The Lurking Horror [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>EXAMINE STONE

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

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

Cover to The Lurking Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s good for a chill.

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

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

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

>ANALYZE PUZZLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>SEARCH IMPLEMENTATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

>exit
Please use compass directions instead.

>out
You can't go that way.

>disembark
You are now on your feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moonmist [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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

>SEARCH FOR GAY CHARACTER

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

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

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

>SMILE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover image from Moonmist

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

“Dimwit!” she cries with outflung arms.

Other amusing moments:

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

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

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

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

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

I’m watching you… OCEAN.

>SEARCH FOR DESCRIPTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

>x rhino
You can see nothing special inside it.

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

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

>LOOK THROUGH GAME

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

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

>turn on lantern
Okay, it is now on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishbringer [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Wishbringer
[This review contains many major spoilers for Wishbringer, medium-level spoilers for Beyond Zork, and some details that might technically be considered spoilers for Trinity and other Zork games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Brian Moriarty is responsible for only three Infocom games, but what a trio it is. There’s Trinity, often hailed as the best game in the entire catalog, and pretty much always in the consensus conversation about the cream of Infocom’s crop. There’s Beyond Zork, which in many ways is a hot mess but which was also one of the most ambitious Infocom titles ever, in the ways it attempted to improve the text adventure interface and marry the IF tradition to the emerging CRPG. Then there’s Wishbringer, Moriarty’s debut and a charming work of quasi-Zorkian lore that mostly succeeds in its attempt to provide a friendly doorway into the world of interactive fiction.

>CONNECT THE GAMES

What I didn’t realize, at least not until playing Beyond Zork and Wishbringer in close proximity, is how many threads tie them together. It first occurred to me when we encountered the umbrella. You know the one — its handle is carved like a parrot’s head, I assume in homage to the one in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. Trinity gets cred for the way it references Travers, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, and others, but this particular Travers reference predates Trinity by a year. I saw it in Wishbringer and thought, “Is this umbrella in every Moriarty Infocom game?” Yep, sure is.

That’s nothing, though, compared to the ties between Wishbringer and Beyond Zork. Look at this:

  • A Magick Shoppe where “a concealed bell tinkles merrily.”
  • For that matter, funky spellings like “magick” and “shoppe”
  • Hellhounds and eldritch vapors
  • A lighthouse
  • A cat that you can pick up, but which squirms out of your arms in a few turns
  • Anthropomorphic platypi belonging to royal courts
  • A whistle connected with transportation
  • Connections from the fairy tale in the Wishbringer documentation — fields of Frotzen, a coconut of Quendor, hungry Implementors
  • A horseshoe for luck
  • Chocolate in your inventory

Dante and I played these games out of order, but having played through Wishbringer it became clear how much Beyond Zork was in part a project to solidify the connections between Moriarty’s first game and the Zork universe. That said, Wishbringer is clearly a Zork game even without those connections forward. For one thing, it’s got the grues. By this point Dante and I had dressed up like a grue, repelled grues, even become a grue. Wishbringer let us comfort a baby grue and get milk out of a grue fridge — a fittingly adorable grue variation for this beginner’s game.

Even more on-the-nose was the “shimmering trail” to a location called “West of House”, complete with mailbox and leaflet. In keeping with the game’s less-austere tone, this mailbox pops out of the ground and follows you around, like a mute echo of Planetfall‘s Floyd. The game’s messaging is a little muddled around this Zorky callback, though. When we first walk the path, we get a “shock of recognition” upon arriving West of House — seemingly we’ve been here before, and perhaps this mail clerk is even the Zork adventurer somehow? When we leave, though, it says:

As the house disappears into the distance, you get the distinct feeling that, someday, you will pass this way again.

Which is it, Wishbringer? Were we there before or will we be again? I guess, given the number of games that have quoted that location, both could be true. In fact, Zork Zero, both a future and a past game depending on your perspective, even had its share of ties to Wishbringer — an ever-burning candle, some granola mines, and even the trick of transforming a landscape, at least in its prologue.

>EXPLORE LANDSCAPE. G.

That transforming landscape trick is one of the best things Wishbringer does. Experiencing a landscape, then re-experiencing it after a fundamental change, is a powerful technique in IF, and a fantastic way to create emotional resonances for the player and the character. Steve Meretzky would later take this approach to its apotheosis in A Mind Forever Voyaging, but Moriarty lays wonderful groundwork here.

The cover of Infocom's grey box for Wishbringer. Two hands are cupped around a bright purple light. Text above reads"Through strange, savage zones your way will be shown by the magical stone called WISHBRINGER".

Cleverly, the game’s design forces us to cross Festeron before it transforms, so that we can’t avoid seeing a variety of different locations that will then take on a different cast in Witchville. I wonder, though, if the time limit in the early game serves this design very well. With Mr. Crisp and the game itself urging us to hurry hurry hurry, we’re led to not only take the most direct path, but to rush through locations without noticing their features.

I think I’d rather the game had made the Magick Shoppe a little harder to find, so that we must traverse and pay close attention to more of Festeron, and therefore feel the creepiness of its change all the more strongly. In addition, sometimes a message in Witchville will clearly reference a change from Festeron, but if the player hasn’t visited that location prior to the switch, that message pretty much goes to waste. An example is the broken speaker in the church when you pick up the candle.

