Cliff Johnson’s Fool’s Errand

The Fool's Errand

One sunny day, a light-hearted fool strolled along a hilly path, whistling a merry tune. A long wooden pole was slung over his shoulder and attached to it was a cloth bundle which carried his life’s possessions.

“What a marvelous afternoon!” he exclaimed to no one in particular, pausing to appreciate the lovely countryside.

Soon the trees parted and the path led to a small clearing, ending abruptly at the edge of a treacherous cliff. But the fool was undaunted and kept at his swift pace, steadily approaching the sheer drop.

“Your folly is most curious,” a voice boomed. “Have you no fear of death?”

Just as one leg dangled over the side of the cliff, the fool hesitated.

“Who dares to interrupt my errand?” he demanded impatiently.

“I dare,” the bright yellow sun replied.

“Well, then,” the fool considered, “I seek the fourteen treasures of the world and I am told that a man who strays from his path is lost.”

“That may well be true,” spoke the sun, “but I fear that you are already lost. Take this map as my gift. It will aid you in your quest.”

And in a flash of light, an aged parchment appeared at his feet.

“At last! A path to follow!” cried the fool, happily taking the map.

“Perhaps,” the sun murmured, “yet things are never as simple as they may seem.”

But the fool had already run back down the hill and did not hear the sun’s parting words.

Long before “game developer” was recognized by universities as a legitimate career to which one could aspire, people from a dizzying array of backgrounds stumbled into the field. Plenty were the programmers and technologists that you might expect, but plenty of others came from places much farther afield. Infocom, just to take one example, included among their ranks a construction engineer, a journalist, a science-fiction author, a medical doctor, and two lost literature majors, while Sierra’s two most prominent designers were a former housewife and a former jazz musician. Other companies could boast architects, psychologists, rocket scientists, poets, and plain old high-school students. Taken in this light, the story of Cliff Johnson, a filmmaker who decided to start making computer games instead, may not seem quite so atypical. The first game he made, however, is anything but typical. The Fool’s Errand is one of the precious gems of its era, despite — because of? — having been made by a fellow with little intrinsic interest in computers and even less in playing games on them. For an industry that has so often struggled to get beyond a handful of fictional and mechanical genres inspired by a tiny sliver of the rich cultural tapestry of the human race, it’s yet one more reminder of just what a good thing a little diversity can be.

Born in 1953 in Connecticut as the only child of a pair of schoolteachers, Cliff Johnson manifested creativity and curiosity almost from the moment he arrived. As a boy, he spent hours tramping around the woods and dales that surrounded his family home. He loved maps, loved to imagine himself an explorer on the hunt for hidden pirate treasure (“X marks the spot!”). When not roaming the woods, he loved making things with his own hands, whether that meant playing with an erector set or spending long afternoons in the basement doing home-grown chemistry experiments. Gunpowder was easy, the formula printed in lots of places. Chlorine gas proved more tricky, both to make and to get rid of; thankfully the basement had some windows just below its ceiling that helped Cliff get rid of the evidence before Mom and Dad made it home.

Any possibility of Cliff becoming a cartographer or a scientist was, however, derailed on the day that he saw the classic horror flick House on Haunted Hill, starring no less an icon than Vincent Price. Like millions of other kids across the country, he became a B-movie fanatic, a devotee of all things monstrous, horrific, and/or alien. But unlike most fans, Cliff’s personality demanded that he do more than passively consume his obsession. Getting his hands on a Super 8 camera, he started making his own little movies. His technique evolved with impressive speed; soon he was doing stop-motion with live actors to craft his special-effects sequences, a tricky proposition even for professionals. As he got older and his teenage tastes, relatively speaking, matured, he discovered the allure of camp, moving from pulpy horror to slapstick comedy. His magnum opus, shown in his high-school auditorium on three glorious evenings, was called The Return of the Freshman. (It was, naturally, a sequel, and one with a name that beat George Lucas to the punch by thirteen years at that.)

Cliff Johnson

The summer before, while The Return of the Freshman was still in its planning stages, Cliff and his parents had visited Disneyland. He was no stranger to amusement parks, but knew them as the seedy, vaguely disreputable places they generally were at that time, echoes of the still older traveling circuses. Disneyland, however, was something different. In addition to being clean and wholesome and family-friendly, care had been taken with their rides and other attractions to turn them into real experiences. Cliff was particularly entranced by the lovingly sculpted animatronic characters who actually moved. “I could do that!” was his boyish response; after all, he’d gotten quite good at sculpting monsters and props for his movies. Back home, the local amusement park, a run-down place called Lake Compounce, had a ride called Laff-in-the-Dark that had fallen on hard times. Once full of chills and thrills, its bits and pieces had broken down and been removed one by one, so that now it was largely just a ride through a pitch-black tunnel. Cliff asked the Norton family that ran the park for permission to walk through the ride while it was closed, measuring its every dimension, sketching its every curve and straightaway. He and his girlfriend Janice then made models and sketches illustrating how they thought the ride could be restored to its former glory. Showing an audacity that would serve him well throughout his life, Cliff formally proposed their services to the Nortons. For $1000, they would bring a little taste of Disneyland to Lake Compounce. The Norton family agreed, and thus, between shoots for The Return of the Freshman, Cliff along with cast and crew and Janice built monsters and lights and installed them in the ride. The Norton patriarch, also the mayor of the city of Bristol at that time, was so thrilled with Cliff’s work that he agreed to appear in his movie. He played himself, looking out of his window at City Hall at a flying saucer whizzing by. (“What a sport!” remarks Cliff today.)

Cliff did such a good job on that hometown ride that word got out on the amusement-park circuit about this talented teenager who, being a teenager, worked pretty cheap. He spent the next few years traveling the country as far from home as Colorado and California, making monsters for low-rent amusement parks and saving money for his dream of attending film school right in the heart of Hollywood, at the University of Southern California.

He finally began USC Film School in 1974. University worked on him just as it ideally ought to, opening new intellectual vistas. Having entered an aficionado of monster movies and Disney, perhaps primed for a career in Hollywood special effects — and at a good time too, what with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg just around the corner — he discovered there a new world of film, film made as art for art’s sake. More specifically, he discovered avant-garde animation. Working under Professor Gene Coe, a semi-legendary figure at USC, he made a number of experimental films that did very well on the festival circuit, earning several prizes. He still remembers his years at USC as some of the best and most artistically productive of his life.

But then, in 1979, he was suddenly finished, with a freshly minted Master’s Degree in his hand and no clear idea of what to do next. Virtually the entire avant-garde animation industry, to the extent that such a thing existed at all, existed in Canada and Europe rather than the United States. Cliff couldn’t see himself moving there, but he also no longer had any desire to become a part of the mainstream Hollywood machine that surrounded him in Southern California. So, he became an entrepreneur, an all-purpose filmmaker-for-hire who served a client list consisting mostly of big corporations that needed films made for practical in-house purposes and didn’t want to pay too much for the service. Cliff, by now an accomplished animator as well as cameraman, could do entire films virtually by himself, adding charts and graphics and titles and cartoons and whatever else was needed to his live-action footage to meet his clients’ needs. He did a large number of training films for Southern California Edison in particular, producing, as he would later put it, “such notable works as Heating, Air Conditioning and Ventilation and other film classics.” Yes, it was pretty boring stuff, but it was a pretty decent living.

