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Chapter 5: The Infocom Canon 


I create fictional worlds.  I create experiences. 


I am exploring a new medium for telling stories. 


My readers should become immersed in the story and forget where they 

are.  They should forget about the keyboard and the screen, forget 

everything but the experience.  My goal is to make the computer 



I want as many people as possible to share these experiences.  I want a 

broad range of fictional worlds, and a broad range of "reading levels.” 

I can categorize our past works and discover where the range needs 

filling in.  I should also seek to expand the categories to reach every 

popular taste. 


In each of my works, I share a vision with the reader.  Only I know 

exactly what the vision is, so only I can make the final decisions about 

content and style.  But I must seriously consider comments and 

suggestions from any source, in the hope that they will make the sharing 



I know what an artist means by saying, "I hope I can finish this work 

before I ruin it."  Each work-in-progress reaches a point of diminishing 

returns, where any change is as likely to make it worse as to make it 

better.  My goal is to nurture each work to that point.  And to make my 

best estimate of when it will reach that point. 


I can't create quality work by myself.  I rely on other implementers to 

help me both with technical wizardry and with overcoming the limitations 

of the medium.  I rely on testers to tell me both how to communicate my 

vision better and where the rough edges of the work need polishing.  I 

rely on marketers and salespeople to help me share my vision with more 

readers.  I rely on others to handle administrative details so I can 

concentrate on the vision. 


None of my goals is easy.  But all are worth hard work.  Let no one doubt 

my dedication to my art. 


-- “The Implementer’s Creed” (Stu Galley, 1985) 


The 35 Canonical Infocom Works


Zork I: The Great Underground Empire by David Lebling and Marc Blank


Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz by David Lebling and Marc Blank


Zork III: The Dungeon Master by David Lebling and Marc Blank
Deadline by Marc Blank
Starcross by David Lebling


Suspended by Mike Berlyn
The Witness by Stu Galley
Planetfall by Steve Meretzky
Enchanter by David Lebling and Marc Blank
Infidel by Mike Berlyn


Sorcerer by Steve Meretzky
Seastalker by Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence
Cutthroats by Mike Berlyn
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky
Suspect by David Lebling 


Wishbringer by Brian Moriarty
A Mind Forever Voyaging by Steve Meretzky
by David Lebling


Ballyhoo by Jeff O’Neill
Trinity by Brian Moriarty
Leather Goddesses of Phobos by Steve Meretzky
Moonmist by Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence


Hollywood Hijinx by Dave Anderson and Liz Cyr-Jones
Bureaucracy by Douglas Adams and the staff of Infocom
Stationfall by Steve Meretzky
The Lurking Horror by David Lebling
Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It by Jeff O’Neilll
Plundered Hearts by Amy Briggs
Beyond Zork by Brian Moriarty
Border Zone by Marc Blank


Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels by Bob Bates
Zork Zero by Steve Meretzky


Shogun by James Clavell and David Lebling
Journey by Marc Blank
Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur by Bob Bates 

               The games listed above represent Infocom’s entire output of IF, but they are not the only pieces of software released with an Infocom label on their box.  The company made one foray into non-narrative based entertainment software with the “computerized board game” Fooblitzky, and toward the end of its lifetime released at its new corporate masters at Activision’s insistence a few “Infocomics,” a line of rather underwhelming computerized comic books.  After Infocom had been effectively dismantled by Activision as an independent entity it continued to exist for several years in name only as a label for graphical adventures and RPGs.  Finally, there was the most significant of all Infocom’s non-IF products, the relational database Cornerstone whose market failure ultimately brought about the company’s downfall.  That sorry story we will reserve for a future chapter. 

               I will devote this chapter to a discussion of the more intrinsically interesting or significant of the titles listed above.  I should emphasize before beginning that the stories I will discuss are not necessary the “best” in the Infocom corpus.  The company produced its share of solid adventure games that do not try to push the boundaries of the form but are nevertheless skillfully designed and well worth playing.  David Lebling’s hard science fiction puzzlefest Starcross and Dave Anderson’s B-movie send-up Hollywood Hijinx are just two examples.  In an historical narrative such as this one, though, concerned as it is with the development of IF as an art-form, a line must be drawn somewhere, and so these games as well as a considerable number of others will not be discussed in depth.  Similarly, not all of the games I will describe in detail entirely “work.”  To pick two examples, most would agree that Beyond Zork and Border Zone represent failed experiments for Infocom, yet the direction they were attempting to go is important and interesting enough that they are given space here.  I can perhaps best express my guiding philosophy by saying that Hollywood Hijinx is a better game than Border Zone, but Border Zone is more important.  If you my reader are simply looking for a well-crafted game to play, some of my choices may not be ideal; if, on the other hand, you are interested in surveying the development of IF as an art-form, I believe the games I will describe are the ones that are most worth your time.  In the discussions to follow, I will occasionally “spoil” key plot and perhaps even puzzle elements of the games.  If you wish to experience them untainted by such, play them first and return to this essay later.  You have been warned.  Finally, I have left my discussion of Infocom’s final four illustrated works for a later chapter, being as they arise more from its final gasps for life than from the burgeoning creativity of its glory days. 

The Early Mysteries: Deadline, The Witness, and Suspect 

               Infocom’s first non-Zork title was something of a shot across the bows of the adventure game community as a whole.  Written by Marc Blank, it was called Deadline, and it marked a clean break with the fantasy settings and exploration-focussed play of most IF of the time in taking its cues from the hard-boiled mystery novels of authors such as Raymond Chandler.  Some might argue that this is merely replacing one somewhat cliched genre with another, but it did at least have the virtue of freshness.  Infocom would largely rely on genre fiction conventions throughout its run, and for good reason.  As Janet Murray noted in a commentary on interactive narrative in general:

Genre fiction is appropriate for electronic narrative because it scripts the interactor.  When I begin a CD-ROM murder mystery, I know I am supposed to question all the characters I meet about what they were doing at the time of the murder and keep track of all the suspects’ alibis.  I will use whatever primitives I am given (navigation through the space, conducting an interview, picking up pieces of evidence and looking at them under a microscope, etc.) for enacting these pre-scripted scenes.  In a Western adventure I can be counted on to try to shoot at the bad guys, and in a horror story I will always enter the haunted house (Murray 192).

In the case of Deadline, the story revolves around a wealthy industrialist who has been found dead, apparently by suicide.  The player takes the role of private detective who has been hired by the dead man’s attorney to clear up any lingering suspicions, and given a whopping twelve hours to investigate and make her report.  Naturally, the case turns out to be much more complicated than it first appears.  Marc Blank: 

"I thought it was a great idea because most people, when they read mysteries, are constantly trying to think ahead, what happened. 'Ooh, I would have looked here, I would have done this. I would have been more clever.' So, it seemed to lend itself perfectly" (Greenlee). 

               Although a much smaller, tighter game than Zork, Deadline is in many ways vastly more ambitious.  As a mystery, it revolves not around mechanical puzzles and inanimate objects, but character interaction.  The story it is attempting to tell, while hardly War and Peace, would not be out of place in a pulp paperback.  Even that level of storytelling represents a major step from what anyone had attempted in IF before.  It was in fact the desire to pack more story into this game that caused Infocom to begin its long-standing tradition of including feelies and atmospheric documentation in its game boxes.  Of particular note here is the way the game and its documentation work together to give the player a definite role to play.  Granted, that role – the hard-bitten gumshoe – may be clichéd, but we nevertheless see here a major leap toward true interactive storytelling when we compare the protagonist of Deadline with the faceless, generic “adventurer” of Zork and similar games.  All of Infocom’s subsequent games would follow Deadline’s lead to a greater or lesser extent is this respect. 
                In contrast to the sprawling caves and wilderness of Zork, Deadline all takes place within the confines of a single house and its grounds.  Within can be found six individuals, all of them possessing, in classic mystery fashion, motive and possibly means and opportunity to murder the old man.  In a remarkable feat of programming for such an early game, these characters move about the mansion of their own accord throughout the day, engaging in suspicious and not-so-suspicious actions and displaying quite a remarkable degree of verisimilitude.  By being in the right place at the right time and by taking the right actions, the player can cause them to change their plans and perhaps even incriminate themselves.  The player must not only deduce the identity of the killer – I trust my reader will not be surprised to learn that Marshall Robner’s death was not a suicide – but collect sufficient incriminating evidence to satisfy the police and hopefully force a confession, all while avoiding death at the hands of a murderer who may decide to eliminate this nosy P.I. once and for all, should she get too close to the truth.  Another enemy is the clock, which clicks down at the rate of one minute per turn.  Should time expire without the killer being found, justice will not be served and the player will have effectively lost the game.

               Following the release of Deadline, Infocom repeated its formula twice more, with Stu Galley’s The Witness and David Lebling’s Suspect.  Most critics today agree that the first game is the best, although all three are regarded more as noble failures than unqualified successes. 

               Most of the flaws that lead to that consensus arise from the games’ most interesting feature, their independent cast of characters.  Because these characters move about the geography and act of their own accord, the player is forced to magically be at the right place at the right time over and over to have a chance of solving the mystery.  The games give the player very little clue about when and where that is, meaning that she will likely have to restart many times before bringing the games to a successful conclusion.  Some might not be bothered terribly by this, choosing to the see the games as a sort of IF Groundhog Day to be lived over and over until the player gets it right.  Modern IF theory, however, generally emphasizes that a successful completion of a game should not depend on knowledge gained from previous, unsuccessful attempts.  These three games were the worst violators of this rule in the entire Infocom canon, although hardly the worst in the IF world of the eighties, where attention to good game design was all too often sadly lacking.  

               The character interaction itself is another problem.  Although the authors did their best, Infocom was operating under such stringent hardware restriction that it was difficult to implement more than a smattering of dialogue.  Thus the player is likely to spend much of her time trying to find some way to communicate, only to receive a stream of rather nonsensical replies.  No amount of clever writing for the responses that are implemented can quite make up for this. 

               In both of these problems, but particularly the second, Infocom was already struggling with issues that still plague creators of IF today.  It is perhaps little surprise that Infocom itself seems to have eventually grown frustrated with the limitations of its possible implementations.  After Suspect’s release in 1984, the company did not release any more games that were quite this dependent on character interaction.  Its later mysteries Ballyhoo and Moonmist had some of the elements of their predecessors, but relied less on independently acting characters and dialogue in favor of more traditional adventure game puzzles.  Even most modern IF mysteries, such as Kent Tessman’s Guilty Bastards and Irene Callaci’s Dangerous Curves, have generally trended toward the model of these later works.  If Infocom’s reach had somewhat exceeded its grasp, however, the results are nevertheless fascinating as the first serious attempt at believable character interaction in IF. 

Suspended: A Cryogenic Nightmare

               In 1982, Infocom hired published science fiction author Mike Berlyn as a designer, quite a coup for a company with the stated goal of dragging IF toward some sort of literary respectability.  Ironically, Berlyn’s first game for the company turned out to be the least “literary” that Infocom would ever release.  The player takes the part of a disembodied brain in control of an underground complex that houses devices that regulate the weather of a planet.  The complex has been damaged, and the player must repair it with the aid of six robotic drones, any one of which she can mentally inhabit at any time.  The complication arises from the fact each of the six robots has its own specialized ability.  One can see; one can manipulate objects; one can detect vibrations; one can hear; and one can interface with computers.  The most unique is Poet, who, according to the game’s documentation, “makes the best of what he perceives, turning his input into occasionally bewildering output.”  To save the complex, the player must direct the robots to where and when they will do the most good.  This is easier said than done, however, particularly as each robot takes time to move from place to place.  Careful planning, and not a small amount of that old bugaboo learning by death, is thus required to deal with the quick series of disasters that strike the complex over the course of the game.  Infocom even provided in Suspended’s box a map of the complex and a set of counters representing the six robots to help the player to keep track of things. 

               It is probably fair to ask whether Suspended is really IF at all, as Graeme Cree discussed in his review for SPAG: 

It might be best not to think of Suspended as a work of Interactive Fiction at all.  It is a pseudo-simulation game, written before software technology was developed enough to develop real simulation games.  It is a game for frustrated would-be air traffic controllers who enjoy coordinating multiple activities from a central location, much more than it is a work of fiction.  It is a game for people who like to play WITH games, not merely play them (Cree).   

 Whatever its (lack of) narrative qualities, however, Suspended carries a unique fascination as a simulation of a remarkably complex system, which Cree touches upon in the excerpt above.  It marks the farthest point to which the company would stretch its basic IF model, a fact that is somewhat surprising considering that it was released quite early in the company’s run.  The game is well-worth playing about with today, although those who envision finishing it should be warned that it is frighteningly difficult. 

               Suspended’s model of an omniscient player hopping in and out of and directly manipulating machines actually pops up fairly frequently in IF.  Paul O’Brian’s LASH, for instance, sees the player controlling an automated drone sifting through the rubble of a contaminated war zone.  A more explicit homage, right down to its excruciating difficulty, is Dan Shiovitz’s fascinating Bad Machine. 

 Floyd and Planetfall

               Planetfall stands out in Infocom’s catalog for several reasons.  It marks the debut of prolific implementer Steve Meretzky, and it is one of most complete attempts at really telling a coherent story in the company’s early catalog.  Most of all, though, Planetfall is remembered for the player’s little robotic playmate Floyd. 

