It’s the title!” he said. The Wizard is a compelling character too — unpredictable like the thief but with a much larger variety of actions. He can cause a wide range of effects, but sometimes he screws up and doesn’t cause anything at all. Other times, he thinks better of meddling, and instead “peers at you from under his bushy eyebrows.”

When the wizard would show up, and the game would unexpectedly print out a stack of new text, our pulses would quicken, thinking that we’d stumbled onto something exciting. This effect reminded me to tell Dante about the days of external floppy drives — when I first played Zork II, the entire game couldn’t fit in the computer’s memory, so whenever something exciting was going to happen, the game would pause and the disk would spin up, so that the new data could be read into memory before it was displayed to the player. The excitement that accompanied that little light and whir — for instance, when leading the dragon to the glacier — was equal to any thrill I’ve subsequently gotten from a video game.

Map from Zork II

Of course, in the case of the wizard, it would turn out that nothing cool was happening. In fact it was just the opposite — we were generally about to get stymied in some amusing but nevertheless aggravating way. The wizard obviously gets more frustrating as he keeps repeating and repeating, but the variety and comedy in his spells, not to mention that sometimes he fails completely or casts something you don’t hear, really helps temper the annoyance. That said, this game is rich enough to encourage a flow state, and when the Wizard shows up to somehow block your progress, it really disrupts that flow.

Those blockages are ultimately detrimental to the game, on a level I doubt its authors were even thinking about. Parser IF is full of pauses — an indefinite amount of time can pass in between each prompt. However, the player is in control of these pauses’ length, and when we’re barreling through a game, either replaying old stuff to get somewhere or carried on the wings of inspiration, the pauses hardly feel like pauses at all. It’s more like an animated conversation. When the Wizard comes along, though, he’s a party-crasher who grinds that conversation to a halt. Suddenly we are being forced to pause, and cycle through more pauses to get through the pause.

Perhaps in some games, such a forced break would create contemplation, or an opportunity to step back and think of the bigger perspective. That wasn’t the case in Zork II, at least not for us. It just felt like our conversation had been interrupted, and we had to wait for the intruder to go away before we could continue having fun. This feels qualitatively different from the thief, whose arrival would shift the tension into another register, and whose departure may have resulted in loss of possessions, but never in paralysis that simply drained precious turns from an implacable timer.

On the other hand, the wizard has some excellent advantages over the thief. Infocom didn’t make the wizard part of the solution to a puzzle, the way the thief was, since that would have been redundant. In Zork I, the thief would foul up your plans, and had to be eliminated (though not too soon) in order to progress. Instead of this, Zork II themes its entire late game around fouling up the wizard’s plans. This conveys the sense that unlike the thief, the wizard has a separate agenda, one that isn’t centered around the player. That adds a small but significant layer of story to this game that isn’t present in its predecessor.

The way we frustrate the wizard is by getting into his lair, and doing so is one of the game’s most satisfying puzzles. The locked, guarded door to the lair starts with an arresting image: “At the south end of the room is a stained and battered (but very strong-looking) door. […] Imbedded in the door is a nasty-looking lizard head, with sharp teeth and beady eyes. The eyes move to watch you approach.” Getting past this door means disabling both the lizard and the lock, and each requires solving multiple layers of puzzles. For the lizard, it’s solving the riddle room, then finding your way to the pool, then figuring out how to drain it. For the key, it’s getting rid of the dragon, then rescuing the princess, then figuring out that the princess should be followed to the unicorn.

Then, of course, there’s the step of determining that the key and the candies are the necessary ingredients for the door. We tried many things before that! (In the process, we found one of the weirdest Infocom bugs I’ve ever seen — more about that in a moment.) And yet, even after solving it, we didn’t even have half the points! Experiences like this are what make Zork II feel so rich. Layering of puzzles, and then opening up an even bigger vista when they interlock, makes for a thrilling player experience.

Okay, so as promised, the weird bug with the lizard door:

Guarded Room
This room is cobwebby and musty, but tracks in the dust show that it has seen visitors recently. At the south end of the room is a stained and battered (but very strong-looking) door. To the north, a corridor exits.
Imbedded in the door is a nasty-looking lizard head, with sharp teeth and beady eyes. The eyes move to watch you approach.

>look through mouth
You can't look inside a blast of air.

>examine air
There's nothing special about the blast of air.