I shockingly failed to mention in my Spellbreaker review that it was the very first Infocom game that Dante and I played in this entire project that didn’t force us to restart. Hooray for Lebling and his excellent design, breaking away from one of the most tedious IF traditions! I mention this because Dante and I voluntarily restarted Wishbringer due to the time limit discussed above. It wasn’t that the game became unwinnable without this restart, but that we wanted to experience more of Festeron so that we could better appreciate Witchville.

We volunteered for something else, too. Wishbringer, as I said, is a game for newcomers to interactive fiction, and therefore tries not to be too forbidding in its puzzles. Consequently, many of the game’s puzzles can be solved either the old-fashioned way, or alternately via the magic(k) wishes of the title stone. Dante and I, playing our ninth Zorky game, felt like experts at this point, so we set out to solve the game without using any wishes at all.

It’s a sign of Wishbringer‘s craft that this path felt challenging but not daunting. We were able to complete the game in nine sessions, ranging from 30 to 90 minutes each, and the one time we got really stuck it was our own fault, because we’d failed to take a pretty obvious action. (For the record, we didn’t read the love note once it was out of its envelope.) Once we got over that hurdle, it was pretty smooth sailing to the endgame.

>WISH FOR MULTIPLE SOLUTIONS

I don’t have the greatest sense of how various tropes and techniques developed in 1980s interactive fiction outside of Infocom — for that you’d have to turn to Aaron Reed or Jimmy Maher. But at least within the Infocom canon, Wishbringer was the first to thoroughly integrate a sensibility of multiple puzzle solutions. Sure, these date back as far as Zork I, though that game’s version of “multiple solutions” generally involved one that made sense and one that was a cutesy (or nonsensical) magic word. Its commitment to multiple solutions was as haphazard as the rest of its aesthetic.

Wishbringer, on the other hand, puts multiple solutions at the core of its design, and the result is a world that not only feels more welcoming to beginners but also feels richer and more real. After all, we don’t have wish-granting stones in our world, but we generally do have multiple approaches available when confronted with a problem, so when a game world offers multiple paths through the same barrier, it’s easier to believe in that world, even when some of the paths are magical. Let’s not forget — some of the problems are magical too!

Even better, just as the protagonist has multiple ways of solving problems, so too do the antagonists have multiple ways of causing problems. Wishbringer is the rare mid-80’s game in which enemies learn from their mistakes. Find a hole that lets you out of the prison cell? Well the next time you get thrown into that cell, that hole has been patched with concrete. Escape again? Nevermind — they’ll just throw you into the ocean.

The opening screen of Wishbringer, including a prompt preceded with "Okay, what do you want to do now?"

Playing a beginner’s game as experts, it was hard for Dante and I to judge just how easily an IF newbie would accustom to it, but we could certainly see that Wishbringer was doing its best to be welcoming. Even beyond the multiple puzzle solutions, there’s friendly text like “Okay, what do you want to do now?” before the first few prompts, gradually tapering off so that it doesn’t become tedious. There’s also this friendly death message:

Looks like the story’s over. But don’t despair! Interactive fiction lets you learn from your mistakes.

We looked at each other after our first time seeing this message, and agreed with a smile that for accuracy’s sake, “lets you” should probably be replaced with “often forces you to”.

Even so, we found Wishbringer a charming experience, and a very pleasant end to our journey through Infocom’s Zork titles. As cat lovers, we especially appreciated that the point of the story is to rescue a cat, and in an even more satisfying way than Beyond Zork had allowed. With nine games down, we had only one remaining in our list, and it would be a new experience for both of us, given that I’d never played it to completion. Moonmist awaits!

Spellbreaker [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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

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

>EXAMINE WRITING AND STRUCTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of the Infocom grey box for Spellbreaker

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

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

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

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

>COMPARE SPELLBREAKER TO D&D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>ANALYZE PUZZLES

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

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

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

>WHAT IS MAGIC?

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

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

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

The final screen from a winning playthrough of Spellbreaker.

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

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

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

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

Escape to New York by Richard Otter [Comp05]

IFDB page: Escape to New York
Final placement: 11th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had to swim through some choppy technical waters to even get to this game. Apparently ADRIFT’s latest version isn’t backwards-compatible with games generated by previous versions, or at least it didn’t appear so — the interpreter squawked something about generator libraries at me, giving me an instruction it wasn’t capable of letting me carry out. (I’m guessing the instruction was for authors?) So back I went to a previous version, which required a full windows install and when run complained about how it didn’t have the right permissions to update the registry (surely something the installer could have taken care of?) Anyway, I fought through that — let’s chalk it up to me trying to play this game 16 years after it was released, and move on.

Escape to New York has an intriguing albeit somewhat odd premise. You play a thief who has boarded the Titanic. Now, the game is extremely coy about actually acknowledging the fact that you’re on the Titanic — the name isn’t mentioned anywhere in any of my game transcripts or the supporting materials. In the game, it’s just a big fancy ship that happens to leave Southampton for New York on April 10, 1912. Oh, and it also sinks. Hey, just like the Titanic! I’m not sure why the game is so reluctant about naming the ship — you can even find a pamphlet that tells you a million facts about it (perhaps somewhat anachronistically expressed in metres and metric tons?]… but not the ship’s name. A strange choice. Another strange choice: it names its protagonist “Jack Thompson”, which is really awfully close to Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Jack Dawson” from the massively popular 1997 film. Why?