               Meretzky had attended MIT as an architecture major at the same time as the core team that would eventually form Infocom.  After spending a year or so working for a construction company, Meretzky decided that computer games were more to his taste, and secured a position with his old college mates’ new company, where he was soon allowed to design his own game.  The result is, at least on the surface, a silly science fiction spoof.  The plot of the game involves the player, a Stellar Patrol Ensign Seventh Class whose primary duties entail scrubbing down ships’ deck and other more noxious places, escaping from her exploding starship to land on an uncharted and seemingly uninhabited world.  There she discovers an abandoned research complex, and begins piecing together a mystery. 

               At this stage some of the silliness subsides and a genuinely interesting plot begins to develop.  Much of the gameplay is fairly typical of IF then and now: the player must repair machinery, open up access to new areas, get computer systems back online, etc.  However, as she goes about these tasks she gradually discovers how the planet came to be abandoned through various items and printed materials she finds lying around, many of which exist not as an element to be used in solving the game’s puzzles but for background flavor only.  The story she pieces together is compelling and tragic, involving a fatal disease that is sweeping the planet and a desperate attempt by the planet’s inhabitants to stop its progress.  This method of telling a complex story by letting the player discover it after the fact, rather than participating directly, might be considered a cop-out by some, but it works surprisingly well when done properly, as it is here.  It is in fact used quite frequently in IF and other forms of interactive narrative today, as it allows the designer to tell a coherent, complete story without worrying about the player mucking it up, as it were. 

               The complex is also littered with tools and other objects which often have no bearing at all on solving the game, but lend the game’s setting a resonance that is rare in IF of this vintage.  Some players actually find these “red herrings,” which would come to be a trademark of Meretzky’s work, deeply annoying, having become used to the typical adventure game rule of every object having a purpose.  I think most would agree, though, that the very lack of neat symmetry in the game lends it a messy, real-world believability.  At times, Planetfall really does feel like interactive literature, rather than a game-like text adventure. 

               The elements I have already described would by themselves make Planetfall an important work, but the game also had a secret weapon in the form of Floyd.  Floyd is a little maintenance droid – think an even more happy-go-lucky R2D2 with the ability to speak – who the player can discover and activate quite soon after arriving at the complex.  He then accompanies the player through the bulk of the story as the faithful sidekick, occasionally piping up with a request to play “hider and seeker” or “hucka-bucka-beanstalk.”  Floyd is consistently amusing and absolutely lovable.  He even breaks down the game’s fourth wall at one point.  If the player elects to SAVE her game in Floyd’s presence, he will say, “Oh, boy!  Are we gonna try something dangerous now?”  Meretzky’s achievement with Floyd is amazing not least because there is so little to it really.  Floyd actually does very little other than trail the player about and pop off with the occasional canned phrase.  Trying to hold a conversation with him his pointless, as he is almost entirely non-interactive, and in only a couple of places is he even useful for solving puzzles.  Yet, virtually everyone who plays Planetfall falls in love with him and remembers him forever, which makes a scene near the end of the game, when he willingly sacrifices his “life” for the player, perhaps the most poignant in the Infocom canon.  Meretzky even manages to work in a plug for Infocom’s earlier Starcross without seeming crass: 

>look through window 

You can see a large laboratory, dimly illuminated. A blue glow comes from a crack in the northern wall of the lab. Shadowy, ominous shapes move about within the room. On the floor, just inside the door, you can see a magnetic-striped card. 

Floyd stands on his tiptoes and peers in the window. "Looks dangerous in there," says Floyd. "I don't think you should go inside." He peers in again. "We'll need card there to fix computer. Hmmm... I know! Floyd will get card. Robots are tough. Nothing can hurt robots. You open the door, then Floyd will rush in. Then you close door. When Floyd knocks, open door again. Okay? Go!" Floyd's voice trembles slightly as he waits for you to open the door. 


>open door 

The door opens and Floyd, pausing only for the briefest moment, plunges into the Bio Lab. Immediately, he is set upon by hideous, mutated monsters! More are heading straight toward the open door! Floyd shrieks and yells to you to close the door. 


>close door 

The door closes. 

From within the lab you hear ferocious growlings, the sounds of a skirmish, and then a high-pitched metallic scream! 



Time passes... 

You hear, slightly muffled by the door, three fast knocks, followed by the distinctive sound of tearing metal. 


>open door 

The door opens. 

Floyd stumbles out of the Bio Lab, clutching the mini-booth card. The mutations rush toward the open doorway! 


>close door 

The door closes. 

And not a moment too soon! You hear a pounding from the door as the monsters within vent their frustration at losing their prey. 


Floyd staggers to the ground, dropping the mini card. He is badly torn apart, with loose wires and broken circuits everywhere. Oil flows from his lubrication system. He obviously has only moments to live. 


You drop to your knees and cradle Floyd's head in your lap. Floyd looks up at his friend with half-open eyes. "Floyd did it ... got card. Floyd a good friend, huh?" Quietly, you sing Floyd's favorite song, the Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner: 


O, they ruled the solar system 

Near ten thousand years before 

In their single starcrossed scout ships 

Mining ast'roids, spinning lore. 


Then one true courageous miner 

Spied a spaceship from the stars 

Boarded he that alien liner 

Out beyond the orb of Mars. 


Yes, that ship was filled with danger 

Mighty monsters barred his way 

Yet he solved the alien myst'ries 

Mining quite a lode that day. 


O, they ruled the solar system 

Near ten thousand years before 

'Til one brave advent'rous spirit 

Brought that mighty ship to shore. 


As you finish the last verse, Floyd smiles with contentment, and then his eyes close as his head rolls to one side. You sit in silence for a moment, in memory of a brave friend who gave his life so that you might live. 

 Janet Murray writes of the effect Floyd’s sacrifice has on the player:

At this point the game changes from a challenging puzzle to an evocative theatrical experience.  The escape from the planet continues, but without Floyd’s company the player feels lonely and bereaved.  (..)  The death of Floyd is a minor milestone on the road from puzzle gaming to an expressive narrative art.  It demonstrates that the potential for compelling computer stories does not depend on high-tech animation or expensively produced video footage but on the shaping of such dramatic moments (Murray 53).  

Meretzky was unfortunately unable to stick to his dramatic guns.  At the end of the game the player not only revives the inhabitants of the planet, who were as it turns out only in suspended animation awaiting the cure for the disease which the player has just obligingly provided, but is also greeted by a resurrected Floyd, repaired by the planet’s engineers.  This scene leaves a bad taste in my mouth, turning as it does Floyd’s death scene into a sort of “gotcha!” moment and robbing it of the very real weight it carried before.  Nevertheless, the fact that the game can invoke such discussion at all is remarkable.  In a contemporaneous advertisement, another young computer game publisher called Electronic Arts asked, “Can a computer make you cry?”  For many thousands of players, Planetfall provided a resoundingly positive answer. 

               Planetfall is flawed in many ways when viewed through contemporary eyes.  Pointless annoyances abound.  The player can only carry a very limited number of objects, which means she must constantly trek back and forth across the complex toting what she needs to where it will be of use.  She must eat and sleep at regular intervals, which involves more tedious trekking to and from the complex’s mess hall and sleeping quarters.  Perhaps worst of all, the player is gradually being consumed by the disease that is still present in the planet’s atmosphere, meaning that her game is likely to end prematurely with her death from disease, forcing a lot of re-playing of already completed stages.  Infocom would largely abandon traditional text adventures annoyances like these over the year or so following Planetfall’s release, but here they are still all too present.  Nevertheless, Planetfall is well worth playing today.  Even its annoyances seem somehow less egregious for being wrapped up in such an otherwise charming package, and little Floyd remains probably the best-remembered IF character ever. 

               Planetfall became one of Infocom’s most popular titles, and Meretzky eventually brought Floyd back for a sequel, Stationfall.  While a perfectly well-crafted game, it lacked the fresh charm of its predecessor.  Activision did considerable work on a third, graphical game in the mid-nineties, to be called Planetfall: The Search for Floyd.  The project was cancelled, perhaps fortunately, before its completion, and only a trailer remains as evidence that it ever existed.  The science fiction comedy genre that Planetfall pioneered, on the other hand, remains alive and well in IF.  See Harry Hol’s Dutch Dapper IV: The Final Voyage for an enjoyable recent example. 

The Enchanter Trilogy: Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker

               In light of Infocom’s extraordinary recent run of creativity, one might question the motivation behind David Lebling and Marc Blank’s decision to return to Zorkian fantasy in 1983 with Enchanter.  Even if the huge sales of the Zork trilogy were an impetus, though, Lebling and Blank nevertheless did themselves proud with the result.  Enchanter is set in the same world as Zork, but it shows off its authors’ improved design and writing skills to fine effect.  For one, the game features an actual plot: 

It must be the warlock Krill. The odd disappearances, the mysterious dissolution of regions sacred to the Circle, the lessening of the Powers – these could only be his handiwork. The Circle gathers and its leader, the esteemed Belboz, reveals to them an ancient document which portends evil days much like our own. 


“Krill’s evil must be unmade,” he begins, “but to send a powerful Enchanter is ill-omened. It would be ruinous to reveal oversoon our full powers.” A ripple of concern spreads over the face of each Enchanter. Belboz pauses, and collects his resolve. “Have hope! This has been written by a hand far wiser than mine!” 


He recites a short spell and you appear. Belboz approaches, transfixing you with his gaze, and hands you the document. The other Enchanters await his decree. “These words, written ages ago, can have only one meaning. You, a novice Enchanter with but a few simple spells in your Book, must seek out Krill, explore the Castle he has overthrown, and learn his secrets. Only then may his vast evil be lessened or, with good fortune, destroyed.”  

The Circle rises and intones a richly woven spell, whose many textures imbue the small, darkened chamber with warmth and hope. There is a surge of power; you are Sent. 

As the introductory text above indicates, the player must infiltrate and explore the evil warlord Krill’s castle, gathering the materials he will use to eventually destroy him.  While nothing here really rises above typical genre fantasy, it is consistently well-written.  In spite of some lingering “old-school” annoyances such as the need to eat and sleep and an overall time limit, the game as a whole reads and plays very well even today. The player even befriends a turtle at one point who is almost the equal of Floyd in loyalty and lovability. 

               The most interesting thing about Enchanter, though, which gives it a markedly different feel from Zork, is the introduction of magic spells.  Rather than the sword-wielding, treasure-looting simpleton of Zork, the player here is a magician, albeit a young, inexperienced magician.  As such, he starts the game with a spell book containing a few beginning spells: 

My Spell Book 


The blorb spell (safely protect a small object as though in a strong box). 

The nitfol spell (converse with the beasts in their own tongue). 

The frotz spell (cause something to give off light). 

The gnusto spell (write a magic spell into a spell book). 

As the game continues, the player will have the opportunity to acquire a considerable number of additional spells, ranging from the obviously useful (“The rezrov spell – open a locked or enchanted object”) to the simply bizarre (“The filfre spell – cause gratuitous fireworks to appear”).  Solving many of the game’s puzzles, and ultimately bringing down Krill, is dependent on the use of this magic.  Using a spell to solve a problem in an especially clever way is very satisfying.  Further, one of the most charming aspects of the game comes when the player tries, accidentally or on purpose, to use magic in the “wrong” way.  Lebling and Blank have anticipated and written in many amusing responses for these attempts, which makes Enchanter (and, later, its two sequels) among the most enjoyable of Infocom’s games to simply play about in in an “I wonder what would happen if…” sort of way.  The addition of unpredictable magic gives the whole proceeding a lighter air than Zork, more Piers Anthony -- without the creepy fixation on adolescent sexuality -- than Tolkien. 

               Lebling and Blank even find room for a bit of self-referential humor.  The player at one point encounters what seems to be the adventurer from Zork, who putters about engaging in typical adventure behavior, from trying out strange actions just for the sake of it (“The adventurer tries to eat his sword.  I don’t think it would agree with him.”) to picking up every object not nailed down in his vicinity.  At another point, the player briefly peeks behind the curtain at implementers Lebling and Blank themselves.  All the while, the game as a whole somehow remains serious, never slipping into the realm of pure camp or parody. 

               The second game of the trilogy, Sorcerer, was a bit disappointing compared to its predecessor.  It was cobbled together by Steve Meretzky partially from original material and partially from the last remaining unused parts of the original mainframe Zork.  To this was grafted a plot involving the disappearance of the head of the player’s Circle of Enchanters, Belboz.  The spellcasting remains, and continues to charm, but Meretzky’s gonzo style of humor does not always strike the right note for the setting, and the game as a whole has, as one might imagine from its origins, a rather patchwork feel.  It is remembered today mostly for two of the most original and satisfying puzzles in Infocom’s oeuvre: a new take on the maze which manages to make the hoary old adventure game stalwart actually fun to solve again, and a time travel puzzle in which the player must do what needs to be done without being spotted or otherwise violating the bounds of causality, lest the resulting paradox cause him to “cease to exist.” 