And yet the fact remained that his new life was as much of a creative comedown from his art-for-art’s-sake days at USC as it was a financial windfall. An artistically stymied Cliff thus began to look around for diversions from his dull working life. Three influences in particular came together at this time to start him in earnest down the road toward The Fool’s Errand.

First, there were his parties. As far back as his teenage years, he had loved to throw elaborate multimedia parties — multimedia in the old sense of the word, implying the blending of different sorts of media in a physical rather than a digital space. He would fill the rooms of a house with lights, sound, music, film, figures, and props, and arrange his guests’ progress through the house so as to tell a little story or illustrate a theme. Soon he began adding an interactive element, a little puzzle or mystery for his guest to solve. These mysteries were, he notes wryly today, “more jobs for Watson than Sherlock,” but, despite or because of their simplicity, his guests really took to them. He kept throwing the parties, growing ever more elaborate all the while, through his time at USC and especially while working as a filmmaker-for-hire, when he desperately needed the creative outlet they provided.

Next, there was Masquerade. Soon after leaving USC, Cliff became one of countless thousands of people all over the world to be fascinated by a little children’s picture book called Masquerade. Written by a reclusive English painter named Kit Williams, it tells the story of a hare who carries a treasure from the Moon to the Sun, with fifteen of William’s intricate paintings as illustrations. What so enthralled Cliff and all those others, however, was the end of the book, which reveals that the hare has lost his treasure, and that it’s up to you, the reader, to find from clues scattered through the book where it now lies in the real world. Masquerade became an international phenomenon that obsessed treasure hunters and puzzle solvers for more than two-and-a-half years, selling nearly 2 million books in the process. Cliff, who didn’t personally enjoy solving puzzles all that much, was perhaps less obsessed than many of those buyers, but he found the idea of Masquerade, of a book that could stand alone but could also serve as a grand puzzle, endlessly intriguing as something he might create.1

And finally, there was the tarot deck. Not remotely of a spiritual or supernatural bent, Cliff nevertheless came upon a lovely Rider-Waite tarot deck and found himself fascinated with the characters and ideas represented there.

A section of the Fool's Errand treasure map.

A section of the Fool’s Errand treasure map.

All of these influences merged together in a 1981 project that would prove to be a non-computerized prototype of the final version of The Fool’s Errand that was still six years in the future. Wanting to create another fun and unique experience for his friends as a Christmas gift, like all those themed parties, Cliff decided to write, just for them, a little book much like Masquerade, telling the story of a Fool who wanders through a fairy-tale land based loosely on the world of the tarot. Filling the back of the book, after the 21-page story, were another 14 pages containing pieces of a treasure map; shades of Cliff’s childhood roaming the Connecticut woodlands dreaming of pirate maps and buried treasure. The player should cut out and assemble the pieces using clues from the story, which was divided into 81 sections, each relating to one piece of the map. Accomplishing that got you to an endgame, a crossword requiring you to correctly place the names of 13 treasures mentioned in the story to decode a final message: “Merry Christmas!” (Those of you who’ve already played The Fool’s Errand on a computer will recognize all of this as essentially the second half of that game, the part you embark on after completing all of the initial puzzles.) Unlike Masquerade, over which so many puzzlers fretted for years, The Fool’s Errand was designed to be a pleasant challenge but not an exhausting one, solvable in a single long, lazy holiday afternoon. He was thus disappointed when, out of the dozens of people to whom he sent the book, only three actually solved it. The lesson he took away was that, while he believed his friends to be a pretty intelligent group on the whole, this sort of complex puzzle required a special kind of intelligence — or, perhaps better said, a special kind of personality — that made it a poor fit for most of them. He put his storybook back on the shelf, and returned to the themed parties that were so much better received.

But Cliff’s reputation among his friends as a devious mind was now established, and would lead to his introduction to the brave new world of computerized puzzle design. One of his friends, Allen Pinero, came to him with a proposition. Pinero had jumped onto the home-computer bandwagon early, purchasing an Apple II, and had devised a unique text-adventure engine that let the player control two characters at once through a split-screen view. With the core programming in place, though, he was having some trouble devising a plot and puzzles — in short, something for the characters to actually do. Despite knowing nothing about the state of the art in home computers, much less adventure games — he’d never played or even seen one in his life before Pinero showed him a few of Scott Adams’s to prime his pump — Cliff came up with a plot that tangled together several stories from Greek mythology; the two characters under the player’s control became none other than Jason and Hercules. He also devised a batch of puzzles that often required the characters to work together from different rooms, and to illustrate their adventures he drew pictures freehand, which Pinero than translated into vector graphics on the screen. Released in late 1982 by Scott Adams’s Adventure International, Labyrinth of Crete, like most Adventure International games by that time, made little impact in either the trade press or at retail, although it did sell well enough through their mail-order catalogs that they funded ports to the Atari 8-bits and the Commodore 64.

For Cliff it was a fun little experience in its way, but also a frustrating one. It’s safe to say that it didn’t ignite any dormant passion for computers or computer games. He chafed constantly at the limitations of the two-word parser and the primitive world model. It often seemed that nine out of ten ideas he proposed were greeted by Pinero with a “Sorry, can’t do that,” followed by some esoteric technical reasoning he didn’t really understand and didn’t really care to. Pinero’s Apple II itself remained to him an incomprehensible and irascible black (or rather beige) box, all strident squawks and ugly colors. He was, needless to say, completely baffled by Pinero’s efforts to program the thing. If anything, the experience only confirmed his dislike of computers. He certainly didn’t rush out to buy one himself. He and Pinero did discuss doing another game together, but Pinero in particular was feeling completely burnt-out by all the work that had done into the first — far more work than he had ever imagined it would be.

Cliff’s opinion of computers didn’t change until one day in late 1984 when he idly wandered into a store selling the Apple Macintosh and promptly fell in love. Ironically, he had long since shot one of his corporate films inside Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, the very place where most of the ideas behind the Macintosh were invented. For whatever reason, that experience had left little impression on him, done nothing to alter his opinion of computers as balky, unpleasant contraptions. The Macintosh itself, however, just did it for him right away. He loved its friendly demeanor, loved the simplicity of its point-and-click operating system, loved the elegance of its crisp black-and-white display in contrast to the ugly blotches of pixelated color he remembered on the screen of Pinero’s Apple II. He became just another of the thousands of creative souls, many of them far removed from your typical computer nerd, who saw magic possibility in “the computer for the rest of us.” He simply had to have one. A few thousand dollars later, he was armed with a shiny new 512 K “Fat Mac” with all the bells and whistles, purchased with vague justifications that it would be useful for his business.