In any case, placing the PC on the Titanic creates a weird sense of dramatic irony — we know the ship’s going to sink, but he doesn’t, and therefore it’s a little odd to be running around trying to liberate loot from the passengers on a ship you know is doomed. Apparently the game’s idea of a successful run is to steal as much as possible and make it to a lifeboat, but it’s not clear from the outset that this is your goal. I kept expecting a big twist to happen where suddenly you forget about being a thief and just try to make it out alive, but nope. The game’s insistence on petty goals when the player knows a life-or-death situation is coming made for an offputting dissonance.

The other offputting part is the underimplementation. Some aspects of the game are quite lovingly crafted — it provides lots of good descriptions and creates a fine sense of place, but just as often it frustrated me with its seemingly arbitrary requirements and boundaries. For example, the first section of the game requires you to wander around the ship’s corridors until you find the mailroom. Fair enough, but sometimes travel directions are closed off with the message, “Something tells you that wandering around the corridors of the ship is not the best use of your time.” Well, maybe not, but it certainly is what the game requires! You can’t succeed without doing that, so “something tells me” the PC’s intuition is a little off in that regard.

There are also several learn-by-dying or learn-by-undo puzzles scattered throughout the game. You might enter a room in which someone suddenly pounces on you based on something you’re wearing or carrying, with no warning whatsoever. In another section of the game, you require a disguise to get past a watchful policeman. The only ways to get through this are to either try it and fail with a game-ending message, or to finally acquire enough disguise-ish items that the game tells you, “That lot should make a good disguise.” Mind, it’s given messages before about individual items, saying that they’d make a good disguise on their own, only to snatch the rug out when you try to actually use them. It seems to me that if the PC is capable of assessing how complete a disguise needs to be, he should also be capable of assessing whether or not to assay an attempt at passing a policeman with an incomplete disguise, but the game provides no such internal monologue.

At some point I got annoyed enough with this bait-and-switch behavior that I switched over to using the walkthrough, and once I did I started having a reasonably good time. For one thing, it helped me understand what sort of playthrough the game had in mind — run around gleefully nicking stuff and stuffing it in a suitcase, so that you can escape to boat with your big prize (a stolen painting you connived to get into the mailroom) and a bunch of other loot as well. Strip away the historical scaffolding and it’s essentially a Zorky treasure hunt, albeit with far less clever puzzles — you mostly get stuff via LOOK ON [object] or LOOK UNDER [object].

I also found myself really appreciating ADRIFT’s autocomplete feature, which surprised me a bit. I’m sure it’s been at least 15 years since I played an ADRIFT game, and having recently reposted all my previous comp reviews, my memories of it are not kind. This time, though, I enjoyed the way that its autocomplete let me type just one or two letters of verbs and nouns, really smoothing the playing experience. It was also a useful (though not entirely reliable) way to see if the game had implemented something — it yielded some false negatives, but if you saw it autocomplete something, you knew it was in the game somewhere. It did have a downside, sometimes anticipating nonsensical input and leading me to accidentally enter commands like “put parcel in baggage slip” when I meant “put parcel in bag”, but overall it was a feature I found myself wishing were in other games.

Overall this was a pretty flawed game, with mild issues in premise, writing, and implementation, but once I allowed myself the walkthrough I found it fairly enjoyable, and I appreciated the chance to be in a story that takes such an unusual approach to the hoary set-piece of “You are on the Titanic.” Once I knew it was a treasure hunt, I could gleefully romp through the ship ripping off valuables, in hopes that me, my giant suitcase, and my stolen painting could end up safe on a lifeboat while the rest of my luckless fellow passengers scrambled for their mere lives.

Rating: 7.4

Once and Future by G. Kevin Wilson [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2002.]

IFDB Page: Once and Future

Swords and Sledgehammers

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

If we wanted to make a short list of the people who had a major impact on the course of 1990’s interactive fiction, who would we include? Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts, and Kent Tessman would have to be in, for creating the major development systems (and, in Nelson’s case, a couple of major games) of the decade. Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin would make the list, for contributing some of the most important games of that period and, in Plotkin’s case, for crucial technical innovations as well. We can’t forget Volker Blasius, Dave Baggett, and David Kinder for founding and maintaining the IF Archive. And there’s one more name we couldn’t leave off: Gerry Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson.

Kevin contributed lots of things, all of which have their roots in his boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm for IF. He founded SPAG, the IF review webzine that I now edit. He organized and ran the first IF competition, and shepherded it through its first few years, as it became one of the most dominant forces in amateur IF, as well as one of the engines powering the IF Renaissance we currently enjoy. He labored to make Activision realize the value of the Infocom properties they own, and as a result brought some fascinating internal Infocom documents into public view, and brought paychecks and publication to the winners of the first IF Comp. He gave us one of our legends, too. I refer, of course, to Avalon. Avalon was the game that Kevin announced in 1993, estimating it’d take a month or two to finish. Two months turned into six, into a year, into many many years. The game seemed to be Kevin’s bête noire, the place where his enthusiasm was an anchor instead of a sail. That enthusiasm led him to keep expanding the game, perfecting it, adding more and more, while at the same time hyping it relentlessly in his every Usenet post, of which there were quite a few indeed. “Avalon” became synonymous with “overhyped vaporware.”