               The final game of the trilogy, Lebling’s Spellbreaker, was much more satisfying, if also much more difficult.  Spellbreaker was allegedly written for a certain cadre of Infocom fans who continually wrote the company to say that their games were not hard enough.  “You want hard?  I’ll give you hard!” was apparently Lebling’s response, and Spellbreaker was the result.  One hopelessly under-clued puzzle aside, the game stands even today as a model of how to do hard IF without crossing the line, continually violated by so many other companies in the eighties, into unfairness.  Spellbreaker is hair-pullingly difficult, but – except, regrettably, in one place –it never abuses the player’s faith, which makes it immensely satisfying to finally solve.  The time-travel puzzle from Sorcerer even returns in another form.  The magic spells from the earlier two games also return, and again much fun is to be had through random experimentation with their effects.  However, the game’s humor, while definitely present, is much more understated than that of Sorcerer or even Enchanter.  There is a chilly, atmospheric austerity here that actually reminds me most of Zork III. 

               By the time of Spellbreaker, the player’s character, having defeated evil and saved the realm from disaster twice before, has become an extremely powerful and respected wizard.  Magic, however, is failing through the land, and the player is left to seek out the cause and presumably stop it.  Things do not turn out quite that simply, however, as the game’s ending subverts the fantasy genre and with it the player’s own expectations in a deviously clever way to make a point about the primacy, at least in Lebling’s eyes, of science and reason over magic and superstition: 

You find yourself back in Belwit Square, all the guildmasters and even Belboz crowding around you. "A new age begins today," says Belboz after hearing your story. "The age of magic is ended, as it must, for as magic can confer absolute power, so it can also produce absolute evil. We may defeat this evil when it appears, but if wizardry builds it anew, we can never ultimately win. The new world will be strange, but in time it will serve us better." 

Your score is 600 of a possible 600, in 1057 moves. This puts you in the class of Scientist. 

The player’s class immediately before scoring those final points and solving the game was, by contrast, Archimage.

               The system of magic pioneered in these games has proven to be enduringly popular in IF, and with good reason.  It is, for reasons somewhat hard to put into words, just plain fun.  For all of IF’s occasional literary pretensions, sometimes that is more than reason enough.  Graham Nelson’s Balances and John Schiff’s Threnody make particularly entertaining use of the Enchanter model of spellcasting, and the names of the spells from the original Infocom trilogy have been adopted by the modern IF community as names for many of its interpreters and utilities.  Finally, for an even more devious variation on Sorcerer’s classic time travel puzzle, see half sick of shadow’s fascinating 2004 IF Comp entry All Things Devours. 

The First Interactive Tragedy: Infidel

               At first glance, Mike Beryln’s second game for Infocom, Infidel, is as traditional as Suspended is outré.  The player is tasked with exploring a newly discovered buried Egyptian pyramid and collecting the treasure that lies within.  To do so, he must contend with a variety of traps and other obstacles, but not a single living creature.  This is in fact the only Infocom game in which the player is absolutely alone from start to finish.  Its puzzles are generally well-crafted and satisfying, but not terribly original even for its time, and the game’s reputation has certainly not been improved by the endless stream of mediocre adventure games that followed it in mining ancient Egypt for source material. While its successor’s failings are not Infidel’s fault, there would still be little to prompt a discussion here were it not for the back-story detailed in the game’s documentation, which comes back to the fore at the end of the game in the most unique, and controversial, ending in Infocom’s catalog.  What at first appears to be a traditional text adventure morphs in that last scene into a morality tale and a tragedy. 

               Infidel’s documentation describes its protagonist in more detail than all but a few of the company’s other efforts, and it is not a pretty picture.  Through his diary and letters, we learn that he is the junior member of an archaeological partnership, and that he harbors a burning jealously toward his counterpart.  When an old woman surfaces with a treasure map left her by her deceased husband giving the location of a previously undiscovered pyramid, he decides to grab the glory and booty for himself by organizing an exhibition and departing before his partner returns from a dig of his own.  His efforts at the dig site are frustrated by his lack of planning, specifically his failure to bring a navigation box that will allow him to determine his exact latitude and longitude, and thus determine precisely where to dig.  While he waits for his supplier to fly one in, he drives his workers relentlessly, forcing them to dig holes in random places in the hope that they will stumble upon the temple.  The workers begin to grumble, first petulantly and then menacingly, but the protagonist ignores them.  Finally, he goes too far when he forces them to dig on a holy day.  They drug him that evening and depart, leaving him to wake up alone the next morning in their abandoned camp in the middle of the desert.  This marks the start of the game proper. 

               The player soon discovers the following note from his erstwhile companions:

Fi aman Allah!  

Hereafter you shall pursue your fool dream of the hidden pyramid and its riches alone. May the jackals feed well on your bones. We have left you what you need to get back, though we hope you do not. We put several things you treasure above life itself inside your trunk, locked with your precious padlock, but we could not bear to part with the key. Especially after what you said of our rites. We hope the drug we placed in your drink did you harm. If not, we are at least satisfied you slept especially soundly while we cleaned out the camp. 


Luckily, or perhaps not considering how things eventually turn out, the long-awaited plane arrives at this exact moment to drop the navigation box by parachute into the camp.  With it, the industrious player can finally locate the pyramid and make his way inside.  At this point we are firmly in traditional adventure game territory, right down to scoring points for collecting treasures, and we remain there until the last scene of the game.  That scene, though, is not what we have been conditioned to expect: 


>open sarcophagus 

You lift the cover with great care, and in an instant you see all your dreams come true.  The interior of the sarcophagus is lined with gold, inset with jewels, glistening in your torchlight.  The riches and their dazzling beauty overwhelm you.  You take a deep breath, amazed that all of this is yours.  You tremble with excitement, then realize the ground beneath your feet is trembling too. 


As a knife cuts through butter, this realization cuts through your mind, makes your hands shake and cold sweat appear on your forehead.  The Burial Chamber is collapsing, the walls closing in.  You will never get out of this pyramid alive.  You earned this treasure.  But it cost you your life. 


As you sit there, gazing into the glistening wealth of the inner sarcophagus, you can’t help but feel a little empty, a little foolish.  If someone were on the other side of the quickly-collapsing wall, they could have dug you out.  If only you’d treated the workers better.  If only you’d cut Craige in on the find.  If only you’d hired a reliable guide. 


Well, someday, someone will discover your bones here.  And then you will get your fame. 


Your score is 400 out of a possible 400, in 442 moves. 

This gives you the rank of master adventurer. 


Many contemporary players were outraged by this inversion of everything they had come to expect from their adventure games.  Mike Berlyn was forced to fend off these critics in a Compuserve online chat shortly after the game’s release: 


(1,Scorpia) I did not like the main character I did not like the ending.  I felt it was a poor choice to have a characetr like that in an Infocom game, since, after all regardless of the main character in the story *I* am the one who is really playing the game really solving the puzzles.  The character is merely a shell, and after going thru the game, I resent getting killed.  GA 


(1,Rolexian) Other than that, she liked it. 


(1,Michael Berlyn) GA for what?  What do you want me to do?  I can't make you like something you don't like I can't make you appreciate something that you don't think is there.  I will tell you this, though You are being very narrow-minded about what you think an Infocom game is.         It doesn't HAVE to be the way you said and you don't have to think that in *EVERY* game you play, that YOU're the main character.  But there's more 


(1,GAIL COMER) Why did you end the game like that? 


(1,Michael Berlyn) I mean, I'm a writer.  I write all kinds of things.  I'll get to ending when it's time to talk about it.  Lemme first tackle the other points raised.  A question for you:  Yes or No, Scorp Have you ever read a book, seen a TV program, seen a movie where the main character wasn't someone you liked, someone you'd rather not be?  GA 


(1,Scorpia) Certainly. 


(1,Michael Berlyn) Okay.  Then that's fair.  If you look at these games as shells  for you to occupy and nothing more, like an RPG then you're missing the experience, or at least part of the potential experience.  If you had read the journal and the letter before hand I would have hoped you would have understood just what was going on in the gamewho you were, why you were playing that kind of character.  Adventures are so so STERILE!.  That's the word.  And I want very much to make them an unsterile experience.  It's what I work for and it's my goal.  Otherwise, why not just read Tom Swifts and Nancy Drews and the Hardy Boys?   


Critics of the game do have a point in that the tragedy of Infidel is not truly interactive in any real sense.  From the moment he begins the game, the player is railroaded to his ultimate fate in the burial chamber.  The note left by the workers does imply that the player has the option of attempting to strike out for civilization rather than remaining fixated on the pyramid and its treasures, but the game does not actually provide for this choice.  Presumably the player could collect all of the treasures and completely explore the pyramid, but turn away from opening the sarcophagus, but this still leaves him stranded in the desert with no food and little water, and again the game never really takes this possibility into account.  Still, in bringing the weight of moral judgment to the “points for treasures” model of its predecessors, and in bringing to IF the catharsis of tragedy, Infidel broke new ground.  


Infocom and Douglas Adams: Hitchhiker’s and Bureaucracy

            The story of Infocom’s long, sometimes singularly unproductive partnership with British science fiction humorist Douglas Adams is almost as interesting as the games that resulted from it.  By early 1984, Adams was well-known in nerd circles as the creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a series of BBC radio shows which had spawned a television series and three – soon to be four – best-selling novels.  Adams had admired Infocom’s work ever since playing Suspended soon after its release, and Infocom was very interested in bringing in established authors to write games, feeling it would advance its goal of establishing IF as a genuine literary form.  With Hitchhiker’s having been already translated to three very different media, the idea of adding one more, an IF computer game, seemed natural enough to all concerned.  An ambitious contract was signed which planned for six games, each covering one-half of one of the three currently available Hitchhiker’s novels.  


Adams spent a week in Infocom’s offices in February of 1984, planning out the first game and not incidentally being introduced there to his first Apple Macintosh, a computer he would have an extended love affair with for the remainder of his short life.  For the game’s development, Adams was paired with implementer Steve Meretzky: 


“I’d finished my previous game Sorcerer in early February just as the Hitchhiker’s game was ready to start,” recalls Meretzky.  “So partly is was a matter of timing, and partly is was Marc’s feeling that I’d be a good match for Hitchhiker’s; among the Infocom game authors, I was known for my humor, and my first game Planetfall was considered very Hitchhiker’s-like.  I’d never heard/read/seen Hitchhiker’s when I wrote Planetfall, but as folks began play-testing the game, so many of them said, ‘This reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide,’ that I borrowed a set of tapes of the radio from a friend and listened to them.  I loved them, of course” (Simpson 211-212). 


After Adams’ return to England, he and Meretzky continued to collaborate on the game through the then cutting-edge medium of email.  As it turned out, Meretzky did as much of the writing as Adams, not least because of Adams’ gift for procrastination, which was already legendary in publishing circles and with which Infocom would eventually have more first-hand experience than it would like.  Many of the most memorably warped aspects of the resulting game were, however, Adams’: 


“Douglas’ overall take on the game was a fairly direct adaptation of the existing storyline,” remembers Meretzky.  “Where he really had a flood of ideas was on some of the more incidental stuff, playing with the medium of interactivity and text adventures.  Things like having an inventory object called ‘no tea,’ having the game lie to you, having an object called ‘the thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is’ which keeps coming back to you even if you get rid of it, and so on” (Simpson 212). 


Meretzky visited Adams in England in May to put the finishing touches on the game’s design, and the standard exhausting Infocom testing process began shortly thereafter.  The game was released just in time for Christmas, 1984, and became a huge commercial success for Infocom.  When all was said and done, Hitchhiker’s would stand second in total sales next only to the original Zork. 


            Like the novel, the game centers around a mild-mannered Englishman named Arthur Dent who discovers over the course of one very long day that not only is his house about to be knocked down to make way for a new freeway bypass, but the Earth itself is about to be destroyed by a group of particularly nasty aliens known as the Vogons for similar reasons.  Arthur escapes the Earth’s destruction with the aid of his friend Ford Prefect, who it turns out is a sort of roving correspondent for a unique publication known as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  A string of misadventures follow, punctuated by commentary from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, which the player can use to look up usually hilarious and occasionally even useful anecdotes about all manner of phenomena.  


            The game’s artistic success was not quite as unqualified as its commercial success.  Certainly, though, it has many positives to recommend it.  Adams was a deeply funny man, and the game is a veritable laugh riot at times, with the same brand of logical illogical that makes the books so much fun everywhere in evidence.  Meretzky even seems to have caught some of Adams’ magic, for his usual sophomoric fraternity-brother style of humor here retreats in favor of Adams’ more subtlety clever approach.  The ability to use the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself is perhaps the game’s greatest contribution to IF tradition.  Many, many titles since have provided books that the player can use to learn more about the world he inhabits.  It provides an ideal, unforced way for an author to communicate to her player information that the player will need, and the increasing prominence of books and even libraries in IF has even led to a whole new category of puzzle: the “research puzzle.”  The fact that newer works of IF allow for effectively unlimited amounts of text lets contemporary authors to stretch out in this area in ways that Infocom could never dream of, of course. 