Cliff was perhaps unusually receptive to the idea of a life-changing event at about this point. His work as a filmmaker was more stultifying than ever. Even a chance to do animations for a brief-lived children’s television series called Out of Control, which was broadcast by the Nickelodeon cable channel as their first original series ever, hadn’t lifted his malaise. So, yes, he was looking for a way out even before he wandered into that store. Soon his new Macintosh would provide it.

He first programmed his Macintosh by writing macros for keeping track of his business finances in the Microsoft Multiplan spreadsheet. His programming began in earnest, however, only when a friend of his, knowing he was very enamored with his new computer, gifted him with a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the machine. It was, surprisingly for this inveterate computer hater, not quite Cliff’s first exposure to the language. The only computerized gadget he had ever owned prior to purchasing his Macintosh had been an Atari VCS game console, for which he had received, again as a gift, Atari’s “BASIC Programming” cartridge. Delivered as a hedge to fretful parents thinking of replacing Junior’s game console with a real home computer, it was a shockingly primitive creation even by the standards of its day. Programs, which had to be laboriously entered using Atari’s infuriating “keyboard controllers,” could be all of 63 characters in length, and couldn’t be saved. But despite it all, Cliff had found the experience of programming vaguely interesting, enough to devote an afternoon or two to, as he puts it, “getting a tiny square to move around the screen.” Now, with this latest gift of a BASIC, those memories came back, and he started learning to program his Macintosh with real enthusiasm. The natural question then became what to do with his burgeoning skills.

Cliff happened to be acquainted with Philip Proctor and Peter Bergman of the legendary comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre. For a time, they all discussed bringing Firesign’s most famous character, the hard-boiled detective Nick Danger, to interactive life via some sort of adventure game. Yet that puzzle-filled storybook that Cliff had made several years before, the one that had left him feeling like it was a genuinely great idea that just hadn’t found the right audience, kept popping into his head. People who played on computers at that time — yes, even “computers for the rest of us” like the Macintosh — tended to be the sort of people who noticed the little things, who were intrigued by them. What might they make of a computerized puzzle book? Married by this point, he told his wife Kathy one day that he had to drop the filmmaking business, had to drop everything and find out. With Kathy still attending university, they would just have to live on savings and credit cards while he saw it through. Thus was The Fool’s Errand reborn as a computer game.

Let’s be clear: it was a crazy thing to do. Having programmed for a bare handful of months, Cliff proposed programming a commercial-quality game. Having never seriously played a computer game in his life, he proposed designing one. Knowing no one in and nothing about the games industry, he proposed selling his creation at some point to a publisher. He didn’t even like to solve puzzles, not really. His consolation, if he had only known it, might have been that he was mirroring to an uncanny degree Kit Williams, the man who had set him down this path in the first place. Kit also had never evinced the slightest interest in actually solving puzzles, had conceived the grand puzzle that was Masquerade strictly as a gimmick to get people to really look at his artwork and — let’s be honest here — to sell books.

Cliff started, as you’d expect, with his old storybook itself. His original story of the Fool’s wanderings through a tarot-inspired fairy-tale land went into the computer version almost verbatim. The patchwork treasure map also went in, consisting of the same 81 tiles, each linked to a section of the story; it would be much easier to unscramble on the monitor screen, requiring only mouse clicks rather than scissors and glue. And the crossword full of treasures, your reward for completing the map, remained as the final puzzle. But fleshing out this spine, often called today the “meta-puzzle” of the game, would be a collection of other, smaller puzzles that were new to the computer version. Entering each treasure in the final puzzle, for instance, would require not just that you figure out what that treasure should be from the story but that you solve another set-piece puzzle as well. And most of the story itself would be hidden from you at the beginning; opening up the other sections for reading would require, you guessed it, solving puzzles.

A friend of Cliff’s used to have a subscription to Games magazine, and would loan him each issue after he was finished with it, by which time all of the puzzles were marked up with his solutions. Cliff didn’t care. He wasn’t so interested in solving the puzzles, which took time he didn’t feel he could spare anyway, as he was in looking at how they were put together, enjoying them almost as one might a work of art. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, he was already thinking like a game designer. Now that subconscious preparation was about to serve him well.

The individual puzzles he crafted for his game are multifarious, many of them old favorites of the sort that he had studied in those magazines: word searches, anagrams, cryptograms, crosswords, mazes, jigsaws. Others, however, are delightfully original, like the tarot-inspired card game that requires you to first figure out what the rules are before you can concentrate on actually winning the thing. Some, like the word-concatenation puzzles, are almost naive outgrowths of Cliff’s early experiments with BASIC. A few, the least satisfying in my opinion, are essentially action games, dependent as much on reflexes as smarts.

Through the early months, Cliff was writing each puzzle as it own self-contained BASIC program, unclear exactly how he would tie them together to create a unified experience. Most of his problems came down to Microsoft BASIC itself. Because it was interpreted rather than compiled, it was painfully slow. Even worse, its programs required that the end user also have Microsoft BASIC in order to run them. In short, it was an environment for casual hobbyists and students of programming, not for the creation of a full-fledged commercial game. About a year after he’d first bought his Macintosh, a life-saver arrived in the form of ZBASIC, a compiled version of the language whose programs could run on any Macintosh, and at several times the speed of the Microsoft version at that. There were unfortunately enough syntactical differences between the two dialects that Cliff had to spend quite some time porting his code, but he ended up with a much more powerful and flexible language that was up to the task of implementing The Fool’s Errand.

Very much the amateur, self-taught programmer, Cliff’s code was, as a few technical friends told him at the time and as he freely admits today, neither terribly efficient nor terribly well-structured. Yet it had a couple of overriding virtues: it worked, and Cliff at least understood how it worked. Throughout the development of The Fool’s Errand, he constantly shared his puzzles in progress with his wife, with his old friend and Labyrinth of Crete partner Allen Pinero, and with another old friend, David Wood. Still, Cliff remained haunted by a “morbid pessimism” that at some point the whole house of cards, built from dozens of little BASIC programs all piled atop and beside one another, would collapse into hopeless chaos.

But it didn’t happen, and by the end of 1986 he had something complete enough to start shopping to publishers. Cliff still knew next to nothing about the games industry, but once more that old audacity, that willingness to just call his supposed betters and ask for whatever it was he wanted, served him well. A few publishers showed serious interest, despite the fact that the Macintosh market was still quite a minor one when it came to games. He met with Activision, publisher of what remains to this day the only computer game to have ever really captured Cliff’s interest as a player, the casual Mahjong puzzler Shanghai. They were quite willing to sign him, but the royalty they offered seemed rather paltry and, even worse, they insisted that he sign over to them his copyright. If there was one thing Cliff’s years in and around Hollywood had taught him you should never do, it was that. So he ended up signing instead with a young Macintosh-centric publisher called Miles Computing. Tiny though they were by the standards of the industry at large, they had already made a decent name for themselves in Macintosh circles with games like Harrier Strike Mission, which as the platform’s first available flight simulator had done very well for itself, and a line of clip-art disks for desktop publishers. They offered a much better royalty than Activision, were willing to let him keep his copyright, and were based right there in Southern California.