Then, in 1998, it happened. Avalon was released, albeit retitled Once And Future (OAF), since the name “Avalon” was already trademarked by another game. The trademark mattered, because the game was released commercially, the first pure text adventure to claim that distinction since the Infocom era. The company behind this venture was Cascade Mountain Publishing (CMP), run by Mike Berlyn, former Infocom Implementor. OAF was CMP’s flagship product, a thirty-dollar game touted as the return of “quality interactive fiction.” The story from here gets short and sad, for CMP founders rather quickly and tanks quietly, in the process apparently torpedoing the release of the Inform Designer’s Manual (4th ed.) for a good long time. While sales figures for OAF have never been released, it clearly never took off. Finally, on April 1st of 2001 (with no apparent irony), OAF is released as freeware.

I was one of the people who bought the original, thirty-dollar package. In fact, due to a CMP blunder, I actually received two copies, the second of which I gave away as a prize in last year’s comp. But for whatever reason, I never quite got around to playing it until now. When I finally did play the game, the weight of its history and its hype couldn’t help but burden the experience. It’s impossible to say how I would have viewed OAF had it been released humbly, for free, by an unknown author, but I think my reaction would have been quite a bit different. As it is, I find it difficult not to make this review a laundry list of faults. This game, upon which so much hope was riding, about which we heard so much and for which we waited so long, is far from perfect. In addition, as a commercial product it begs comparison not only to its contemporaries, the graphical adventures of the late Nineties, but also to its Infocom predecessors. Whether these are fair comparisons I don’t know, but OAF suffers by them. In the light of these considerations, I hope to make my criticisms as constructive as possible, and to remember the invaluable contributions of its author, the obstacles that stood in the way of its creation, and the gaming era from which it originated.

In that spirit, I want to focus on some of the things I loved about Once And Future. First of all, that’s a great title, far better than “Avalon.” OAF, for those of you new enough not to already know, is the story of Frank Leandro. Frank is a young soldier in Vietnam who, after sacrificing his life to save his friends, finds himself entrusted by King Arthur to journey through the fairy-tale realm of Avalon, collecting mythically resonant items like Excalibur and the Holy Grail and, finally, traveling through time to prevent a Great American Tragedy. In other words, he travels to the land of Once Upon a Time, at the behest of the man T.H. White dubbed the Once And Future King, in order to obtain One chance to save the Future. Where “Avalon” was a flat description of the landscape, “Once And Future” evokes the game’s genre, its themes, and its literary ambitions.

Those ambitions are important too. Kevin started this game in 1993, a time when serious themes and literary content were the exception rather than the rule in text adventures. He used a heavily characterized PC in the face of rather overwhelming IF tradition to the contrary, and injected that PC’s own distinctive voice into NPC interactions well before Varicella and its ilk. Come to that, he used a gimmick in the very first few moves of the game that feels fresh to us even now, at least according to Shrapnel and No Time To Squeal. I’m not the first to observe that this game would have been considered quite revolutionary indeed had it been released in 1994 (as originally planned). Still, the point bears attention. I suppose it’s the IF writer’s curse that because we most often work solo and our work is so demanding and detailed, there is a tremendous gap between conceiving an idea and realizing it in its finished form, and during that gap any number of things may come along to steal our thunder. It’s no wonder that some IF authors hate to see concepts blithely discussed; I’m of the mind that execution is just as important as concept, but it’s got to sting to see your game’s ideas called old hat, when in fact they may have been stunningly original at the time you first began work.

The best part about OAF, though, is this: it’s fun. The game is genuinely fun for long stretches at a time. It’s a rollicking text adventure of the old school, offering wonderfully open-ended design and puzzles that challenge the mind and care little for how arbitrary they ultimately are. Once And Future‘s love for the Infocom tradition shines through continuously and, at times, the game’s sheer scope and its cleverness manage to hit the same high notes as its predecessors. As literary as it may aspire to be, OAF is a game first and foremost, and, although plenty of critical attention has been lavished on its story and writing, to me the real star of the show is the puzzles. [I’ll be naming several of these by way of example for those who have already played the game, but I don’t think it’ll spoil anything for those of you who haven’t.] There are lots and lots of them, and most of them quite enjoyable. Of course, many of them are rather easy as well, which for me coincides neatly with enjoyability. Freeing Merlin, obtaining Excalibur, and helping the old man are all examples of that pleasant sort of IF puzzle in which there’s an action that makes sense, I try it, it works, and I am made happy. Even some of the tougher ones provided me with time well-spent, like the diamond puzzle and the earlier parts of the Mountain King puzzle.

When the puzzles did go wrong, it often wasn’t because they were too difficult, but rather because the series of steps necessary to execute the solution was long and tedious. A perfect example here is the braziers — the concept is straightforward enough, and a helpful mnemonic is even provided (a very nice touch), but actually carrying out this concept entails a great deal of tedious tromping back and forth and mucking about with fiddly liquid commands. The problem here is that the fun part of puzzle-solving is the actual figuring out — the rest is just follow-through, and if made sufficiently involved, becomes drudgery. The lesson for designers is to keep the emphasis on the former, and make the latter fairly streamlined, or at the very least entertaining in its own right. The worst offender in this category was the business with the blue paste — there isn’t even any figuring out involved, just a lot of mind-numbing inspection of nearly-identical objects.