            However, the sort of charming absurdity that Adams worked to such great effect in his novels is more problematic when cast into a game.  Too much of Hitchhiker’s Guide revolves around figuring out Adams’ uniquely skewed version of reality.  Intuitive leaps are required that no author should ever require of his player, and at times the game seems to take as much or more delight in killing or just annoying its player than Zork did.  While the whole is so funny that it is hard to get angry at it, it is at the same time an undeniable step back for Infocom in terms of pure game design.  Yet it is saved by the brilliance of its humor.  An example of a seemingly unforgivable design choice that Hitchhiker’s somehow manages to make palatable is the famous scene where the game actually lies to its player: 



(to darkness) 

You hear the deep and distant hum of a star drive coming from far above. There is an exit to port. 



You can't go that way. 



You can't go that way. 



You can't go that way. 



You can't go that way. 



(We were lying about the exit to port.) You emerge from a small doorway... 


Such exasperations are everywhere in the game, along with plenty of under-clued, illogical puzzles and the occasional completely motivationless action required from the player.  Still, the game is required playing even today for its sharp writing, great good humor, and general subversion of sacred IF principals.  I have to recommend, though, that the non-masochist keep a walkthrough handy, and be unafraid to turn to it. 


            As mentioned previously, Infocom had planned Hitchhiker’s as just the first of a string of collaborations with Adams.  The game in fact comes to no real resolution whatsoever, ending abruptly as the player steps out of his spaceship onto the “legendary lost planet of Magrathea,” a point about two-thirds of the way through the original novel, and telling him in no uncertain terms that he will have to wait for the sequel to find out what happens next.  That sequel would never arrive.  Certainly Infocom was very eager, considering the commercial success of the first game, and its eagerness only increased as the years passed and the company’s financial situation deteriorated.  Several different implementers were assigned to the project at one time or another, but Adams continued to drag his feet, perhaps largely because after turning the same basic story into a radio serial, a television series, four novels, and finally a computer game, he was sick and tired of Arthur Dent and the whole Hitchhiker’s universe.  Adams was branching out as a print author, and if he were to continue to collaborate with Infocom he wanted to do the same with his IF work.  He came up with the idea of doing a real-world satire of the bureaucratic nightmare that is modern life, basing it partly upon personal experience.  Infocom would almost certainly have rather continued with the lucrative Hitchhiker’s franchise, but acquiesced to a very enthusiastic Adams and gave the project the green light.  Adams promptly disappointed everyone by losing interest in the project entirely after that initial burst of enthusiasm. 


Steve Meretzky didn’t work on Bureacucray but was able to see what was happening with it.  “Douglas’ procrastination seemed much worse than it was with Hitchhiker’s.  That seems odd, because he did the first game only grudgingly, since he had already done Hitchhiker’s for several different media, but Bureaucracy was what he most wanted to do.  Perhaps the newness and excitement of working in interactive fiction had worn off; perhaps he had more distractions in his life at that point; perhaps it was that the succession of people who my role in Bureaucracy didn’t stay with the project for more than a portion of its development cycle and therefore never became a well-integrated creative unit with Douglas; perhaps it was that, lacking the immovable Christmas deadline that Hitchhiker’s had, it was easier to let the game just keep slipping and slipping” (Simpson 224). 


After literally years of delay, the staff of Infocom as a whole put the various existing bits and pieces together without Adams.  The completed game finally reached store shelves in early 1987.  Included within was an Easter egg that detailed its convoluted development: 


Once upon a time Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky collaborated on a game called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Everyone wanted a sequel, but Douglas thought it might be fun to do something different first.  He called that something Bureaucracy, and wanted Marc Blank to work on it with him.  Of course, Marc was busy, and Douglas was busy, and by the time they could both work on it, they were too busy to work on it.  So, Jerry Wolper got a free trip to Las Vegas to talk to Douglas about it before it was decided to let it rest for a while instead.  Jerry decided to go back to school, so Marc and Douglas spent some time on Nantucket Island looking at llamas, drinking Chateau d’Yquem, and arguing about puzzles.  Nothing much happened for a while, except that Marc and Douglas got distracted again.  Paul DiLascia decided to give it a try, but changed his mind and kept working on Cornerstone.  Marc when to work for Simon and Schuster, and Paul went to work for Interleaf.  Jeff O’Neill finished Ballyhoo and, casting about for a new project, decided to take it on, about the time Jerry graduated.  Jeff got a trip to London out of it.  Douglas was enthusiastic, but busy with a movie.  Progress was very slow, and then Douglas was very busy with something named Dirk Gently.  Jeff decided it was time to work on something else, and Brian Moriarty took it over.  He visited England, and marveled at Douglas’ CD collection, but progress was slow.  Eventually he decided it was time to work on something else.  Paul made a cameo appearance, but decided to stay at Interleaf instead.  So Chris Reeve and Tim Anderson took it over, and mucked around a lot.  Finally, back in Las Vegas, Michael Bywater jumped (or was pushed) in and came to Boston for some serious script-doctoring, which made what was there into what is here.  In addition, there were significant contributions from Liz Cyr-Jones, Suzanne Frank, Gary Brennan, Tomas Bok, Max Buxton, Jon Palace, Dave Lebling, Stu Galley, Linde Dynneson, and others too numerous to mention.  Most of these people are not dead yet, and apologize for the inconvenience. 


The remarkable thing about the completed game is just how good it actually is.  Hodge-podge it may be, but it filled with some of the sharpest, funniest writing in the Infocom catalog.  The fact that the game is set in the real-world of everyday life gives its humor a satirical bite that is lacking in the company’s other efforts.  The game does not just go for the easy, obvious targets either.  Consider its sly dig at right-wing demagoguery, here personified by a rather anthropomorphic macaw: 


>x macaw 

The macaw stares blankly past you, wondering why there are no right-wing protest songs. 


>show painting to macaw 

The macaw is clearly deeply moved by the sight of the painting of Ronald W. Reagan, and starts shrieking a vigorous and relentless R&B number about the joys of political extremism. At the same time it launches into an energetic roach-stomping flamenco dance which miraculously generates enough aerodynamic lift to catapult it (somewhat asymmetrically) into the air, where it rips up Reagan's face (which, to be honest, makes little real difference). 


Exhausted but happy, it sinks back to its perch, croons repulsively the first verse of a ballad about pecking the eyes out of oppressors of the American people, and falls into a satisfied coma. 


In one of its many clever little touches, the game begins by having the player fill out a form with some general information about herself, such as address, phone number, and even current boyfriend or girlfriend.  It then uses this information throughout the game.  For instance, the game proper opens with the player in her house on her actual street that she provided the game earlier.  Later, she will receive a phone call from her significant other ending the relationship.  Another unique little gimmick is the game’s use of a blood pressure meter.  Any time something annoying happens to the player, even something as simple as a typo or command whose phrasing the game does not understand, her blood pressure will increase slightly, and will only decrease again gradually after a period of time free from annoyance.  Should the player’s blood pressure get too high, she will burst an artery and die. 


The game’s plot involves the player attempting to get from her hometown to Paris for a conference being conducted by her new company.  Perhaps reflecting the game’s piecemeal origins, it is divided into three sections.  The first and best is set in the player’s home town, and satirizes middles class life and all of its accouterments – unhelpful bank tellers, hopelessly muddled mailmen, etc.  The second deals with the endless frustrations of airports and airlines.  In the third section, the player ends up through a bizarre turn of events stranded in the African jungle, where she has her final showdown with a lonely computer nerd who has, as it turns out, been responsible for her troubles all along.  The game’s relentless razzing of this character throughout its length is absolutely hilarious, especially considering that the text adventure demographic Infocom serviced probably consisted of many characters just like him: 

The ghastly nerd reappears at your side, peering myopically through his filthy Coke-bottle spectacles. "There you are!" he whines. "I've got something I know you'll want. A Boysenberry XiGT6HP Special! Only 76 bucks!" 


            The game as a whole is a wonderful example of Infocom’s mature technology and philosophy of game design.  All of the old text adventure annoyances are gone by now, and what is left is pure pleasure, from its capable, flexible parser to its deep and thorough implementation of the environments it models.  No one else at the time was capable of producing work of this level of sophistication.  Against all odds, the game is truly one of the company’s best, and deserves more praise than it generally receives in my opinion.  For a huge and disjointed but often amusing second take on Bureaucracy’s theme, try Carol Hovick’s AGT classic Klaustrophobia. 


IF for Beginners: Wishbringer 


            It is somewhat surprising that Infocom waited as long as it did to create a work of IF designed explicitly to introduce newcomers to the genre.  While Seastalker had been released in 1984, that game was what Infocom called “junior-level” IF, targeted toward children rather than rookie adults.  When Brian Moriarty’s Wishbringer finally arrived in 1985, it seems to have satisfied a latent demand in the gaming public, for it became a sizable hit and outsold by a considerable margin Infocom’s two other releases of that year.  Today, Wishbringer has been somewhat overshadowed by Moriarty’s second game, the towering classic Trinity, but nevertheless still stands as an ideal introduction to the form.  Moriarty has created here, in Magnus Olsson’s words, a “small scale masterpiece” that manages to introduce the player to most of the common IF tropes without ever overwhelming him, and that makes it worthy of brief discussion here. 


            Wishbringer is best described as a work of magical realism.  The player takes the role of a mailman in the little town of Festeron who sees his world suddenly change in a most sinister way after he delivers a letter to the mysterious Magick Shoppe just outside of town.  The remainder of the game involves discovering the cause of the dark spell that has enveloped the town and setting things to rights.  Doing so will probably not be too terribly difficult even for the inexperienced player, but the puzzles involved are consistently clever and satisfying even if not particularly taxing.  The writing is superb, expertly balancing the gentle humor of small-town life with the sinister darkness that threatens it, and adding evidence to my opinion that Moriarty was the finest pure writer among all the implementers.  There is a real creepiness to revisiting locations in the sleepy little town after the spell has been cast upon it, but, in keeping with the charming, understated modesty of the game as a whole, this is never overdone.  


            The game’s most memorable feature, and its most obvious concession to the newbies it hoped to attract to the genre, is the Wishbringer stone from which it takes it title.  Once in the player’s possession, the stone allows him a limited number of wishes, which he can use in many cases in place of the “logical” solutions to the game’s problems.  In theory, this is a wonderful idea, giving the player as it does the opportunity to “cheat” when necessary without leaving the confines of the game and turning to a walkthrough or hint list.  Since he is still operating within the rules of the game, the player’s guilt at making use of the stone is likely to be less severe than more overt forms of cheating, which only adds to the relaxed, welcoming air of the game as a whole.  Unfortunately, the game’s one significant design flaw arises here.  It is possible for the player who relies too heavily on the stone’s magic to fail to acquire certain essential items for use later in the game.  A player who finds himself in this position has no choice but to restart or restore back to a point before the problem occurred.  While this is not really an unusual position for an adventurer to find himself in, it is decidedly out of keeping with the otherwise forgiving nature of the game.  Moriarty later claimed that this flaw was in fact a feature, as it taught a moral lesson about the dangers of unrestrained wishing.  Such an explanation rings rather false, however, in light of the game’s overall design philosophy. 


            This flaw aside, though, Wishbringer does what it sets out to do superbly well.  There are not enough IF games in existence like it, a fact that makes IF harder to approach than it needs to be.  The best compliment I can give Wishbringer is to say that I would have used it as my sample game in the first chapter of this work if it had been freely available to all my readers.  Twenty years after its released, nothing has bettered it as an introduction to IF.  


For a game that sports a similar atmosphere and contains only slightly more challenging puzzles, interested readers may wish to try Laura Knauth’s Winter Wonderland.  Andrew Plotkin’s recent Dreamhold is the most recent attempt to create a game for introducing newbies to the form.  When it notices that its player seems to be struggling with basic IF conventions, it provides context-sensitive help that is surprisingly apt.  Unfortunately, it ultimately falls into the trap of trying to be all things to all people and presents a series of puzzles more reminiscent of Spellbreaker than Wishbringer. 


Puzzleless IF: A Mind Forever Voyaging 


            A new version of Infocom’s Z-Machine debuted in late 1985.  Known internally as the Z-Machine version 4, it allowed game files of up to 256K, twice the size of its older sister that had powered all Infocom games up to that point, while lifting several other annoying but less obvious restrictions.  It also offered vastly improved text formatting and display options.  Italic and boldface typefaces were now possible, for instance, while scrollable menus and even “title screens” of a sort were now available to authors.  This newfound power came at a price, though.  Infocom could make games running within this new system, which it marketed as Interactive Fiction Plus, available only on machines having at least 128K of memory and the capability of displaying at least eighty columns of text.  While these requirements are rather laughable now, in 1985 they were met by only a small minority of home computers in existence, and Infocom was virtually the only game company in the marketplace aiming so high.  The company was taking a risk here, selling to a vastly smaller potential market than that of its standard games.  Small wonder then that Infocom continued to release a greater number of smaller games still using the older Z-Machine, with only the occasional more ambitious version 4 work.  When it was employed, though, the Z-Machine’s newfound power was put to good use, for Infocom’s first two version 4 releases are within the modern IF community the two most-lauded titles in their catalog. 


            The first of these was Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging.  From its William Wordsworth-derived title to its almost completely puzzleless gameplay, Mind was the most aggressive attempt ever by Infocom to promote IF as a valid literary form.  Even the back cover blurb raised the bar: 


A major departure for Infocom, A Mind Forever Voyaging is reminiscent of such classic works of science fiction as Brave New World and 1984.  You’ll spend less time solving puzzles, as you explore realistic worlds of the future. 