What Miles wasn’t terribly good at doing, Cliff soon learned to his dismay, was actually selling software that didn’t spontaneously sell itself. Released at last in April of 1987 with absolutely no promotion, The Fool’s Errand sank without a trace. One or two reviews buried deep inside magazines, lukewarm and noncommittal, became the full extent of its press presence. Cliff was left in an uncomfortable limbo, unsure what to do with himself next. His savings were exhausted, his credit-card debt was now approaching $50,000, and his royalties were so minimal as to be virtually nonexistent. He wasn’t eager to return to his old business of filmmaker-for-hire, and wasn’t sure he could anyway; once you fall out of people’s Rolodexes in Hollywood it’s damnably hard to get yourself back in. But, based on the evidence so far, this computer-game thing wasn’t exactly proving to be a financial winner either. The name of his game was now seeming sadly apropos. Making The Fool’s Errand, it seemed, had itself been a fool’s errand.

Cliff Johnson, 1987

The game’s life preserver, and thus Cliff’s as well, came in the form of a superlative feature review (“5 Mice!”) written by the prominent Macintosh pundit and columnist Neil Shapiro for the January 1988 issue of MacUser. Shapiro was the first reviewer to take the time to properly dig into the game, to understand what it was and what it was doing. He liked what he saw. In fact, he really liked what he saw. “Cliff Johnson has taken computer gaming, turned it inside-out and upside-down, and redefined the state of the art,” he wrote. He continued to champion the game relentlessly over the months that followed. The floodgates opened; The Fool’s Errand became a hit. A suddenly much more enthusiastic Miles Computing belatedly funded ports to the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and MS-DOS. Cliff, who had nothing to do with programming those versions, was never happy with the way they looked or played. He considers them “Bizarro World” versions of his game, ugly, simplified, and buggy to boot. It was a long, not entirely successful struggle for him just to keep the worst of the porters’ razzle-dazzle videogame flourishes out of the end results. Still, in combination they sold far more copies than the Macintosh original. Total sales of The Fool’s Errand reached 100,000 copies by the end of 1989, perhaps not quite a blockbuster by the standards of the big boys but by far the biggest hit that little Miles Computing had ever enjoyed. Certainly it was more than enough to let Cliff pay off his credit cards and remain a game developer. We’ll be continuing to follow him in his new career in future articles.

For now, though, let’s talk about The Fool’s Errand itself just a little bit more. It’s one of those singular works that defies (transcends?) the conventional wisdom — including plenty of the wisdom that I spout routinely right here on this blog. Having chided people from Scott Adams to Ken Williams for refusing to engage with the games made by others outside their companies, I must admit that Cliff Johnson didn’t know a thing about other computer games at the time he wrote The Fool’s Errand, and never bothered to learn — and yet his game turned out brilliantly. Having harped endlessly on the importance of testing and player feedback, I must admit that The Fool’s Errand was seriously played by just three people not named Cliff Johnson prior to its release — and yet, again, his game turned out superbly, and about as bug-free as a game can be to boot. What is there to say, other than don’t try this at home, kids?

In his Mac User review, Neil Shapiro rather brilliantly described The Fool’s Errand as a “whole buffalo” game. Everything you see on the screen is important, nothing extraneous or inexplicable. When you first start the game, it’s both underwhelming and a little baffling, nothing more than a handful of puzzles — most of them fairly trivial — and a few scattered fragments of a story that doesn’t make much sense. And so you shrug your shoulders and have a go at one of the puzzles, maybe starting with something simple like the word search for names of countries. Slowly you begin to peel back layer after layer of the onion. Are certain words in the story printed in boldface? It’s not just for aesthetic effect; there’s a reason for it that will become clear in time. Have no idea what to do with this scrambled map? Work on other, simpler problems for a while and insight might just come. Finished all of the puzzles from the initial menus and think you’re about to win? You’re about halfway actually, with the tastiest parts of the onion still waiting for you. I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderfully intriguing experience solving The Fool’s Errand becomes. My wife Dorte and I played it together, as we do many of the games I write about here, and enjoyed one of the most captivating gaming experiences we’ve ever shared. (I suspect that Dorte, a puzzle addict who’s much better at most kinds of them than I am, would delete the “one of” from that sentence.)

Chatting with me about The Fool’s Errand, Cliff was at pains to emphasize how incredible it is to him that people today, almost thirty years later, continue to enjoy his first game. Like most designers at the time, he wasn’t thinking beyond the next year or so, and certainly gave no thought whatsoever to The Fool’s Errand as a work for posterity. Yet it feels every bit as contemporary and compelling today as it must have then, the very definition of a timeless work. I think we can ascribe that timelessness to a number of things. Far more than just a collection of puzzles, there’s a beauty about this design, its many strands looping over and entwining one another like a Bach fugue: the text with its simple diction of Myth; the pictures, which are so lovely and evocative that black-and-white seems an aesthetic choice here, not a limitation of the hardware; the intricately fashioned meta-puzzle itself, leading to that Eureka! moment when it all comes together. Perhaps most of all, there remains a generosity of spirit about The Fool’s Errand that bleeds through the screen. As Cliff has stated many times, his goal is never to absolutely stymie you, to prove that he’s the cleverer by presenting you with impossible dilemmas. He wants to tempt and entice and, yes, to challenge you — what fun would The Fool’s Errand be otherwise? — but ultimately he wants you to succeed, to peel back the onion and to share in the The Fool’s Errand‘s mysteries. There’s no nonsense in the game; it always plays fair. Take your time with it, and it will reward you in spades.

So, I think you should play this game if you haven’t already. If you enjoy the sorts of games I usually feature on this blog, I think this one will blow you away. The state of classic Macintosh emulation in general being a disgraceful mess for such an historically important platform, I want to do all I can to make that easy as possible for you. I’ve therefore made a zip that contains the most user-friendly of the early Macintosh emulators, Mini vMac, in versions for Windows, (modern) Macintosh, and Linux. The zip also includes the ROM file that Mini vMac needs to run (please, nobody tell Apple!), the disk images for the game along with a formatted save disk, the original instruction manual, and some brief instructions I’ve written to get you going with the whole package. Give it a shot. If I’ve done my part properly, it won’t be hard at all, and I think you’ll be glad you did. This one is touched, folks.

(Sources: This article is mostly drawn from a long interview I conducted with Cliff himself. Much other information about his life, career, and games can be found on his personal website, although, in keeping with The Fool’s Errand itself, you sometimes have to dig a bit in unexpected places for it.

If you play and enjoy The Fool’s Errand, be sure to check out The Fool and His Money, the long-awaited 2012 sequel that Cliff describes as “everything The Fool’s Errand is times ten.” Dorte and I haven’t had the pleasure yet ourselves, but, believe me, we will just as soon as I can break free of all my moldy oldies for long enough.)