Another area where the puzzles run into difficulty is bugginess. I suppose that in the technical sense there aren’t any game-stopping bugs in OAF, but having the game actually fail to respond to a command its documentation specifically recommends (ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS) comes close enough in my book. In addition, the game isn’t free from guess-the-verb problems. In fact, the particular final puzzle I encountered (there are a variety of them, depending on the character’s inventory in the final scene) had me so stumped that I actually went onto ifMUD, found somebody who had a hint book, and determined that I had in fact figured out the right action (an action which was rather nonsensical in itself), but the game hadn’t recognized any of the several commands I’d used to get it across. Once provided with the right verb, I was finally able to reach the game’s ending. It’s just the sort of problem that’s bound to plague a large game, but that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

Okay, clearly I’ve gotten to the part where I discuss OAF‘s flaws, so let me cut straight to its biggest one: the writing. Now, let me be clear about this. It’s not that OAF is poorly written in the way that a Rybread Celsius game is poorly written, or in the way that the games that occupy the bottom third of the comp standings tend to be poorly written. On the contrary, most of OAF‘s prose is clean, error-free and basically serviceable. However, it is punctuated with serious problems nonetheless, not the least of which is its plethora of overwhelmingly maudlin, trite moments. Here’s a sample, from a scene in which Frank sees a Vietnam buddy vegetating in a hospital bed:

>X MARK
"Is this Mark?" you think, as you look into the vacant, staring eyes. His mouth hangs slack, and there are no signs of intelligence. Gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes. He lies there, wasted and immobile, a monument to man's folly.

Lines like “a monument to man’s folly” and “gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes” are, I’m guessing, supposed to evoke goosebumps and a solemn nod, but all they elicit from me are groans. I don’t think it’s that I’m so jaded and hardbitten — rather, the lines take a redundant, sentimental shortcut around genuine emotion. I’ve already been told that Mark’s eyes are “vacant” and “staring” — does the point that they’re not sparkling really need to be made? Similarly, making stentorian statements like “a monument to man’s folly” short-circuits any possibility of my reaching that sort of conclusion on my own, and inclines me instead to see the narrative voice as irritatingly grandiose. [By the way, I’ve no doubt that this sort of thing has shown up in my own writing from time to time, and I groan when I see it there, too.]

When the writing isn’t being overdramatic, it frequently strays into cutesiness. In fact, one of the very first things a player is likely to see (because it’s in Frank’s initial inventory) is a candy bar object called “Mr. Mediocrebar.” In case you’re not familiar with American candy, this is a jokey reference to a Hershey product called “Mr. Goodbar.” The problem with this isn’t whether the candy bar ever serves a purpose — even useless objects have their place in IF. The problem is with the name. Calling the candy “Mr. Mediocrebar”, a name that no actual candy would ever have, immediately undercuts mimesis. It’s as if the author is playfully nudging us in the ribs and saying, “Hey there, this is all for fun, just a game. None of it’s real, and you certainly don’t need to take it seriously.” This sort of approach might work in a light farce, but it jars horribly against the somber Vietnam setting and the Big Themes to come. Furthermore, because the candy bar may well remain in the player’s inventory for the entirety of the game, its name has this deleterious effect over and over again. Not to mention the fact that it makes players think of the word “mediocre” throughout the game, which is hardly desirable.

Worst of all, though, is what I call the Sledgehammer Writing. Here’s an example: the player is in the throne room of a mysterious ruler called The Straw Man. This ruler sits silently and impassively on his throne. While in the room, Frank hears someone approaching, and hides. It’s a woman who tells the Straw Man her problem; he doesn’t respond, and by talking it out, she solves it on her own, and leaves. Then this happens again. Then it happens yet again, and this time, as she cries on his lap,

out of the corner of your eye, you notice the first sign of movement from the Straw Man that you’ve seen. His arm slips from the armrest of the throne, coming to rest on her shoulder. Reaching up to grasp his arm, she continues to cry for a little while before regaining control of her emotions.

Okay, so we probably know what’s coming, right? Sure we do:

But when the Straw Man’s arm slipped from the armrest, you noticed something. The Straw Man is just a plain old scarecrow.

Dum dum DAAA! But wait, there’s more:

Kind of funny, really, that the best ruler, the wisest person that you’ve ever seen, turns out to be a dummy.

Okay, I get the point. But still more awaits:

But maybe it says something too. People don’t always want or need advice, sometimes they just want someone to listen to them, and hold them.

WHAM WHAM WHAM! HERE IS THE MESSAGE I AM GIVING YOU! It’s as if the game has so little trust in its readers that after making its point subtly, then blatantly, it feels that it still must spell the whole thing out in painfully obvious terms, just to make sure we get it. This sort of thing isn’t just cringeworthy, it’s insulting; OAF would have been so much stronger had a little restraint been shown in scenes like this.

Finally, sometimes the writing just suffers from a simple lack of clarity. For instance, at a point in the game when Frank has been transformed into a mouse, reading a magical scroll gives this response:

Your head begins to spin as you read the scroll. Your hands start to glow red and twist into a more human shape. You briefly ponder what would happen if you were to become a full-sized human inside this mouse hole. It’s not a pretty thought. The scroll quietly dissolves to ash.