A blast of air??? What in the world is this? Dante and I never figured it out. There’s never a blast of air anywhere in the normal course of gameplay that I can find. Yet there it is in the Guarded Room, invisible but waiting to be found, apparently as a synonym for “mouth”. It gives all the usual stock responses — e.g. “I don’t think the blast of air would agree with you” as an answer to “EAT AIR”, but is simply inexplicable. Stumbling across it was one of the weirder moments I’ve ever had with an Infocom game.

There were some other amusing bugs as well:

>put hand in window
That's easy for you to say since you don't even have the pair of hands.

>roll up newspaper
You aren't an accomplished enough juggler.

>throw bills at curtain
You hit your head against the stack of zorkmid bills as you attempt this feat.

>put flask in passage
Which passage do you mean, the tunnel or the way?

We played the version of the game released in Masterpieces of Infocom — at the time that compilation was released, Zork II was 14 years old, and had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The fact that these bugs remain is a consolation to every IF author who eventually abandons a game, its final bugs unsquashed.

Screenshot from the opening screen of Zork II

>EXAMINE PUZZLES

Blast of air notwithstanding, that lizard door isn’t the only great puzzle in Zork II. The hot air balloon is another all-time winner. Figuring out the basket, receptacle, and cloth is fun, but once the balloon inflates, its ability to travel within the volcano feels magical. That balloon/volcano combo is one of the most memorable moments in the entire trilogy, and the whole section — including the bomb, the books, and the way it ties locations together — is a wonderful set piece.

The dragon puzzle is another great one. For us, it wasn’t so much a “How can we lead the dragon to the glacier” as it was a “Whoa, the dragon is following us. Where can we go?” I quite like that Zork II allows both of these routes to arrive at a solution. The placemat/key puzzle, while less flexible, is brilliant too, though it feels rooted in a time when people would have seen keyholes that a) could be looked through and b) might have keys left in them. Such a real-world experience was simply not in Dante’s frame of reference. In fact, I remember struggling with that puzzle when I was a kid, too — my dad stepped in and helped me with it, possibly aided by having lived in the kind of house where this could be a legitimate solution to an actual problem.

There are also some lovely structural choices in Zork II. The sphere collecting and placement is a great midgame — getting each one is exciting, and putting them on the stands feels appropriately climactic for the end of the second act. Similarly, the demon is a good creative variation on Zork I‘s trophy case, one who offers a marvelous sense of possibility once he’s satisfied.

We tried a variety of things with his wish-granting power, some rewarded and some not. We focused at one point on the topiary, one of the most enticing red herrings in the trilogy. We kept thinking there must be something to do with it. But “demon, destroy topiary” and “demon, disenchant bushes” got us nowhere. On the other hand, “demon, kill cerberus” was rewarded with comedy, if not progress:

“This may prove taxing, but we’ll see. Perhaps I’ll tame him for a pup instead.” The demon disappears for an instant, then reappears. He looks rather gnawed and scratched. He winces. “Too much for me. Puppy dog, indeed. You’re welcome to him. Never did like dogs anyway… Any other orders, oh beneficent one?”

Our first successful try was “demon, lift menhir”, which certainly got us where we needed to go, but much more wondrous was the notion of the demon granting us the wizard’s wand. Several times, Zork II had given us that wonderful IF experience of a broad new vista opening in response to overcoming some obstacle — the balloon and volcano is a prime example, as are the riddle and the Alice areas. When we obtained the wand, it felt like another whole range of possibility opened up. This sense eventually shrank, of course, but it didn’t fully go away either. For one thing, just the ability to “fluoresce” things and end our light source torture felt like a miracle. Of course, it screwed us up for the final puzzle, but more about that a bit later.

We also tried “demon, explain bank”, which didn’t work, but I sure wish it would have. As had many adventurers before us, we struggled mightily with the Bank of Zork. We eventually blundered around enough to get through it, but at no point did we feel a flash of insight about it, or an epiphany of understanding. I hesitate to call this an underclued puzzle. I think it’s just bad — maybe the worst puzzle in the trilogy. Dave Lebling later revealed that even other Infocommers couldn’t keep it straight.

The oddly-angled rooms are another infamous Zork II puzzle, in this case infamous for requiring knowledge of baseball in a way that excluded non-Americans. I contend, though, that this isn’t even the worst part of the puzzle. Even if you do understand baseball, and even if you do make the connection between those rooms and a baseball diamond, the puzzle is still unreasonably hard to solve. Say somebody told you in advance that this is a baseball-themed puzzle, and that to solve it you’d have to traverse through the rooms like you’re running the bases. What would you do? If you’re anything like me, you’d envision the typical diagram of a baseball diamond. It looks like this — the first hit on a Google image search for “baseball diamond”:

Diagram of a baseball diamond

If you conceive this diagram as an IF map, the pitcher’s mound is north of home plate, and the other bases extend in cardinal directions from the mound. So starting at home plate, to run the bases, you’d go: NE, NW, SW, SE. Right?