  1. For better and often for worse, Masquerade‘s connection to computer gaming extends far beyond the story of Cliff Johnson. The man who first “solved” the riddle and was awarded the hare in March of 1982, one Dugald Thompson, did so, it was revealed years later, largely by cheating. A friend of his had as his current girlfriend a former girlfriend of Kit Williams. While Kit had never outright told her where the treasure — a golden hare sculpted by Kit himself — lay, he had inadvertently dropped enough clues that she could point Thompson in the right direction.

    After he was awarded the prize, Thompson formed a company called Haresoft to release an unspeakably horrible computer game called Hareraiser that supposedly contained further clues pointing to a new location of the golden hare. If it did, nobody ever worked them out. More likely, the game was yet another instance of fraud committed by Thompson, designed to make a quick buck from the players that it sent off on a wild goose chase after its nonexistent clues. It justly bombed, Haresoft went into liquidation, and Thompson was forced by his creditors to sell the golden hare at auction.

    Long before those events, Masquerade had inspired other British game developers to embed real-world treasure hunts and other puzzles in their own games, perhaps most notably the hunt for the “Golden Sundial of Pi” buried in the Sussex Downs by Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold of Automata. All told, that golden hare had one hell of a long reach. 


Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Border Zone

Border Zone

Unlike many early peers such as Sierra, who began publishing at least as many third-party titles as titles they developed themselves in the wake of their first success, Infocom throughout their independent existence prided themselves on keeping everything in-house. Every game they released was written right there in their Cambridge offices by their own dedicated little band of Implementors. But Activision’s pressure to release many more games every year in the wake of their acquisition of Infocom finally changed that in late 1986. Infocom desperately needed more Imps to meet Activision’s craving, but weren’t in a position to pay for any more full-time employees. While they could continue to promote eager testers and programmers from other parts of the company, always their most fecund source of new blood for the Imp pool, there was an obvious point of diminishing returns at play there as well: every tester they promoted to Imp meant one less person to test all of those new games that were now coming down the pipe. After promoting Amy Briggs, who was destined to go down in history as the last person ever to become a full-time Imp at Infocom, it was time to beat some other bushes. Like so many companies before and since who couldn’t afford real employees, Infocom filled the labor gap with contractors willing to work remotely for an initial advance against royalties. After all, modems — even expensive, state-of-the-art ones like the two they now hung off their venerable old PDP-10 — were a lot cheaper than employees.

This change represented, I shouldn’t neglect to emphasize, an enormous attitudinal shift for Infocom. They had never before paid anyone whatsoever on a royalty basis; all of the Imps had always worked for a flat salary. In retrospect we can see this instant as marking the beginning of a sea change in what Infocom really was, from a true creative collective making games together to a mere label under which Activision released any game that was even vaguely adventure-like or story-oriented. It would take a few years for that change to reach its full fruition, but the process started here.

Having elected — or been forced — to make this change in their way of doing business, the natural next question for Infocom was who these new contractors should be. One signee was an enterprising Californian named Bob Bates, founder of a tiny would-be adventure developer he called Challenge, Inc.; I’ll be telling his story in a future article. For other contractors, Infocom turned to some old friends, former Imps who had left the fold. With time and resources at a premium, that made a lot of sense: they already knew ZIL, knew how the Infocom development process worked and what would be expected of them as writers and designers.

Infocom thus reached out to Mike Berlyn, who had left the company back in early 1985 to found a design studio of his own, Brainwave Creations, with his wife Muffy. Having already shipped their first adventure game, Interplay’s text/graphic hybrid Tass Times in Tonetown — and through Activision as publisher at that — they were now sniffing around for a home for the new dimension-bending comedic caper they had on the boil. Much as Berlyn’s mercurial nature could make him difficult to work with at times, everyone at Infocom had always liked him personally. If they must work with outside contractors, he certainly seemed like one of the least objectionable choices. They got as far as signing an initial development deal before things fell apart for reasons that to my knowledge have never been fully explained.

Infocom’s other attempt to get the old band back together again would prove more fruitful even as it could also seem, at least on the surface, a much more surprising move. Marc Blank, you see, hadn’t just quit Infocom a year before. After months of squabbling with Al Vezza’s board over Cornerstone and pretty much every other decision they were making, he had been summarily fired.

Blank moved on to, of all places, Infocom’s erstwhile suitors Simon & Schuster, where he became “Vice President of Computer Software Development,” his responsibilities to include “artificial intelligence, expert systems, sorting out new technologies like optical and disk storage.” The brash young Blank, however, soon found he didn’t fit all that well within the conservative old halls of Simon & Schuster. He left what he calls today a “terrible” job within a few months.

Blank’s next stop would prove more extended. He moved to California to work with a company called American Interactive Media, a new corporation with roots in the music industry who were now so closely associated with the Dutch consumer-electronics giant Philips as to blur the line between independent contractor and subsidiary. Philips had initiated a project to bring the brand new technology of CD-ROM to consumers via a set-top box for the living room, and American Interactive was to create games and other content to run on it. In the long run, this would prove another frustrating experience for Blank; Philips’s gadget wouldn’t finally be released until 1991, an astonishing seven years after the project had been started, and for all sorts of reasons would never take off commercially. For the time being, however, it felt fantastic. A guy who loved nothing better than to take a Big New Idea and give it practical form, Blank felt like he was taking interactivity to the logical next step after Infocom, working not with plain old text but with a whole rich universe of multimedia potential at his fingertips.

While he was about inventing the future for Philips, though, he wasn’t above doing some more work for his Infocom friends from the past. And Infocom was very eager to work with him again. The people he had pissed off enough to get himself fired were largely gone from the newly slimmed-down, games-only edition of the company. Truth be told, most of the people still there had agreed with every sullen argument and veiled jab he had ever delivered to Al Vezza and his cronies. They called, Blank said yes, and Border Zone was born.

It would prove a classic Marc Blank project. Never a gamer, he claims that to this day he’s never played a single Infocom game, other than those he wrote himself, to completion. Nor does he have much intrinsic interest in writing or game design as disciplines unto themselves. During his time with Infocom and even before, when working on the original MIT Zork, he preferred to see himself as the wizard behind the curtain, crafting the magic behind the magic, so to speak, that enabled people like Dave Lebling and Steve Meretzky to do their thing. It was Marc Blank who tinkered endlessly with the parser in that original Zork, taking it from a clone of Adventure‘s primitive two-word jobber to one that wouldn’t be fully equaled by anyone else for well over a decade. It was Blank who came up with vehicles you could ride in and characters you could talk to. It was who Blank sat down with Joel Berez and figured out just how Zork could be chopped up and delivered onto microcomputers via a cross-platform virtual machine, an event that marks the beginning of the real story of Infocom as a maker of computer games. And for his pièce de résistance, it was Blank who radically upended people’s very ideas of what an adventure game could be with his interactive murder mystery Deadline, not in the name of art or literature but simply because he found doing so such a fascinating technical exercise.