When I read this, I thought: Uh-oh, I’m about to die. I’d better UNDO, then get out of this mousehole before I read the scroll. Problem was, I couldn’t leave the mousehole without dying. In frustration, I sought a hint from Google and finally realized that I had been misled — the above message wasn’t presaging that I was about to be crushed, but rather that a several-turns-long growing process was beginning and that I needed to exit the mousehole before the process completed.

Speaking of that mousehole, it’s a good instance of one of OAF‘s primary qualities: its expansiveness. This quality is both a strength and a weakness, in my view. Certainly in terms of the game as a whole, it’s a strength — one of the best things about OAF is how big it is. Unlike the bite-sized IF that dominates current output, this game is a five-course meal. Then again, there are times when the “more is better” approach is a bit more dubious. For instance, hanging on the wall of the initial location is a paper listing “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”, a list that’s twenty-five items long. This little touch adds a bit of authenticity and characterization, but it also presents the player with a large, somewhat jokey wodge of text to read at the beginning of the game (following immediately upon the game’s long and somewhat non-sequitur-ish opening text), slowing down the pace of a scene that otherwise moves very quickly. Then there’s the geographical expansiveness, of which the mousehole is such a perfect example. According to my maps (I made them in GUEMap and have uploaded them to the IF Archive), the underground area of OAF comprises no less than twenty-seven rooms. The only purpose of this area is to provide a couple of puzzles that lead to an item that (along with a different item from another area) lets you solve another puzzle that ultimately yields one of the main necessary items for your final goal. The great majority of these twenty-seven rooms serve no purpose for obtaining that item. They’re just there for… scenery, I guess, or perhaps to make the world feel larger. A couple of them support items that comprise one of the game’s several dangling plot threads, but that’s about it.

I don’t think this approach to IF map design is optimal. A few non-essential rooms here and there can be a good thing, fleshing out the landscape and making the world feel a bit more whole. On the other hand, when the majority of the map seems to be made of non-essential rooms, something is a little out of balance. This happened to me on my first game — I had a puzzle planned out that would require a sandy beach, and it made sense to have several beach locations. In the end I cut the puzzle, but couldn’t quite bear to cut all the locations. Not only had I toiled to produce them, I thought they gave the landscape a greater sense of completeness. Of course, the game was rightly criticized for having a lot of filler rooms, and I learned my first lesson in the importance of pruning. (And judging from the length of this review, I still have quite a few lessons to go in that particular curriculum.) If I were writing that game today, I’d let my descriptions and transitions do a bit more of the space-establishing work, and I’d be less afraid to get rid of things that didn’t really serve the game except as decoration. I can’t help but feel that such an approach would have benefited OAF greatly as well.

Another strangeness about the maps is how gridlike they feel. The game contains several large landscapes, and in most of them, only movement in the cardinal directions is allowed, even though there are no logical barriers to diagonal movement. The locations are apparently evenly spaced from one another, despite the fact that they may represent radical shifts in landscape, so that a beautiful forest might nestle up against a blasted heath, with no apparent transition between the two. The result is that the setting has a very mechanical, unnatural feel, a feel that repeatedly reminds us that we are playing a game rather than traversing a real landscape. Again, whether this works is a matter of context — the grid layout might be great for a science-fiction game where the landscape is supposed to seem rigid and mechanical, but it doesn’t do justice to OAF‘s more natural, outdoorsy setting. There are a few areas in which the map is laid out in a fun, clever way, but these are almost always in the service of a puzzle.

Aside from its maps, OAF has a number of design successes. The game is fairly open-ended, so that a variety of puzzles are usually available at one time. It combines a Zorkish “wide landscape” with lots of Trinity-esque “little areas” by having lots of separate wide landscapes, which gives the game a chaptered feeling without needing formal divisions. The bottlenecks between these areas tend to work pretty smoothly, though I was hugely frustrated at one point — I failed to obtain an item from one area to solve a puzzle in another one, and wasn’t given another chance to do so, forcing me to restore from quite a ways back. Still, that was the only time that the game closed itself off for me, and given the era from which it originated, that’s not too bad.

The design of the story wasn’t quite so elegant. I mentioned dangling plotlines, and there are quite a few of them. I got to the end of the game, and instead of feeling resolution, I said, “That’s it?” For one thing, that ending inserts a sudden romantic subplot that was utterly unbelievable because it hadn’t been developed at all in any of the rest of the game. Moreover, the conclusion left so many questions unanswered about things that happened elsewhere in the game, it felt quite unsatisfying. For example, at one point you have a friendly kitty accompanying you on your travels. Then, in the process of solving a puzzle, that cat becomes lost, and possibly hurt. And you never find out what’s happened to it, or if it’s OK. Designers, don’t DO this! If your story puts an animal or companion in jeopardy, establish its final status before ending the game! The cat is just one example — there’s also stuff down in the mousehole that seems to imply a story, but the story goes nowhere. Instead, that stuff is just sort of there. The line between subplot and background color is a fine one, and OAF crosses it more than once, I think without realizing it’s done so. Subplots need to be resolved by the time the game ends, or else players end up feeling like I did: cheated.