The game casts its player in the role of one Perry Simm, a normal if rather bookish young man living in Meretzky’s vision of a near-future America, who gets a rude awakening at age twenty.  He is literally jerked out of the reality he has always known by a Dr. Abraham Perelman, who proceeds to inform him that he is in fact not a real human being at all but merely an AI construct living within an elaborate computer simulation of American society.  Perry has been “awakened” rather earlier than planned to undertake a very special mission.  It seems that a Senator Richard Ryder has proposed a Plan for Renewed National Purpose, which he claims will solve many of the problems afflicting society: 


The Plan for Renewed National Purpose, Legislative action: 

  * cut tax rates by fifty percent 

  * vigorous prosecution of tax evasion 

  * decentralization of federal responsibilities 

  * deregulation of all major industries 

  * reinstatement of the military draft 

  * emphasis on fundamentals and traditional values in education 

  * mandatory conscription for troublemakers and criminals 

  * a strict "USNA First" trade policy 

  * termination of aid to nations not pro-USNA 

  * cutbacks on all types of bureaucracy, e.g. registering cars, guns 

  * termination of government subsidies to outmoded industries 


The Plan for Renewed National Purpose, Constitutional amendments: 

  * increase the powers of the Executive Branch 

  * increase the Presidential term of office to eight years 


The reader may notice that the Plan bears a striking similarity to typical Republican party platforms, then and now.  Mind’s political message is serious and overt.  It is not by accident that Richard Ryder has the same initials as another prominent conservative politician from the game’s own era. 


            Dr. Perelman asks Perry to enter a simulation of his world ten years in the future to see what the results of Ryder’s Plan are likely to be.  He is to wander about his fictional hometown of Rockvil, South Dakota, observing his surroundings and even his own economic and social position, making recordings of anything that seems relevant for Perelman and his colleagues to review.  It is on the verge of this return to “simulation mode” that the player assumes control and the game proper begins.  Perry first travels to Rockvil in the year 2041, a jump of ten years into the future.  What he finds there seems ideal.  The economy is booming, crime is down, and the atmosphere is upbeat.  Perry is happily married to his college sweetheart Jill, and his career prospects are looking very good.  The following excerpt shows Perry visiting his happy home.  (Meretzky was a newlywed himself at the time of this game’s development, which is perhaps reflected in his glowing depiction of wedded bliss.) 



Living Room 

This is the large living area of your apartment, with a bedroom to the north and a kitchen to the east. The front door of the apartment, next to the couch on the south wall, is open. A huge window provides a panoramic view to the west. 


Jill's easel occupies a beautiful, well-lit spot near the window. Her current painting is on the easel. In one corner is the old word processor where you do your writing. 


Jill enters from the kitchen. "Hi, hon. You're home early!" She kisses you. 


>examine me 

You look much as you always have: a normal, middle-aged male. Your clothes are simple but adequate. 


>examine jill 

Jill looks as beautiful as the day you married her seven years ago. She is curled up in the corner of the couch, reading a book. 


>examine book 

It's another of those indistinguishable romance novels that Jill is always reading. 


>examine painting 

The painting is a bright watercolor of the cliff-top Bermuda cottage colony where you and Jill spent your honeymoon. 


>ask jill about painting 

"The watercolor? It's pretty, but it doesn't SAY anything. If only I could think of some good subject material..." 


Jill looks up. "Perry, I heard a news report yesterday about interest rates and housing prices. If the economy keeps going the way it's going, and someone buys your Africa book, we might be able to afford a house next year!" 


>kiss jill 

Jill kisses you back. "Ooo-la-la," she says, afterwards. 


The player is free to observe all of this at his own pace while wandering over the game’s sprawling map of Rockvil.  He can visit churches, power stations, prisons, museums, courthouses, and stadiums; buy and read newspapers; spend time in his own home; eat in restaurants; even attend a movie.  When he finally returns to Perelman to make his report and present his recordings, all doubts about the Plan are erased, and it is adopted with almost universal support. 


            As my reader has probably guessed, though, that is not the end of things.  Perelman and his colleagues continue tinkering with the computer system, and begin to open up later eras for Perry to explore.  As the player wanders Rockvil’s geography further and further in the future, what he finds there becomes more and more disturbing.  The prosperity of 2041 turns out to be short-lived.  Along with the steadily worsening economy comes increasing religious and racial intolerance; increasing pollution; increasing crime; decreasing civil rights; and a steadily coarsening society.  Most heartbreaking of all is Perry’s personal decline in fortune: 



Living Room 

This is the large living area of your apartment, with a bedroom to the north and a kitchen to the east. The front door of the apartment, next to the couch on the south wall, is open. A huge window provides a panoramic view to the west. 


Jill's current artistic endeavor, a pencil sketch, is on her easel, near the entrance to the kitchen. In one corner is the old word processor where you do your writing. 

Jill is sitting on the couch, staring morosely out the window. 


>examine jill 

Jill has aged dramatically during the last decade, an effect heightened by the fact that Jill has become more and more withdrawn; she has lost interest in many things, including her appearance. She is sitting on the couch, staring morosely out the window. 


>examine me 

Your clothes are frayed, and your skin is beginning to show the wrinkles of your sixty years. 


>examine sketch 

The sketch is dark and brooding, depicting a demonic figure towering over a frightened group of children. It's been months since you last saw Jill working on it. 


>kiss jill 

Jill kisses you briefly, without much enthusiasm. 


With a roar of tromping feet, six or eight heavily armed Church police storm into the apartment. You see a look of horror come over Jill, as she covers her mouth with the back of her hand, as though stifling some silent scream. You follow her gaze, and -- a shock of recognition -- sauntering in behind the police... 


The ten years since you last saw him have left scant change on the face of your son. "Mitchell!" you yell, and take a step toward him, but a blow from one of the cops sends your frail, old body flying against the wall. 


"She is the one." The voice is Mitchell's, but the tone is cold, unrecognizable, sending shivers through you. He raises a fur-clad arm, pointing at his mother without a hint of emotion. "She spake against the Church; she tried to poison the mind of a child too young to know the Truth." The thugs grab Jill, who reaches toward Mitchell, tears of terror streaming down her face. Totally unresponsive, he turns and walks calmly out of the apartment. 


As Jill is dragged, screaming and crying, through the front door, you try to follow, but a cop pummels you in the stomach with his club. You fall to the floor, retching, as the apartment door slams closed, shutting you off forever from the son you cannot understand and the wife you will never see again. 


By the time he gets to 2081, the last year of the simulation, he finds society broken down entirely.  Rockvil is in a state of complete anarchy, home only to roving gangs and wild dogs. 


            Once the player has seen and recorded enough, he must return to the real world to stop the Plan.  Ryder shows his true colors as a ruthless demagogue rather than a merely ambitious politician at this point.  Perry must patch into various computer systems to thwart Ryder’s efforts to silence him and Dr. Perelman.  The puzzles that are introduced here are in fact the only ones present in the game.  If the player succeeds in stopping Ryder, Perry is rewarded by being allowed to return to live with Jill in a simulated paradise, and Meretzky takes the time to reward his player with a long and poignant epilogue describing their happiness. 


            A Mind Forever Voyaging has an almost sacred reputation in the IF community today.  Matthew Murray’s gushing assessment is not terribly unusual: 

This masterpiece--though nearly twelve years old has yet to be matched--or even surpassed--in terms of writing, design, or gameplay.  Touching,
moving, emotional, thought-provoking and as close to perfection as I have seen any game yet come (…), everyone owes it to themselves to play A Mind Forever Voyaging.  (…) AMFV is the finest game ever made, and should not be as underrated as it is... 


While Murray overstates his case considerably in my opinion, the game certainly has many compelling qualities.  Its design provides an ideal balance between a linear storyline and free-form exploration that is still worthy of study today.  The game emphasizes its narrative (as opposed to puzzle-solving) elements to an unprecedented degree.  Thought of in term of Graham Nelson’s characterization of IF as a “crossword at war with a narrative,” Mind is the first game to award the victory unconditionally to the narrative. 


            Mind has an ineffable quality of soulfulness about it.  Throughout, one can sense that Meretzky cares deeply about his characters.  He is plainly outraged and frightened by those who speak too frequently of “traditional values,” just as he is moved by the story and characters he has created.  This perhaps leads him to try too hard on occasion, but many of the game’s passages are undeniably powerful.  The cumulative effect of exploring the different time periods, of seeing an idyllic city gradually descend into violence and chaos, is very affecting when taken as a whole.  Even the game’s politics, overtly and un-self-critically liberal as they are, force a reaction from the player.  It is impossible to play the game and not feel something strongly.  How many text adventures before Mind – or, for that matter, after it – can make this claim? 


Meretzky began to develop some of IF’s artistic potential in Planetfall, where he included a host of not strictly necessary rooms and objects to bring the game’s background to life.  With Mind, he takes that idea to its logical conclusion.  The game is really all about discovering and exploring its background and story.  Until its climactic stages, virtually nothing here has any other, more “gamelike” purpose.  Little elements crop up continually that serve no purpose but to bring its world to life.  For instance, at one point Perelman has Perry visit with a psychologist, who administers to him a series of Rorschach tests.  The answers the player gives have no effect whatsoever in the game, but the experience serves to deepen the player’s connection with his alter-ego. 


            The game is larger in sheer number of locations than anything else Infocom produced.  Rockvil has room to breathe, and as a result it feels like a real city when the player roams its streets.  Unfortunately, the simulation is not as deep as it is broad.  Very few objects within the city are implemented, and the result is too many exchanges like this: 


Southway & River 

Here at River Street, Southway ends its long trip from the western suburbs. South of here, the street bends toward the river. To the southwest are some brick houses, and a car lot occupies the northwest corner. All along the east side of the street is the featureless, cliff-like facade of Heiman World. Little, if anything, has been done to restore the top several floors, gutted by fire about five years ago. 


That fire, which cost several thousand lives, revealed a severe deficiency of built-in fire control systems, but the courts threw out all suits since the building was built after the deregulation of the construction industry in '38, and the developer never falsely represented the building's safety systems. 


>examine houses 

[I don't know the word "houses".] 


>examine heiman world 

Totally ordinary looking Heiman World. 



Skycar Lot 

This large car lot serves Rockvil Mall, which lies to the north. There are exits from the lot to the southeast and southwest. 



Southway & Kennedy 

Kennedy Street, from the north, ends here in a "T" with Southway. On the northwest corner is a tall, ugly office tower. The words "First Continent Bank Building" hang in large metal letters over the entrance, and a car lot fills the northeast corner. A row of old brick triple-deckers, once renovated, lines the southern side of the street. 


>examine tower 

[You can't see any tower here!] 


Also disappointing is the game’s character interaction.  Perry’s wife Jill, the emotional center of the story, is no more responsive to conversation than was Planetfall’s Floyd.  Granted, even Infocom’s new version 4 technology carried with it significant space restrictions, and implementing everything in its many locations simply must not have been a practical possibility in light of the fact that the game already uses virtually every byte available to it in the version 4 format.  Still, the end result of such exchanges is to chip away at the sense of free exploration that is so fundamental to the game, and to continually remind the player he is still interacting with a limited, sometimes balky text adventure.  One wonders if a better choice might not have been to implement half as much map in twice as much detail.  It is perhaps instructional to compare Mind to another Interactive Plus game, Bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy is a smaller game in geographic terms but one in which virtually every object mentioned in the room descriptions is implemented, and it shows the potential a deep implementation has for immersing the player in a world even as it is, due to its more gamelike nature, much less obtrusively interested in doing so. 


            On a more thematic level, too, a close look reveals some cracks in Mind’s façade.  Its core premise is really rather absurd when the player begins to think about it seriously, as Graeme Cree pointed out in his review: 

Right away I had two serious problems with the game's premise.   First, computer simulations of the future have always been extremely unreliable, and here we're asked to believe that we will develop one so accurate that it can actually determine the location of (as yet unplanned) parks and small businesses in Rockvil, South Dakota, where the game takes place.  It is simply impossible to have enough information about people's private thoughts, especially ones that they haven't even had yet, to be able to factor this into a simulation.  Secondly, even if such simulations were available, why couldn't the data simply be retrieved from the computer, rather than have to send someone into the simulation to view it directly? 

On the one hand, this premise, fail as it may to pass the believability test to anyone with any understanding at all of computers and their limitation, is absolutely necessary for any game to exist at all, and so we should perhaps give Meretzky a pass here and suspend our disbelief.  On the other hand, though, Infocom makes a direct pitch on the game’s box for it to be talked of in the same context as 1984 and Brave New World.  A static work of serious science fiction literature would certainly not be forgiven the logical lapses that Cree points out above, and so perhaps Mind should not either. 