When Blank wrote and designed a game, he did so essentially as a demonstration of the one or more Big New Ideas it contained, with the thinking that, new technology now to hand, better writers and designers than him could make something really cool with it. Selling his own skills in those departments short though he may have been, Blank manifested no innate need to create in the sense of crafting a single unified work and stamping his name on it as its author. He was perfectly happy to just help others with the interesting technical questions raised by their own would-be creations, as when he built the system for Mike Berlyn’s Suspended that let you play by issuing commands not to a single avatar but to six different robots, each with its own unique outlook and capabilities. Tellingly, Blank authored — or rather co-authored, with Dave Lebling — his last game during his tenure as an Infocom employee, Enchanter, more than two years before he left. (Its Big Idea was a magic system complete with multifarious spells that would — hopefully — affect the world believably no matter where, when, or on what they were cast.) Once other Imps were readily available to implement games, he was content to let them while he did other interesting things.

If Blank was suddenly eager now, three years after Enchanter had been published, to write a game again, it could only mean that he had another very compelling Big Idea which he wanted to put through its paces. This time it was real time.

On the surface, it was far from a new idea. As far back as 1982’s The Hobbit, games from other companies had incorporated a timer such that, if you sat too long at a command prompt without doing anything, the program would process a turn as if you had entered a “wait” command, presumably in the name of keeping you on your toes and adding a dollop of urgency to the experience. In addition to The Hobbit and its descendants, Synapse Software’s BTZ engine (“Better than Zork,” although it really wasn’t) had also used this mechanic — a somewhat odd choice for a line which otherwise strained to promote itself as even more cerebral and “literary” than Infocom, but there you go. On the whole it had proved little more than an annoyance, here and everywhere else it had turned up. The actual games it sat atop did nothing of real interest with it. They weren’t actually real-time games at all, rather turn-based games with a chess timer grafted on.

Blank’s idea, which he worked with Infocom’s systems programmers to build into the new version 5 Z-Machine, was to do something much more sophisticated and thoughtful with real time. He had always been deeply interested in creating more dynamic, realistic environments, in pushing back the boundaries of Infocom’s games as simulations. Consider what made him find Deadline so exciting back in 1982:

You’re in this world where all these things are going on. People are doing things. They stop here, talk to someone, go here. Some things would change depending on what you did, but you could sit in one place and watch people come and go. I loved that the world was alive. Instead of exploring a dead world, you’re in a dynamic world with other things going on that you can impact, and what people then do will change, and that will then resonate out, etc. I had no idea how to do that. I had to make it up as I went along. That to me was the fun part.

Now, in Border Zone, the world would live and change, often completely outside of your view, even as you read, thought, and typed your commands. Blank would remove the artificiality of the turn-based structure and create a truly living world behind the words that you read on the screen. You might be in a train compartment trying frantically to hide some key piece of evidence to avoid arrest. As you do so, a guard is following his own schedule, moving from compartment to compartment in the train, getting ever closer, all unbeknownst to you until he bursts into your cabin. If you do manage to get everything sorted in your  compartment before the guard turns up, you’re left to wait — literally to wait, sitting there watching the seconds tick by on the clock on your real-world wall, knowing some sort of security check must be coming, wondering if you hid everything well enough. Nothing quite like this had ever been done before. It absolutely teemed with complications, ran contrary to some of the most bedrock assumptions in Infocom’s development system. It would be a massive technical challenge to get working correctly. But then, massive technical challenges were what Blank lived for.

As usual for Blank, the fictional premise, plot, and puzzles were chosen after the Big Idea, in answer to the question of what sort of fiction would demonstrate said Idea to best effect. Thankfully, and again as usual for Blank, what he came up with proved far more compelling than one might expect from a designer so eager to declare himself so uninterested in game design. He settled on spy fiction. Stu Galley had actually already tried to craft a spy thriller for some six months between implementing Seastalker and Moonmist, but had finally given up on it as just too complex to bring off with Infocom’s technology at that time. Now, though, Blank thought he might have cracked the code. Spy fiction should make an excellent fit for a game of nail-biting real-time tension. And it certainly didn’t hurt that it was enjoying considerable commercial success at the time: countless readers of writers like John Le Carré, Robert Ludlum, and Fredrick Forsyth were enjoying a final spot of classic Cold War intriguing in a world that was soon to change in ways that absolutely no one could ever have predicted.

There’s a bit of the typical Infocom in-jokery, now getting more tired than not, in “Frobnia,” the name of the fictional Eastern Bloc country where much of the action of Border Zone takes place. The principal feelie, a tourist brochure and phrase book for Frobnia, also plays for laughs of the “in America you break law, in Soviet Russia law breaks you!” stripe, complete with poorly translated English, and that’s okay because it’s actually pretty sharp and funny stuff. But otherwise Blank plays it straight, and in the process does a good job evoking classic spy thrillers like Day of the Jackal. Border Zone is, like Nord and Bert, a segmented game, telling a single story in three parts from three points of view; breaking it up like this helped to keep the complexities of this real-time, player-responsive world from becoming overwhelming. While Blank didn’t lift much if any text or code directly from Galley’s previous stab at the spy genre, a game that was to be called Checkpoint, the plot of Border Zone‘s opening sequence in particular bears a marked similarity to Galley’s outline: “You, an innocent train traveler in a foreign country, get mixed up with spies and have to be as clever as they are to survive.” In the first part, then, you play the role of an ordinary American businessman who’s entrusted with some vital documents by an American agent on a train that’s about to cross the border from Frobnia into the ostensibly neutral but Western-leaning (and equally fictional) nation of Litzenburg. In the second, you play the American agent himself, who, having palmed the documents on the businessman, must still escape his KGB pursuers. And in the third, you play a KGB agent with secrets of his own on the scene of the attempted assassination of the American ambassador to Litzenburg — an assassination pointed to by the documents. It all feels appropriately morally murky, and is about as intricately plotted as you can reasonably expect from a work with a fraction of the word count of the novels that inspired it.

Still, and as Blank would no doubt agree, the most interesting aspect of Border Zone is what it does technically and conceptually within its fictional premise. Going yet one step beyond those early mysteries, this is the most complex and responsive world simulation Infocom would ever manage, and, like Plundered Hearts, one of their relatively few games that comes close to delivering on their marketing’s promise of interactive fiction as being “like waking up inside a story.” Most interactive fiction, then and now, is fixated on things, on rooms and their contents, to a degree that can feel downright strange to the uninitiated. Border Zone steps away from that fixation to focus not on what things are in the world but on what’s happening there. The old rooms-and-connections model of geography is still there below the surface, but it’s radically de-emphasized. Many rooms have no set-piece descriptions at all to separate them from the story that’s happening to you and all around you, giving the text a sense of urgent flow. Consider, for example, this extract from the second part, from which you could remove the command prompts to end up with something that would read pretty well as an avant-garde second-person novel (a little Italo Calvino, anyone?).