The other problem I had with the story is more philosophical, and I suppose more idiosyncratic. The final quest of the game involves traveling in time to prevent a historical event. It’s an event that actually happened, but according to the game’s version of King Arthur, the world will be doomed if it isn’t changed. To me, this sort of story is wrongheaded. The pieces of our history, both good and bad, are what comprise our current reality, and living in that reality now, I found it hard to swallow King Arthur’s assertion that my world is doomed. In fact, I found it a lot more persuasive to think that Frank was being misled by a demon in holy guise, and was nonplussed [Ed. note: based on the length of this review, I think not!] to see that the game wasn’t going in that direction. The abstract question of whether the world might be better had certain parts of history been changed is an interesting one, to be sure, but I wasn’t at ease getting a protagonist to do something that in all likelihood would have prevented my own birth.

On a technical note, the game hangs together fairly well, especially for a work of such grand scope. It’s only natural that despite the five-year gestation period, this game would have more rough edges than smaller pieces of IF, and indeed it does. There are several times at which OAF gives default responses that don’t make sense. These details probably should have been seen to, but oversights like that are forgivable. Similarly, there were a number of bugs here and there, but nothing overly catastrophic or distracting. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed by the NPCs. After all, this is the game that won the 1998 XYZZY award for Best NPCs, but they all seemed rather thin to me. Mordred, in particular, in spite of being a crucial part of Arthurian iconography, has almost nothing to say, nothing to do, and spends the majority of the game, in Michael Gentry’s words, “just sort of irritably standing around as though waiting for a bus.” Even some of the supposedly more fleshed-out characters, such as Merlin, suffer from serious lacunae in their knowledge. I’ve already mentioned that ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS doesn’t work, despite the documentation’s promise to the contrary. There are also exchanges like this one, which took place in Stonehenge after Frank had seen some strange blue stones:

>ask merlin about stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>ask merlin about blue stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>blue
There's no verb in that sentence!

>ask merlin about blue
Merlin says, "Frank, I'm rather busy right now, can't that wait?"

>ask merlin about bluish stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>merlin, the blue ones, like I JUST $^%$ING SAID
I don't know the word "ones".

Or, similarly, when Frank has an unusual carved blue stone in his inventory.

>show stone to merlin
Which stone do you mean, the carved blue stone, or the flat stone?

>carved
Merlin isn't impressed.

>ask merlin about carved blue stone
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

Thanks a lot Merlin, you’re a big help. There were lots and lots of gaps like that, and to make matters worse, Merlin’s default “I don’t know” message was “Merlin pretends not to hear you.” And you can’t even KILL MERLIN WITH EXCALIBUR.

I spent several weeks playing through Once And Future, and I’m not sorry I did. For one thing, it’s an important part of recent IF history, and for another thing, as I said before, it’s fun. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. I suppose that after the hype, buildup, and fanfare it got, it couldn’t help but be a letdown, at least a little bit. On top of that, it was no doubt to the game’s disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what’s essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it’s impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven’t aged well. The bottom line is that it feels like the work of a beginning writer, one who has promise and may have matured through the process, but whose novice mistakes remain. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing — it most certainly is — but don’t believe the hype.

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

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

IFDB page: Zork

Archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

Interview from InsideADRIFT [Misc]

[I was interviewed by Ken Franklin for the May/June 2004 issue of InsideADRIFT, a fanzine for users of the ADRIFT IF development system. I’ve cleaned up the text and added links as appropriate.]

Interview: Paul O’Brian questioned by KF

This issue’s interviewee is the editor of that vital organ of the IF community, SPAG, a newsletter that packs in loads of news and game reviews. Having started on 15 May 1994, today represents the tenth anniversary of that first issue. That first issue was mostly packed with reviews of some of the games included in the Lost Treasures of Infocom package, with many of the reviews from Stephen Granade. Paul O’Brian has been editor since issue 18.

Paul, thank you very much for agreeing to answer a few questions for InsideADRIFT.

My pleasure — thanks for inviting me!

Q1. I always tend to start with this one. What brought you into the world of interactive fiction (and keeps you here)?

Probably the best and most complete answer to this question is the first editorial I wrote for SPAG, in issue #18. The short version is that after my dad introduced me to Zork in the early Eighties, Infocom became one of my teenage obsessions. Then, in the early Nineties, my interest in IF was reawakened by Activision’s release of the Lost Treasures of Infocom collections. I was discovering the Internet right about the same time, so one of the first searches I did was on “interactive fiction”; that led me to the newsgroups and to the discovery that IF is still alive and thriving, with a whole range of tools allowing people to write works just as good as or better than anything Infocom ever produced. Playing and writing new IF games was a dream come true for me.

As for what keeps me around, I think it’s a combination of things. Certainly, I’m still fascinated with the medium of IF, and I love seeing it continue to grow and evolve. In addition, editing SPAG and writing the Earth And Sky series have proved to be rather tangible commitments to participation in the IF community — even at times when I’ve felt like drifting away, I’ve found myself unwilling to leave SPAG rudderless and my game series incomplete. Finally, the IF community contains some of the most interesting people I’ve encountered in any social sphere. Being around such bright and creative people can feel a little intimidating at times, but it’s so rewarding.

Q2. The SPAG newsletter is a valuable resource for finding a wide range of reviews for the whole community. Does it currently meet the targets that you have for it and do you have more aims for the future?

Heh. “Targets.” I’ve never been inclined to set goals for SPAG, because it would drive me crazy to have specific aims for something that is largely out of my control. My only real goal is to hustle up enough reviews every three months to produce a viable issue of the zine.