            The game also fails to really engage with the full thematic potential of its plot.  Its ending in particular, full of warmth and hope as it is, begins to bother me when I really think about it.  When Perry returns to a utopic version of the Rockvil he knows to be with Jill, he is opting out of reality to retreat into a fantasy.  The game never deeply considers the fact that Jill, and everything else Perry loves in Rockvil, is not real.  All of this is made doubly troubling when one considers some material that is included in the game’s box pertaining to a phenomenon called “joybooth suicide.”  The joybooth is one of the technologies that Meretzky has invented for his society of 2031.  While the details he provides are sketchy, it appears to be basically a reality simulator similar to Star Trek’s holodecks.  Apparently, it is quite common for people, young people especially, to enter into these alternate worlds and never come back.  This is depicted as one of the manifestations of the general malaise that makes the Plan necessary in the view of Ryder and his associates.  In escaping into his simulated Rockvil at the end of the game, Perry essentially commits joybooth suicide himself, yet the game never acknowledges any similarity at all.  I would like to believe that Meretzky was in fact leaving the ultimate desirability of Perry’s fate ambiguous, or even being deliberately subversive, yet his style of writing in the epilogue is so freely joyous that I have trouble really believing either. 


            Still, the fact that Mind has enough thematic meat on its bones to even make such debates possible makes it a landmark in IF, and on the whole its virtues far outweigh its flaws.  Its open-hearted idealism is so winning that most have little trouble forgiving it its failings, and even the mild criticism I have engaged in here will likely enrage a substantial number of the players whose unswerving loyalty it has captured. 


Sadly, Mind was a very slow seller for Infocom, and the company never attempted anything quite like it again.  Meretzky returned to his old forte of absurdist comedy for his remaining three games for the company.  It was not until the modern era, where IF is free of the commercial considerations that limited Infocom’s choices, that games like Adam Cadre’s Photopia continued its puzzleless tradition.  Today, Marnie Parker organizes an annual contest known as the IF Art Show specifically for IF “games” that are not really interested in being games at all, but rather focus on aesthetics and exploration, and at least one or two completely puzzleless works can generally be counted on as entrants in each year’s mainstream IF Competition.  One excellent recent Art Show entry that, like Mind, lets the player explore and enjoy a landscape without worrying about puzzles is Jacqueline Lott’s The Fire Tower


Infocom’s Finest Hour: Trinity 


            Brian Moriarty’s second game for Infocom, Trinity, is by general consensus considered, along with A Mind Forever Voyaging, one of the company’s two best.  My personal opinion would place Trinity alone on the pinnacle, for while Mind is a fascinating and rewarding effort in its own right, it also possesses its share of flaws.  I would be hard-pressed, though, to recommend any significant changes to Trinity.  It works as a game, as literature, and even as an educational tool, and stands in my opinion as not just Infocom’s best effort but as just possibly the finest work of IF ever produced.  It really is just that good. 


            The core idea for Trinity pre-dates Moriarty’s employment by Infocom.  He put it on the shelf to develop his more-manageable first effort Wishbringer, then returned to Trinity once the version 4 Z-Machine was on-hand to make it a practical possibility.  The game is centered around the development and use of atomic weaponry, and is divided into three parts.  The first finds the player in London’s Kensington Gardens in the present day on “the last day of your $599 London Getaway Package,” hoping to “soak up as much of that authentic English ambiance as you can” before returning to the real world of work and responsibility.  Unfortunately, reality arrives a day early in the form of a nuclear attack upon the city.  At the last moment before the missiles’ impact, though, time seems to stop for the player alone, and she finds herself with just enough time to dive through a mysterious white door that opens in midair a few feet above the Long Water.  She finds an enchanted land on the other side of the door, presided over by a huge sundial suspended above it and reachable only by a long stairway.  This marks the beginning of the second and largest stage of the game.  As the player explores the land and solves its puzzles, she gradually gains the ability to control the flow of time there, and to open more doorways, each one leading to a different time and place in the “real world” from which she came.  Each of these points in time and space is marked by the explosion of some sort of nuclear weapon.  Doors open into Nagasaki, Japan, on the day of its nuclear destruction; the first Soviet test of an atomic weapon; the first test of a hydrogen bomb; the first underground nuclear test; even a hypothetical test of Ronald Reagan’s beloved “Star Wars” missile defense system in low Earth orbit.  She must visit each, solving puzzles and collecting items which she will use to complete a magic spell which will in turn confer upon her the powers she will need to complete the final stage of the game.  That stage takes place in New Mexico, moments before the testing of the very first atomic bomb on the so-called Trinity site.  Here she has the opportunity to sabotage the bomb and change the history that led inevitably to the world’s destruction in her own timeline -- or so it initially seems.  The true effects of her actions are actually far stranger. 


            Like much literature – and I do not throw that word about loosely – Trinityis drenched in the atmosphere of the time of its creation.  The United States and the Soviet Union were beating their chests in a last great burst of mutual Cold War bluster in 1985 and 1986.  Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric was in full flower, defense spending had reached unprecedented levels, and the apocolyptic television movie The Day After had recently caused a public sensation and been watched by millions.  Out of this mood of creeping paranoia and dread sprang Trinity.  Little wonder then that Moriarty’s game displays little hope for mankind’s future, and treats nuclear destruction as an eventual inevitability.  Moriarty, who conducted extensive research for the game and even visited the Trinity site and Los Alamos National Laboratory personally, described his thematic intentions this way: 


"I wanted people, when playing the game, to feel their helplessness.  Because that's what I felt when I was reading and talking to these people and seeing these places. You could just feel the weight of history on you.  Going to the Trinity site and being there and realising what that place means, I just wanted people to feel that weight on them when playing the game. Have it crush them in the end because that's what I got out of my studies and research" (Rigby). 


This is not say that the game is ever strident in tone, or indulges in political condemnation.  Moriarty is too talented and subtle a writer for either.  The overall tone is of a stately, elegiac resignation.  Moriarty: 


"Well, it wasn't a pleasant experience, I can tell you that. It was not easy to sit down and write that stuff. As I said I talked to some people who were there and I read a lot of books by people who were there and the one thing they all said about it, the one common theme is that it was inevitable. That if we hadn't of done it, someone else would. They also say that that's not the only thing that's inevitable. History has a lot to teach us“ (Rigby). 


Trinity continually juxtaposes moments of lightness, even sweetness, against the shadow of destruction. Animals appear frequently as sentient embodiments of the idyllic beauty that man’s folly continually destroys.  Consider this encounter with a friendly dolphin on Bikini Atoll on the eve of the first hydrogen bomb test: 



You duck under the extension and follow the curve of the shore. 


West Beach 


The sand curves northeast and southeast, skirting the dark outline of the equipment shed. 


A tiny islet is visible a short distance offshore. 


A wave washes up underfoot. It looks as if the tide is rising. 


"Gnomon can tether time or tide," sniggers a voice in your ear. 


A gray fin is gliding across the lagoon. 


>examine fin 

The gray fin glides closer. 


"Detonator check, go." 


With a sudden splash, the gray fin shoots upward! You shriek and cover your face with your hands as a mouthful of sharp teeth leaps from the lagoon... 


A friendly chatter encourages you to open your eyes. It's a bottle-nosed dolphin, standing on its tail just offshore. 


>examine dolphin 

The dolphin stands on its tail. 


The distant islet is shrinking in the rising tide. 


>wave at dolphin 

The dolphin responds with a happy squeal. 


"Zero minus five minutes." 


>examine islet 

The islet is just a barren crescent of sand, gradually shrinking away in the rising tide. 


A lone coconut tree stands near one end of the islet. 


A faint plop draws your eyes to the islet. There's now a coconut lying at the water's edge. 


>examine coconut 

The coconut under the tree looks especially plump and juicy. 


"Geo, sync at three, two, one, mark." 


The dolphin chatters happily. 


>pet dolphin 

It's a little too far offshore. 


The tide creeps towards the coconut under the distant tree. 



Time passes. 


"Zero minus four minutes." 



Time passes. 


The coconut floats away from the distant islet on the rising tide. 


The dolphin gives you a playful splash. 


>point to coconut 

The dolphin sees the floating coconut, snatches it out of the lagoon and tosses it into the sand at your feet. 


"Patch to Alpha Echo Three Five." 


In less than four minutes, hopefully after the player has safely escaped the island, the dolphin will be dead, victim of man’s destructive folly. 


            The player is not always allowed to stand apart, to cluck and fret and condemn mankind’s destruction of so much that is precious while remaining unstained herself.  In one of Trinity’s most affecting scenes, the player is herself forced into cruelty.  One of the items that the player requires to complete her magic spell is a “fresh whole lizard, killed in the light of a crescent moon.”  Trinity makes her do the killing of this helpless little creature herself: 


Earth Orbit, in a soap bubble 


You're five hundred miles above a sea of ice, hurtling in profound silence over the Arctic atmosphere. Layers of crimson and violet describe the curve of the horizon, blending imperceptibly into a black sky crowded with stars. 


The soapy film around you freezes instantly, but remains intact. 


The white door drops away behind you. 


You watch helplessly as the white door dwindles to a distant speck, vanishing at last between the horns of the rising moon. 


>get skink 

You take the skink out of your pocket. 


Far ahead, a satellite drifts into view. 


The skink squirms violently in your hand. 


>kill skink 

The tiny lizard writhes in your grasp and claws at your fingers, its pink mouth gasping for breath. You squeeze harder and harder until your fist trembles with the effort. 


The skink stops squirming. 


[Your score just went up by 3 points. The total is now 57 out of 100.] 


Moriarty speaks of the disturbing effect this scene had on many players: 


"That was deliberate. I was amazed to see how many people were actually bothered by the scene with the lizard, because it was them doing it. It's nice to know that interactive fiction could do that, make you feel uncomfortable about killing things. In no other media could I make you feel bad about killing something. Because there is only one medium where I can make YOU do it, and make you feel empathy for a thing that doesn't exist.  It's only with interactive fiction that you can explore these emotions" (Rigby). 


            For all its contemporary relevance, Trinity is really concerned with the eternal.  It depicts mankind as, for all its beauty and ugliness, rather insignificant in the face of the unchanging perfection of the land at the center of the game.  Time here is not a linear flow of battles, extinctions, and inventions, but rather is circular, as symbolized by the sundial at the enchanted land’s heart.  The player – or Wabewalker, as the game eventually comes to refer to her – realizes this with a shock at the end of the game, after she has thwarted history, or so she believes, by disabling the Trinity bomb before its explosion.  From all of her previous IF experience, she expects a conventional happy ending at this point.  What she finds is very different.  


>cut blue wire 

[with the steak knife] 


[Your score just went up by 5 points. The total is now 100 out of 100.] 


You slide the blade of the steak knife under the blue wire and pull back on it as hard as you can. The thick insulation cracks under the strain, stretches, frays and splits... 


Snap! A shower of sparks erupts from the enclosure. You lose your balance and fall backwards to the floor. 


"X-unit just went out again," shouts a voice. 


"Which line is it, Baker?" 


"Kid's board says it's the ground. The others look okay. We're lettin' it go, Able. The sequencer's running." 


The walkie-talkie crackles for a moment. 




You turn, but see no one. 


"Zero minus fifteen seconds," crackles the walkie-talkie. 


"You should be proud of yourself." Where is that voice coming from? "This gadget would've blown New Mexico right off the map if you hadn't stopped it. Imagine the embarrassment." 


A burst of static. "Minus ten seconds." 


The space around you articulates. It's not as scary the second time. 


"Of course, there's the problem of causality," continues the voice. "If Harry doesn't get his A-bomb, the future that created you cannot occur. And you can't sabotage the test if you're never born, can you?" 


The walkie-talkie is fading away. "Five seconds. Four." 


The voice chuckles amiably. "Not to worry, though. Nature doesn't know the word 'paradox.' Gotta bleed off that quantum steam somehow. Why, I wouldn't be surprised to see a good-sized bang every time they shoot off one of these gizmos. Just enough fireworks to keep the historians happy." 


The player has not actually prevented the Trinity explosion at all, but reduced its effect from a blast that would have destroyed the entire state of New Mexico to the effects we are actually familiar with.  Her meddling has altered the laws of physics, but only to set up the reality she has already experienced, for causality cannot be violated.  She now finds herself back in London, exactly where she began the game, and faced with doing the whole thing all over again.  At best she can hope that she has prevented the complete destruction of mankind.  The beauty of the Kensington Gardens, though, and presumably everything else she knows, will be destroyed forever.  Thus our modern notions of progress and past, present, and future are dashed away in a nod to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.  What is left are only individual moments. 


            Much in Trinity goes entirely unexplained.  To whom does the mysterious voice that occasionally whispers in the player’s ear at key moments belong?  What and where is this magical land, exactly, and why does a new doorway spring up there with every atomic explosion in our world?  Who is the little boy blowing the bubbles?  Who is the bird lady who seems to know more than the player about what is to come even before the missiles begin to rain down on London?  How does the roadrunner, the player’s on-again, off-again companion throughout the game, fit into everything else?  How exactly has the player gotten stuck in this endless loop that becomes apparent at the end of the game?  Surrealism is dangerous in any form of literature, and is far overused in IF.  Yet here, in the hands of a master, it works superbly.  We do not know the answers to any of these questions, and quite possibly neither does Moriarty, yet the pieces fit together in a way that just feels right on a level beyond intellect. 