You are standing at the back door of the hut, which can be circled to the northwest and the southwest. On all other sides lies the forest. A small window in the door gives a view into the house.

You walk around to the north side of the hut.

Two men, presumably from the automobile parked at the end of the roadway south of the clearing, are in quiet conversation with a man, presumably the owner of the hut, who stands leaning against the closed front door. They seem to be lecturing him about something, for he speaks little and nods often.

You watch as the lone guard returns to the group. He appears relieved that he has nothing to report.

The dogs are no closer, but now they seem to be off to the south.

A branch falls from a nearby tree, startling you briefly. You turn back and press on through the forest.

You can hear a pack of dogs off to the south.

You continue through the forest, until you come to the edge of a wide clearing to the north - this is the border zone. From atop three guard towers standing in a line from east to west, searchlights play across the zone, brightly illuminating everything in their path. On either side of the towers are tall
fences, running parallel to the border, making a direct assault all but impossible.

You run across the open field at a good clip, though you are hampered by slick- surfaced shoes. You're past the halfway point, but wait! The light from the rightmost tower is heading right at you! You freeze, and consider turning back, but it's too late. The searchlight is upon you now, and before you can react, the night is filled with the sound of wailing sirens.

****  You have been arrested  ****

It’s not that geography isn’t important, but the scale is shifted. As you duck from hiding place to hiding place trying to avoid a searchlight’s beam, the details of each piece of snowy tundra where you crouch aren’t so important, but where you are in the bigger picture — specifically, in relation to that questing beam — certainly is. Map-making is, as one would hope, completely deprecated. Where necessary, the feelies provide maps that are good enough to orient you to your environment, and the game itself also strains, within the limitations of its text-only presentation, to give a visual overview of the situation in the status line when you’re doing things like dodging guards and searchlight beams.

But what’s most important of all is the other people in the world, especially the ones with machine guns trying to hunt you down. The “puzzles” in this game aren’t really puzzles at all, but rather grounded, realistic situations that you need to come to understand and manipulate to your advantage. Suffice to say that there are no riddles or sliding blocks in this one, folks.

All that said, there’s an unavoidable irony about Border Zone: although this approach was inspired by the desire to make a scenario that would be a good match for the real-time component, just about everything it does could have been done just as easily — and, I would argue, just as successfully — using a conventional turn-based approach. In short, I’m not sure how much real time really adds to the experience. As with so many technically esoteric or ambitious touches in games, the real time in Border Zone feels ultimately more interesting for the programmer than it is for the player. Certainly there remain quite a number of unsolved problems. Border Zone‘s visual presentation, for example, leaves a lot to be desired. For all the new capabilities of the version 5 Z-Machine, its display is still limited to two “windows”: a static top window, generally used for the status line and other persistent information like Beyond Zork‘s room description and automap, and a scrolling bottom window for the main body of a game’s text. The ideal setup for Border Zone would have the command prompt in a static window of its own below the scrolling text — notably, this is the layout used by Synapse for their pseudo-real-time games — but this was apparently one step too far for Infocom’s programmers. Instead the command prompt is still in-lined with the rest of the text, meaning that when things happen around you outside of your direct prompting your command is rudely interrupted to tell you about it; then the partially completed command is printed again and you can finish what you were trying to do. It works, but it’s pretty ugly, not to mention disconcerting until you get used to it.

Border Zone doesn't quite know how to make the command prompt work together with real time in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Border Zone doesn’t quite know how to make the command prompt work together with real time in an aesthetically pleasing way.

While that could be fixed easily enough with more advanced screen-layout capabilities, other problems with Border Zone feel more intractable. Given the careful reading that interactive fiction requires, you’re likely to be chronically short on time the first time through a scenario, then twiddling your thumbs waiting for things to happen on subsequent tries. And, believe me, you will be playing through each of these segments much more than once. Much like Beyond Zork, Border Zone promises one type of experience only to deliver another. The heavy emphasis on simulation and dynamism would seem to imply that this is an emergent experience, one where you can have a different experience every time out. Actually, though, that’s not the case, largely because, for all the world’s complexity, there’s no randomness to it at all. Everyone will follow the same patterns every time — complex patterns, yes, but patterns nevertheless — unless you interfere with them, which in turn will only set them on another deterministic course. This leads to a mode of play that isn’t as different from the interactive mysteries Blank earlier pioneered as many a player might wish.

In other words, this is another try-and-try-again game. Essentially you start playing by doing what seems the natural thing for a character in your circumstances, until you die or get captured or otherwise fail. Then you analyze the situation, come up with an idea as to how you might avoid the negative outcome, and try again. Rinse and repeat. Border Zone isn’t as punishing as the mysteries can be because each of its segments is so compressed, limited to no more than ten or fifteen minutes of real — i.e., wall-clock — time. It’s here, however, where the real time component can also become actively annoying. When you know the series of steps you need to follow to get to a certain point, you want to be able to “wait” in the game for each decision, not be forced to literally sit around waiting in real life. (It is possible to “wait for” a specific number of seconds, but that can be tough to plan out, not to mention deadly if you get it wrong.) And when you come to one of the junctures that require really precise timing, where you need to hit the enter key to submit your command at just the precisely right instant, it can be extremely frustrating when you, as another superspy would say, “miss it by that much” and have to start again.

Each sequence in Border Zone feels like a single bravura action sequence from a good James Bond flick, which is, one senses, exactly the effect intended. What with all the learning by death, playing can feel oddly like choreographing the delicate ballet that is such a sequence, trying again and again until you get all the drama and thrills just right. One notable side effect of the extreme time compression is that Border Zone, even with all three of its sections taken together, is one very short adventure game. Its rather expansive 175 K story file, which would seem to promise a much longer experience, is padded partially by an in-game InvisiClues-style hint system and partially by the complexities of the real-time system itself, but most of all by the overhead involved in implementing a world of depth rather than breadth. Everything was a trade-off in game development in Infocom’s day. In this case, Blank has dramatically increased your scope of possibility and the number of moving parts in the world around you at the expense of game length. Most of the things you might think to try in Border Zone work logically and have logical consequences in the context of the world and its other actors, even if most of them must inevitably be the wrong things, things that ultimately lead to failure. And yet, even duly accounting for the many replays that will be necessary to finish each sequence, it’s very difficult to spend more than three or four hours on Border Zone. That was a major problem for a commercial computer game selling for $30 or more. It’s not hard to understand why gamers would be put off by the entertainment-per-dollar ratio at play here, not hard to understand why publishers usually opted for longer if sketchier experiences over an intricately tooled Swiss watch of a game like this one.