Thanks to SPAG’s legions of volunteer contributors, I’ve always been able to reach that goal, though sometimes it’s meant stretching the definition of “viable” a little further than I’m comfortable with.

Remarkably, SPAG has survived for 10 years (as of May 15th, 2004), and that’s only because people continue to be interested enough in its project that they still want to submit and read IF reviews. I’m really not sure what the next ten years will hold for it. I’ll probably hand off the mantle of editorship at some point, though I’m not sure when that will be. In the meantime, I don’t plan any major changes to SPAG — I think it’s working pretty well in its current format, so aside from some possible improvements to the web site or any spiffy new features that occur to me, I’m planning to stay the course.

Q3. Editing a publication that survives on input from others can be stressful. Do you find that people are keen to write or do you have to twist arms regularly to get sufficient content?

You know, I think both are true. I believe that people are quite keen to write in theory. That is, the idea of writing a SPAG review appeals to a lot of people, and that’s why I receive work from such a variety of contributors. However, what’s also true is that people approach IF as a hobby, maybe one of many hobbies occupying their free time. So IF already exists as just a little slice of most people’s time, and when writing a review is a little slice of that IF time, it’s very easily delayed or abandoned. This is perfectly understandable, of course, but what it means is that most people need a little nudge to reignite their interest in writing a review for SPAG. I post these nudges a few weeks before each issue comes out, and I try to make them varied and somewhat entertaining, but ultimately, their purpose in life is just to serve as a little reminder and motivator for anybody with the intention of reviewing a game for SPAG. I think I’d get a lot fewer submissions without those little reminders, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t keen on the idea of writing reviews.

Q4. The interactive fiction community is an odd group, so often supportive yet also often aggressive in their arguments. Do you believe that this is all part of the healthy debate of a lively group or unnecessary conflict that detracts from its aim of producing games?

Neither. Both. I’m not sure I accept the premise of the question, actually. Certainly I’ve seen aggressive arguments on the newsgroups, but I’m not sure I’d call that a trait of the interactive fiction community per se. In part, I think it’s a trait of Internet conversations everywhere, though of course the degree of vitriol can and does vary depending on the forum and the topic. I’ve seen my share of people who I think of as IF community members aggressively pursuing a point — sometimes I don’t like it, and sometimes I take some pleasure in it, depending on how much I agree with the point and how much I think the target deserves the aggression. I’ve been guilty of it myself from time to time.

However, I wouldn’t say there’s some monolithic IF community that can be characterized as “aggressive” — what we call the “IF community” is really a very loose agglomeration of people collected around a bunch of different loci, containing personalities that range from enthusiastically friendly to dismissively sarcastic. There are also a couple of downright vicious people who haunt the newsgroups, but I don’t really think of them as members of our community so much as forces interested in wrecking whatever positive energy exists in it.

In any case, I tend to be annoyed or dismayed by most of the aggressive arguments that appear in IF fora, whether they be from established community members or from other people charging in and tossing around accusations of elitism, intellectual stagnation, provincialism, or what have you. However, my experience is that those little flamewars tend to be a rather small fraction of the mainstream of IF discussion, most of which is polite, friendly, and often thought-provoking.

Q5. The ADRIFT community can tend to feel that we are often on the margins, getting a few scraps from the wider group. I suspect this can partly be attributed to the fact that when working with the mainstream languages RAIF is the place you go for discussion, in contrast the ADRIFT forum provides us with a dedicated support group. Do you think this gives an appearance outside ADRIFT of us being different and standoffish?

Hmm. I’m not sure I have an answer for this. Just as I don’t believe there’s one dominant definition of the “IF community”, I’m not sure there’s a dominant perception of ADRIFT forum users. Even if there were, I don’t think that I’d know what it is. For my part, I think of the ADRIFT forum as one of the loci I mentioned above when I was calling the IF community a “loose agglomeration.” Others include raif, rgif, ifMUD, alt.games.xtrek, and the SPAG subscriber list.

Because I tend to follow the int-fiction newsgroups and (to a lesser extent) ifMUD, I’m not terribly aware of what goes on at the ADRIFT forum, but I’ve never thought of that as ADRIFT users’ fault — it’s just divergent interests. I suppose it would be nice if everybody had a common gathering place, but as long as there’s some cross-pollination, I’m not bothered, and certainly it’s never occurred to me to take offense at the ADRIFT forum’s existence separate from the int-fiction newsgroups. After all, what’s on the margins depends solely on what you define as the center.

Q6. I was just looking at the list of back issues, it is an impressive list and makes our 16 issues seem very small. Does it become easier the longer things go on for? (KF asked hopefully)

Easier. Well, the inescapable fact is that coming up with good original content takes work, both for you and for your contributors. That truth never really goes away. However, I do think that the more good issues you produce, the more you gain a reputation as something worth contributing to. So maybe it does get a little easier to elicit submissions as time goes on. I sure hope so, anyway.

Q7. As usual, I will end the interview by asking you what you are currently working on, and what you are looking for in the future for yourself and interactive fiction?

I’m working furiously on Earth And Sky 3 in hopes of having it ready by the fall. Speaking of which, it’s been a lot of fun to spout off and I appreciate the opportunity, but I think I’d better get back to coding now…

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!