            For all of its structural and emotional heft, Trinity remains a perfectly satisfying traditionalist text adventure.  The player collects objects, solves puzzles, and scores points, just as in Adventure, and Moriarty never challenges this basic formula.  Unlike many of the games I will discuss in detail, Trinity succeeds not by extending or subverting the form but by using it to perfection, and in doing so it achieves a perfect balance between Nelson’s narrative and crossword.  Many of Trinity’s features have been immensely influential.  While time travel games were certainly far from unknown before it, Trinity raised the bar with its detailed, meticulously accurate recreation of the past.  Moriarty did an immense amount of research for the game, traveling to Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Trinity Site himself and even including a voluminous bibliography with the game’s documentation.  Another IF tradition, some would claim an overused one, inaugurated by Trinity was the use of occasional box quotes to highlight its action.  Trinity’s quotations, ranging from Alexander Pope to the Bible to Talking Heads’ David Byrne, are always cogent and serve to reinforce the game’s claim to the status of serious literature by anchoring it within the larger literary tradition. 


            Trinity’s achievement is so immense that it is hard not to see the remaining few years of Infocom as somewhat anticlimactic, even though several more classic works were in store.  The game sold only moderately, which, combined with the commercial failure of A Mind Forever Voyaging, probably helped to convince the company to refocus its attention onto slightly less high-brow works of IF. 


            For a newer time-travel epic that captures some of the feel and even some of the stately majesty of Trinity, see Graham Nelson’s Jigsaw. 


Infocom Gets Sexy: Leather Goddesses of Phobos 


            At first, it is hard not to feel a bit disillusioned when turning to Steve Meretzky’s first game after A Mind Forever Voyaging.  Having ventured into the waters of serious speculative fiction and found his audience rather lukewarm, he returned to his forte of science fiction comedy with Leather Goddess of Phobos.  The difference, though, and the element which makes the game worthy of brief discussion here, was that Meretzky, in a first for himself as well as Infocom, brought sex into the equation.  Billed as a “racy science fiction spoof,” the game is an homage of sorts to 1930s movie serials like Flash Gordon, with the implicit sexuality of those production made overt.  The player begins the game in a bar in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and in a rather clever touch chooses whether to play as a male or female by relieving herself in the appropriate bathroom.  The gender of the player’s various potential conquests changes depending on the sex she chooses at the beginning.  She is soon abducted by Leather Goddess for employment as their personal sex slave.  Meretzky is all for lesbians, of course, so the Leather Goddesses remain the Leather Goddesses even if the player chooses to be female.  The player soon escapes from the Goddesses, and sets off on a merry romp around the galaxy to foil their nefarious plans. 


The story goes that Meretzky was deeply disappointed that Mind’s political content inspired nary a whiff of notice in the press.  Determined to court controversy wherever he could find it, he opted to make his new game racy.  He seems quite proud of himself all things considered, as is demonstrated by the game’s opening text: 


  Some material in this story may not be suitable for children, especially the parts involving sex, which no one should know anything about until reaching the age of eighteen (twenty-one in certain states). This story is also unsuitable for censors, members of the Moral Majority, and anyone else who thinks that sex is dirty rather than fun. 

   The attitudes expressed and language used in this story are representative only of the views of the author, and in no way represent the views of Infocom, Inc. or its employees, many of whom are children, censors, and members of the Moral Majority. (But very few of whom, based on last year's Christmas Party, think that sex is dirty.) 

   By now, all the folks who might be offended by LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS have whipped their disk out of their drive and, evidence in hand, are indignantly huffing toward their dealer, their lawyer, or their favorite repression-oriented politico. So... Hit the RETURN/ENTER key to begin! 


In truth, the game would likely be given no worse than a PG-13 rating if released as a movie, and Meretzky’s constant patting himself on the back for his edginess grows a bit wearisome.  As an apparent concession to those with particularly delicate sensibilities, though, three user-selectable “naughtiness levels” were offered: Tame, Suggestive, and Lewd.  I would suspect that very few players bothered with anything but the Lewd level, of course.  What they found there were a number of sex scenes of the old Hollywood fade-to-black style; a fair number of dirty words that often seem forced, as if thrown in more from a sense of obligation than anything else; and an endless stream of sexual innuendo.  Words like “thrusting” get a lot of play in reference to buildings and rocket ships, for instance.  The end result generally does not get far above a Beavis and Butthead level of humor, but when it hits the mark the good-natured silliness can be amusing enough: 



Canalview Mall 

   Trent follows you. 

   [A warning for any Jerry Falwell groupies who are miraculously still playing: we'll be using the word "tits" in five turns or so. Please consult the manual for the proper way to stop playing.] 



Time passes... 

   [Only a few turns until the "tits" reference! Use QUIT now if you might be offended!] 



Time passes... 

   [Last warning! The word "tits" will appear in the very next turn! This is your absolutely last chance to avoid seeing "tits" used!!!] 



Time passes... 

   A hyperdimensional traveller suddenly appears out of thin air. "My sister has tremendous breasts," says the traveller and, without further explanation, vanishes, leaving only a vague trace of interdimensional ozone. 

   [Oh, regarding the use of "tits," we changed our mind at the last minute. Everyone agreed it was too risque.] 


Obviously, anyone expecting serious titillation from Leather is likely to be disappointed, but the game’s aggressively low-brow humor works more often than not.  One of my favorite responses occurs when the hapless player tries to use the standard command to check her score: 



[with Trent] 

A slap across the face alerts you that Trent isn't that hot to trot. And not a goddam single cold shower in sight! 


Infocom included an unlabelled scratch-n-sniff card with Leather.  The game occasionally tells the player to try out a particular square when some strong odor is present.  The mind might initially boggle at the potential smells that might be found there, but all of the scents are actually perfectly wholesome.  Thankfully, Infocom’s edginess only went so far. 


            In the end, Leather is a trifle, but it is an amusing trifle, and Infocom’s usual technical excellence and sense of strong game design make it the first racy text adventure that is even remotely worth playing.  While it may have disappointed Meretzky by failing to generate any more controversy than Mind, it was Infocom’s last real commercial hit, the old adage that sex sells apparently holding true.  For a modern game that follows somewhat in the tradition of Leather, but with a level of explicitness that even the controversy-courting Meretzky would not have dared approach on the 1980s commercial game market, try Adam Thorton’s Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country. 


Wordplay: Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It 


            Jeff O’Neill’s Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It is one of the most unique titles in the Infocom catalog, and one which has in its quiet way been fairly influential.  Nord is actually a collection of bite-sized “short stories,” all of them taking place in the “mixed-up town of Punster.”  The segments are not dependent upon one another and can in fact be played in any order, with one exception: unlocking the eighth and final chapter requires that the player complete the other seven.  While this approach is unique enough in itself, it is only the beginning of the game’s innovations.  Each of Nord’s segments revolves around a particular kind of wordplay.  Puns, clichés, spoonerisms, and others are present and accounted for.  The end result is an “adventure game” that plays like nothing else seen in the genre before, and one that could only be done as textual IF.  A sample transcript from the section dealing with clichés gives a taste of typical gameplay: 


The farm crisis never seemed so desperate as it has this planting season in Punster. One such family farm on the edge of town, the McCleary's, has been especially blighted. The family, though well accustomed to hard work, suddenly lost the ability to perform even the simplist of chores necessary to scratch a living from the soil. They have since been driven from the land, and join with their fellow Punster neighbors in urging you to somehow save the family farm. 




The telltail smell of grain and dung drifts by. You're on a dusty road in front of abandoned farm -- a nice-sized spread of land that stretches far out to meet the horizon. 


A wooden cart sits in the dusty road here. 


An old dog sits in the dust at the side of the road, feeling all of the spirit of gravity, looking dog-eared and worn out by a lifetime on the farm. 


>teach old dog new tricks 

The old dog perks up one of its dog-eared ears, then the other. Its tail emerges from the surrounding dust and begins oscillating back and forth with such intensity that you'd think it was a case of the tail wagging the dog. 


In turn the old boy goes through a series of back flips, chases its tail, walks around on his hind legs, and howls at the moon. The dog, bursting with energy through its shiny new coat, is no longer dry as the dust that surrounds it. 


Suddenly by leaps and bounds, the old dog bolts away, and comes back with one stone in its slobbery mouth. 


>go to field 

You trudge along and get there... 




You are standing at the edge of a barren field that is reminiscent of the dust bowl days. A steady wind, having secreted away the topsoil, is now drifting sandy dirt across the plain. A scant sign of life here is a freshly burrowed molehill on the ground. 


Marking the corner of the property is a large stack of hay, whose musty odor sticks in your nostrils. 


The old dog follows behind you. 


>search for needle in haystack 

It's hard, of course, because all those stalks of hay look like needles themselves. The needle is found twinkling brightly silver among the yellow stalks of hay grass. You grab it. 


>go to barnyard 

You trudge along and get there... 




You're standing here in the barnyard, a meager patch of scratched earth. You can tell right away what a dog-eat-dog world the farm can be, as you see lying on the ground a sow's ear, and then some poor animal's tail. 


You can see a full complement of swords leaning up against the broad side of the barn, looking very out of place here on the farm. 


You can see a sow's ear and a tail here. 


The old dog follows behind you. 


>make silk purse out of sow's ear 

After working your fingers to the bone and using some rather amazing stitches, you finally tie up the last thread, taking pride in the silky radiance of the lavender purse. 


>beat swords into plowshares 

If you only had a hammer... 


Nord and Bert had been intended by Infocom as the debut entry in a line of somewhat casual IF, which it hoped would win them converts outside of the typical adventure-gamer demographic.  Unfortunately, the game was never given any promotion among those who might have found it interesting, and pretty well sank without a trace upon its release.  It deserved a better fate, for it is among the most original works of the company’s later years, and it is just plain fun to play.  Scoring all of the points available in any given section is fiendishly difficult, but, in keeping with its generally relaxed personality, a section is considered completed when some reasonable percentage of the maximum has been attained.  Thus those who want to challenge themselves can struggle to find every last point, while those who simply want to have a good time and get the gist of things are free to move on.  About the only serious complaint about the game that I can make is that in a couple of sections O’Neill seems to run out of inspiration for wordplay, and falls back on fairly typical text adventure tropes that seem exceptionally stale when juxtaposed against the rest of chapters.  The other sections are more than good enough to make up for these failings, however.  It may not have the serious pretensions of some of Infocom’s other works, and there is in fact virtually no real narrative happening here, but Nord and Bert is easily one of my five or so favorites from their catalog, and one of very few that I return to on a semi-regular basis. 


            The IF short story, as opposed to novel, has for better or for worse become a dominant trend in the modern community, driven by the annual Competition’s two-hour judging time limit and perhaps also the fact that virtually everyone writing IF today is a hobbyist with many other demands on her time.  Epics still get made, of couse, but not in the quantity many would like to see.  We will return to this debate in a later chapter.  Nord and Bert’s idea of building an IF game not around a simulated world but around the actual words continues to recur occasionally in modern works.  Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum is an excellent homage to O’Neill’s original.  For something more esoteric, try Carl Muckenhoupt’s The Gostak, which takes this idea of “playing with words” to an extreme by being written largely in a made-up language which the player gradually learns to decipher and then “speak” through contextual clues. 


Late Experiments in Genre: The Lurking Horror and Plundered Hearts 


            1987 was the most prolific year by far for Infocom, with the company shipping no fewer than eight new IF titles.  In this year, its last great flowering, Infocom consistently pushed at the boundaries that marked their previous IF.  The just-discussed Nord and Bert is one example.  Two more, David Lebling’s The Lurking Horror and Amy Brigg’s Plundered Hearts, are more conventional in form but represent forays into new genres of fiction. 


            The Lurking Horror is the first and only horror game that Infocom produced.  In this unabashed homage to H.P. Lovecraft, the player takes the role of a student at the fictional GUE Tech University, which has been marked lately by a series of strange disappearances of its students.  The game’s begins on a winter’s night in the midst of a blizzard.  The campus is virtually shut down, but the player must venture forth to the computer lab to finish her literature paper.  Upon logging in, she finds that her paper has disappeared off the campus computer system, the file replaced by a mysterious, garbled text that seems to be connected with GUE’s “Department of Alchemy.”  She sets off to investigate with the help of a hacker who is not that far removed from the one in Bureaucracy, and the game is afoot. 


            Infocom was beginning to experiment with multimedia elements by this stage, and in certain versions of Lurking it included appropriately creepy sound files that were played to punctuate the action at certain points in the game.  Still, as horror the game never quite hits the mark.  Perhaps this is because the element of horror does not quite reconcile with the other, more endearing side of the game’s personality, a fond tribute to student life at MIT.  There is no question that GUE is a stand-in for MIT.  The pranks and quirky traditions; the intensely nerdy atmosphere; the network of ancient steam tunnels underneath the campus; the stylistically jumbled architecture dating from many different eras; even the legendarily cold Boston winter and the so-called “long corridor” running through the heart of the campus are all present, lovingly portrayed by Lebling with an almost palpable aura of nostalgia.  Lebling: 


It was a labor of love, set as it was at a thinly-disguised MIT, with lots of real places and a somewhat-accurate geography. Aside from the actual monsters, the course of the game duplicates "Institute Exploring" adventures I went on when I was a freshman (Mullen). 