Well Zork II, for reasons I don’t understand, tips the diamond on its side. To run the oddly-angled bases, you have to pretend that home plate is west of the pitcher’s mound, and therefore travel SE, NE, NW, SW. That reorientation delineates the difference between “Oh, ha, it’s a baseball diamond!” and “How in the hell is this a baseball diamond?” So take heart non-Americans (and Americans who don’t know the first thing about baseball) — that “inside baseball” knowledge isn’t nearly as helpful as you might think.

The other puzzle that really stymied us was the riddle. For those who haven’t played in a while, the riddle is this:

What is tall as a house,
round as a cup,
and all the king’s horses
can’t draw it up?

This was an interesting one for me to observe. I remember solving it quite readily when I played Zork II as a kid. For whatever reason, the words just clicked for me. Dante, on the other hand, really grappled with it. He took about thirty different guesses over the course of our playthrough before I started feeding him hints. The guesses fell into a few different categories:

    • Contrived answers: a gigantic egg, an osmium sphere (because osmium is so dense)
    • Jokey reference answers: the Boston Mapparium (an enclosing stained-glass map globe that he learned about from Ken Jennings), an enemy city support pylon (referencing The City We Became by his fave author N.K. Jemisin), a geode (from the same author’s Broken Earth trilogy)
    • Logical guesses, albeit not very Zorky ones: power pole, pipe, subway
    • References to this game or the previous one: rainbow, tree, menhir, dragon, xyzzy, the letter F, barrow, glacier, carousel, lava tube, gazebo, cerberus, balloon, hot air balloon, cave, carousel room, mine, coal mine
    • Just off-the-wall pitches: hill fort (a Celtic thing inspired by “barrow”), tentacle, squid, octopus

Finally I started hinting around pretty heavily to think about holes in the ground, but even then he said “hole”, “bore hole”, and “quarry” before he got to “oil well”, which wasn’t even the game’s intended answer but which still provoked the success response because it contained the word “well”.

Riddles have a big risk/reward proposition as an IF puzzle. If you solve one, you feel so chuffed and clever. But if you don’t solve it, you may just be stuck, especially in the absence of any other hinting mechanism. Perhaps in the days where players were willing to sit with stuckness for extended periods of time, the calculus was a little different, but now puzzles like this flirt with ragequit responses, which I would argue has turned into a failure on the game’s part.

The final puzzle of Zork II felt like a mixed bag to us. It’s intriguingly different from Zork I, which basically led you to the ending after you’d deposited all the treasures. In Zork II, you can get all the points but not be finished. Indeed, the response to “SCORE” at this point is:

Your score would be 400 (total of 400 points), in 753 moves.
This score gives you the rank of Master Adventurer, but somehow you don’t feel
done.

There’s one more puzzle to solve, and for us it was difficult enough to require a hint, something we’d managed to avoid for the rest of the game. Nevertheless, we ended up satisfied, feeling that it was tough but fair — essentially it requires being lightless, something that willingly surrenders in the battle we’d been fighting the whole game. We completely missed the hint — a fairly obscure phrasing on a can of grue repellent — and therefore floundered.

For us, the barrier to solving this puzzle was the flip side of the sense of possibility that the wand allows. For example, the ability to make things fluoresce with the wand so fascinated (and relieved) us that we never walked in there without light. Our continued frustration with light limits also made this behavior very enticing. On top of that, it seemed like no coincidence that “Feel Free” was a double-F, like a more powerful version of the wizard’s spells. Oh the number of places where we pointed the wand and incanted “Feel Free”, to no avail. On the other hand, having solved this puzzle with hints prepped us to solve on our own a very similar puzzle in Enchanter, but that’s a topic for another post.

I think I’ve spent more time in this post criticizing Zork II than I have singing its praises, so it may be surprising when I say that this is my favorite game of the trilogy. I have plenty of affection for parts 1 and 3, but to me this is where the best parts of Zork fully jelled. The humor works wonderfully, the imagery is fantastic, and the structure mixes richness and broadness in a way that makes for wonderful memories of gaming excitement. And sure, its bad puzzles are bad, but its good puzzles are great — deeply satisfying and marvelously layered. Zork I established the premise, and Zork III deconstructed it, but Zork II fulfilled it, and in the process provided me with many happy hours that I loved revisiting with Dante and his fresh eyes.

About the Infocom >RESTART Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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