Lurking had initially been planned as an Interactive Fiction Plus release, only to be cut down to a standard-sized game for commercial reasons.  Lebling himself has indicated that he was not entirely satisfied with the result: “A lot of lovely shivers had to be cut out of the design, and some stuff out of the almost-finished product” (Mullen).  The overall design is polished, the puzzles are always fair, and the game is quite satisfying to play even in its truncated state, but it still feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. 


            Horror, particular Lovecraft-inflected horror, has continued to be a going concern in IF.  Perhaps the best example, and a better game in virtually all ways than its progenitor, is Michael Gentry’s sprawling epic Anchorhead.  College campuses have also been frequently used as IF settings.  Gareth Rees’ Christminster does for Oxford and Michael Roberts’ Return to Ditch Day does for Cal-Tech what Lurking did for MIT. 


            The only Infocom game authored by a woman, Plundered Hearts is also the company’s only romance.  Its author, Amy Briggs, describes its genesis: 

I wanted to write a game that women like myself would enjoy, and I enjoyed romances. Actually, even more than romance, I enjoy historical fiction, and that's a genre that's still largely untapped in the game industry, unless you count Castles, or the medieval side of Dungeons and Dragons games. I'm not sure why that genre has been ignored -- I think we decided at Infocom that a historical romance would be a little more focused at a particular audience than historical fiction. Also, I very definitely wanted a female protagonist, and I wanted to play with the humor of being a romantic heroine -- typically passive and docile, with at most "spunk" -- in a situation where she has to take the reins (deMause). 


Briggs, a longtime Infocom employee in various positions who in this the company’s twilight was finally given the change to write her own game, goes for the classic bodice-ripper feel right from the dream sequence that opens it: 



Trembling, you fire the heavy arquebus. You hear its loud report over the roaring wind, yet the dark figure still approaches. The gun falls from your nerveless hands. 

   "You won't kill me," he says, stepping over the weapon. "Not when I am the only protection you have from Jean Lafond." 

   Chestnut hair, tousled by the wind, frames the tanned oval of his face. Lips curving, his eyes rake over your inadequately dressed body, the damp chemise clinging to your legs and heaving bosom, your gleaming hair. You are intensely aware of the strength of his hard seaworn body, of the deep sea blue of his eyes. And then his mouth is on yours, lips parted, demanding, and you arch into his kiss... 

   He presses you against him, head bent. "But who, my dear," he whispers into your hair, "will protect you from me?" 

Given Infocom’s well-documented struggle with character interaction in its early mysteries, one might wonder how on Earth Briggs hoped to pull off a believable romance.  In fact, though, she does just that, not through any new technical wizardry but by carefully limiting and scripting the character interaction.  Essentially, Plundered Hearts is a straightforward adventure game, albeit a rousing good one, set among pirates on Spanish Main in the late 1600s.  The protagonist is a young Englishwoman whose attempt to travel by sea to nurse her ailing father in the West Indies meets with disaster when her ship is attacked by pirates.  High adventure ensues, as does a developing romance with a charming rogue. 

            The game works so well because Briggs places the interactive emphasis on things that IF is very good at, and largely pre-scripts the game’s “touchy-feely” aspects.  Stacking the deck in her favor she may be, but the results are thoroughly satisfying, and the technique has been much-emulated since.  Its plucky, likable heroine is so well characterized, both in the game itself and in its accompanying documentation, that the game’s admitted railroading of the player seems perfectly unforced.  Plundered is in fact among the best of Infocom’s later efforts, absolutely drenched in period and genre atmosphere and, with Infocom’s years of design experience to draw upon, impeccably constructed as a game.  It is one of Infocom’s most under-played and under-appreciated titles.  Many seem to avoid it, perhaps because IF’s still largely male demographic is not terribly interested in romance novels, but virtually all who give it a chance are delighted.  For those who are concerned about such things, its sexual content is essentially non-existent.  It is a classic romance in the old style, where sexuality is implied but never shown.  The pity is that Infocom’s downsizing and eventual demise prevented Briggs from writing any more IF. 

            Plundered Hearts sold dismally, but several modern IF authors are unabashed fans of both it and romance novels in general, and have given the genre surprising life.  Kathleen Fischer’s Civil War romance Masquerade seems particularly indebted to Plundered Hearts, and is almost as satisfying.  See Christopher Huang’s Muse: An Autumn Romance for a touching take on unrequited love from a male perspective.  Finally, Emily Short’s Savoir Faire, while not really a romance, has much of the same period atmosphere as Plundered Hearts. 

            The three games previously discussed all represent significant attempts by Infocom to move IF into previously unexplored genres.  All were commercial failures, however, and if anything likely only hastened the company’s decline.  Perhaps the essential problem was that the people who might be interested in such works were generally not computer game players, at least at this time, while those who were – largely young men with a prediliction for science fiction and Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy – were not terribly interested in traveling down these particular literary roads.  Thus Infocom was left in a frustrating position, with a works that it felt would interest certain people but with no way to bring those works to those people’s attention.  It is a problem that those in the modern IF community are all too familiar with. 

Late Experiments in Form: Border Zone and Beyond Zork

            Even as it branched into new genres, Infocom also experimented with various new technologies in its IF titles during that busy year of 1987.  One of the more successful of these experiments, or, as some would have them, gimmicks, I have already mentioned in my discussion of The Lurking Horror and its inclusion of sound effects.  While sound was a nice, but inessential, bonus feature in Lurking, two other games from that year were largely defined by their “gimmicks.”  Both were made possible by another revision of the Z-Machine, to version 5.  While the size of version 5 games remained capped at 256K, text formatting and presentation options improved yet again; limited graphical displays were made possible with the availability of color and a special graphical font for drawing on-screen; a mouse was supported on those machines that had one available; and (for better or for worse) the Z-Machine was given real-time capabilities.  A very convenient option to UNDO the player’s last command was also added.  Although Infocom used version 5 for just a bare few games, it later became the de facto standard for modern IF games.  That story will have to wait for a future chapter, however. 

            Border Zone by Marc Blank was Infocom’s first and only foray into the arena of espionage fiction ala John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth.  It construction was also somewhat unique.  In a nod to Nord and Bert, the game is really three separate, interlocking stories told from three different points of view.  They can be played in any order, although Infocom recommends that the player go through them sequentially to experience the larger plot of the game as a whole in a coherent way.  The game takes places in the fictional Eastern bloc country of Frobnia.  In the first part, the player takes the role of an ordinary Western businessman who meets a mysterious, badly wounded man on a train and receives some papers from him.  The second part takes place from the perspective of that wounded agent as he attempts to escape Frobnia, and the third introduces yet another protagonist, an American double agent who is trying to prevent the assassination that is at the heart of all these previous events.  Blank dives into the spy novel genre with Infocom’s usual wholehearted gusto, and the end result would work quite well if it were not almost totally undone by the game’s associated technical gimmick. 

            The gimmick here is that Border Zone is a real-time game.  A clock steadily advances in synch with the real world, and events continue to happen in the story even if the player enters nothing at all.  The obvious hope was that this would impart a sense of urgency, and further immerse the player into the game.  In practice, though, it is just annoying, forcing the player to continually restore or restart to maximize her time efficiency after he solves each puzzle.  In the end, real-time IF is an answer to a question absolutely no one was asking.  Just giving the player a limited number of conventional turns to accomplish what he need to works just as well in establishing urgency, and does not penalize those whose typing skills are perhaps not quite up to par.  The real pity here is that the real-time gimmick ruins an otherwise well-written and well-crafted game.  In an odd reversal of Infocom’s usual policy of allowing its players to customize its games and play them their way, Border Zone does not allow the real-time clocked to be disabled entirely, only slowed down or sped up.  The game represents an interesting experiment, but an emphatically failed one, and one that to my knowledge has never been repeated. 

             Only marginally more successful was Infocom’s attempt at creating an “IF RPG,” Brian Moriarty’s Beyond Zork.  In this return to the fantasy universe of the Zork and Enchanter trilogies, the player is sent on a quest for the legendary Coconut of Quendor.  The difference here is that the player creates a persona for herself in the style of a role-playing game such as Ultima, Wizardry, or The Bard’s Tale, allocating points to statistics such as strength, intelligence, and dexterity.  Much of Beyond Zork revolves around conventional IF puzzle-solving, but there are also monsters to be defeated in simulated, randomized combat.  In the classic RPG mold, the player will steadily collect better weapons and armor and improve her ability scores as she progresses through the game, thus allowing her to take on bigger and tougher foes.  Beyond Zork bears the obvious influence of online MUDS (Multi-User Dungeons), which appear superficially similar to single-player IF, but actually have a very different focus.  Beyond Zork’s attempt to combine the two does not really work, and just ends up feeling rather schizophrenic.  One finds oneself wishing to just be allowed to enjoy Moriarty’s clever puzzles and well-crafted prose, and not have to deal with the hack and slash elements at all.  

             Randomized combat in textual IF has always been oddly unsatisfying, in spite of occasional noble attempts like Beyond Zork.  Perhaps the major problem is that the ability to RESTORE or (beginning with Z-Machine version 5) simply UNDO at any time removes all tension.  An unfavorable “die roll” is thus easily enough corrected, and the combat ends up feeling more like tedious number crunching to just be gotten through than anything more exciting.  Also, the text-based nature of the medium has meant that strategic options for the player are very limited, removing any real element of skill from the equation.  I believe that an IF RPG might work if it provided a graphical display showing the player’s relation to her enemies, and thus allowing the use of real strategy in battle.  As of yet, though, no one has tried anything quite like that, and every experiment in this area – including Quarterstaff: The Tomb of Setmoth, an IF RPG effort developed by an outside party and published for Macintosh only by Infocom in 1988 – has failed in a similar way to Beyond Zork. 

Beyond Zork (1987)

            Beyond Zork presents by far the most advanced interface yet seen from Infocom, as the above screenshot may illustrate.  The player can choose from several different screen layouts displaying various sorts of information.  The above shows the default.  A description of the player’s current location always appears to the top left, while a map of the surrounding geography appears to the right.  The player can click with a mouse on this map to move around if she so chooses.  Note also the game’s use of color.  Modern IF designers have almost entirely eschewed this sort of flash in favor of the cleaner, more book-like model of Infocom’s earlier games. 

            As I hope the above discussion has conveyed, even Infocom’s unsuccessful designs were consistently innovative and interesting.  In consistent quality, quantity, and creativity, no other IF publisher of the commercial era could touch Infocom.  However, that does not mean that no interesting work at all was coming from other camps.  In the next chapter, we will leave Infocom for a time to look at some of their more significant rivals’ histories and games. 

Sources for Further Investigation


 For the Infocom games discussed, see the list of canonical works beginning on page 2.

 Ad Verbum.  2000.  Nick Montfort.

All Things Devours.  2004.  “half sick of shadows.”

Anchorhead.  1998.  Michael Gentry.

Bad Machine.  1998.  Dan Shiovitz.

Balances.  1994.  Graham Nelson.

Christminster.  1995.  Gareth Rees.

Dangerous Curves.  2000.  Irene Callaci.

The Dreamhold.  2004.  Andrew Plotkin.

Dutch Dapper IV: The Final Voyage.  2002.  Harry Hol.

The Fire Tower.  2004.  Jacqueline A. Lott.

The Gostak.  2001.  Carl Muckenhoupt.

Guilty Bastards.  1998.  Kent Tessman.

Jigsaw.  1995.  Graham Nelson.

Klaustrophobia.  1994.  Carol Hovick.

LASH.  2000.  Paul O’Brian.

Masquerade.  2000.  Kathleen M. Fischer.

Muse: An Autumn Romance.  1998.  Christopher Huang.

Photopia.  1998.  Adam Cadre.

Return to Ditch Day.  2004.  Michael J. Roberts.

Savoir Faire.  2002.  Emily Short.

Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country.  2001.  Adam Thornton.

Threnody.  2005.  John Schiff.

Winter Wonderland.  1999.  Laura A. Knauth.

Other Works:

Berlyn, Michael.  Transcript of online chat on CompuServe’s GameSIG.  July 18, 1984.
http://mirror.ifarchive.org /if-archive/infocom/info/berlynco_adv.txt.

Cree, Graeme.  Review of A Mind Forever Voyaging, SPAG #5, April 1995.

Cree, Graeme.  Review of Suspended, SPAG #8, February 1996.

deMause, Neil.  “Romancing the Genre: An Interview with Plundered Hearts Author Amy Briggs.”  XYZZY News #12.

Greenlee, Steven.  “Where Are They Now?”  Computer Games Review, April 1996.

Mullen, Eileen.  “Interview with David Lebling.”  XYZZY News #8.

Murray, Janet H.  Hamlet on the Holodeck.  MIT Press: Cambridge, 1997.

Murray, Matthew.  “Top 5 Underrated Games?”  Usenet post to comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.adventure, April 9, 1997.

Nelson, Graham.  “The Craft of Adventure (2nd ed.).” 


Olsson, Magnus.  Review of Wishbringer, SPAG #6, July 1995.

Rigby, Paul.  “From Here to Trinity… and Back Again.”  Adventure Probe, May 1991.

Simpson, M.J.  Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams.  Justin, Charles, and Company: Boston, 2003.

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