How much its extreme brevity had to do with Border Zone‘s poor sales reception is, given everything else that was going so wrong for Infocom at the time, hard to say. Certainly they tried hard to make it accessible to as many customers as possible. Despite running under the new version 5 rather than the version 4 Z-Machine of Nord and Bert, it became the second in Infocom’s “LZIP” line of larger-than-usual games that were nevertheless shoehorned into the Commodore 64. Still, sales were bad enough to give Border Zone the title of worst-selling all-text Infocom game in history: less than 12,000 units. Thus it wound down Infocom’s demoralizing 1987 just as it had begun, by setting a sales record of the wrong type. It doubtless didn’t help Border Zone‘s cause that it was released in the immediate wake of the much higher profile and more enthusiastically promoted Beyond Zork.

One of Infocom’s least remarked and, one suspects, least played games today, Border Zone deserves better than that fate. I’m not sold on the case it makes for real-time interactive fiction, and little surprised that that avenue has gone all but completely unexplored through all of the years of non-commercial experimentation that has followed Infocom’s demise. But Border Zone is much more than just a failed technical experiment. Even if real time were taken out of the picture entirely, it would stand as an experience able to get the pulse pounding and the juices flowing, something that textual interactive fiction isn’t exactly known for. It’s also a very solvable game, and one where every challenge truly is part and parcel of the story you’re living. That, again, is something not a whole lot of interactive fiction, vintage or modern, can lay claim to. I highly recommend that you give it a play, and experience yet one more utterly unique Infocom game for yourself.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Also useful was the April 1986 Questbusters.

Border Zone and most of the other Infocom games are available for purchase as part of an iOS app.)


Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Beyond Zork

Beyond Zork

For a company that’s long since gone down into history as the foremost proponent of the all-text adventure game, Infocom sure spent a lot of years fretting over graphics. As early as 1982, well before starting their iconic text-only advertising campaign, they entered into discussions with Mark Pelczarski of Penguin Software about a possible partnership that would have seen Antonio Antiochia, writer and illustrator of Penguin’s hit adventure Transylvania, drawing pictures for Infocom games using Penguin’s The Graphics Magician. When that combination of Penguin’s graphics technology with Infocom’s text-only Z-Machine was judged impractical, the all-text advertising campaign went forward, but still Infocom refused to rule out graphics internally. On the contrary, they used some of the revenue from 1983, their first really big year, to start a graphics research group of their own under the stewardship of Mike Berlyn. But that attempt at a cross-platform graphics system, a sort of Z-Machine for graphical games, petered out almost as quietly as the Penguin deal, resulting only in Berlyn’s unique but ultimately underwhelming computerized board game Fooblitzky. Specifying a single set of graphics capabilities achievable by all of the diverse computers on the market meant that those graphics had to be very primitive, and, thanks to the fact that they were running through an interpreter, slow to boot. In the end Fooblitzky made it only to the Apple II, the Atari 8-bits, and the PC clones, and even that was a struggle. Certainly trying to combine this already problematic system with the sort of adventure game that was Infocom’s bread and butter seemed hopeless. Thus the graphics group was quietly dispersed amid all the other downsizing of 1985. Strike two.

After completing Trinity in 1986, Brian Moriarty decided to see if he could make the third time the charm. The fundamental problem which had dogged Infocom’s efforts to date had been the big DEC PDP-10 that remained at the heart of their development system — the same big mainframe that, once lauded as the key to Infocom’s success, was now beginning to seem more and more like a millstone around their necks. Bitmap graphics on the DEC, while possible through the likes of a VT-125 terminal, were slow, awkward, and very limited, as Fooblitzky had demonstrated all too well. Worse, mixing conventional scrolling text, of the sort needed by an Infocom adventure game, with those graphics on the same screen was all but impossible. Moriarty therefore decided to approach the question from the other side. What graphic or graphic-like things could they accomplish on the PDP-10 without losing the ability to easily display text as well?

That turned out to be, if far from the state of the art, nevertheless more than one might expect, and also much more than was possible at the time that they’d first installed their PDP-10. DEC’s very popular new VT-220 line of text-oriented terminals couldn’t display bitmap graphics, but they could change the color of the screen background and individual characters at will, selecting from a modest palette of a dozen or so possibilities. Even better, they could download up to 96 graphics primitives into an alternate character set, allowing the the drawing of simple lines, boxes, and frames, in color if one wished. By duplicating these primitives in the microcomputer interpreters, Infocom could duplicate what they saw on their DEC-connected dumb terminals on the computer monitors of their customers. Like much of the game that would gradually evolve from Moriarty’s thought experiment, this approach marked as much a glance backward as a step forward. Character graphics had been a feature of microcomputers from the beginning — in fact, they had been the only way to get graphics out of two of the Trinity of 1977, the Radio Shack TRS-80 and the Commodore PET — but had long since become passé on the micros in light of ever-improving bitmap-graphic capabilities. Once, at the height of their success and the arrogance it engendered, Infocom had declared publicly that they wouldn’t do graphics until they were confident that they could do them better than anyone else. But maybe such thinking was misguided. Given the commercial pressure they were now under, maybe primitive graphics were better than no graphics at all.

Thus color and character graphics became the centerpieces of a new version of the Z-Machine that Dave Lebling, Chris Reeve, and Tim Anderson, Infocom’s chief technical architects, began putting together for Moriarty’s “experimental” project. This version 5 of the Z-Machine, the last to be designed for Infocom’s PDP-10-based development system, gradually came to also sport a host of other new features, including limited mouse support, real-time support, and the ability, previously hacked rather rudely into the old version 3 Z-Machine for The Lurking Horror, to play sampled sound files. The most welcome feature of all was one of the least flashy: an undo command that could take back your last turn, even after dying. Game size was still capped at the 256 K of the version 4 Z-Machine, a concession to two 8-bitters that still made up a big chunk of Infocom’s sales, the Commodore 128 and the Apple II. For the first time, however, this version of the Z-Machine was designed to query the hardware on which it ran about its capabilities, degrading as gracefully as possible on platforms that couldn’t manage to provide its more advanced features. The graphically primitive Apple II, for instance, didn’t offer color and replaced the unique character-graphic glyphs with rough approximations in simple ASCII text, while both 8-bitters lacked the undo feature. Mouse input and sound were similarly only made available on machines that were up to it. Infocom took to calling the version 5 games, of which Moriarty’s nascent project would be the first, “XZIPs,” the “X” standing for “experimental.” (Even after Moriarty’s game was released and the format was obviously no longer so experimental, the name would stick.)

Moriarty's new interface running on an Amiga. Note the non-scrolling status window at top left that currently displays the room description, and the auto-map at top right. You can move around by clicking on the map.

Moriarty’s new interface running on an Amiga. Note the non-scrolling status window at top left that currently displays the room description, and the auto-map at top right. You can move around by clicking on the map as well as by typing the usual compass directions.

The interface gracefully (?) degraded on the Apple II.

The same interface gracefully (?) degraded on the Apple II.

Of course, it was still up to Moriarty to decide how to use the new toolkit. He asked himself, “What can I do within the constraints of our technology to make the adventuring experience a little easier?” He considered trying to do away with the parser entirely, but decided that that still wasn’t practical. Instead he designed an interface for what he liked to call “an illuminated text adventure.” Once again, in looking forward he found himself to a surprising extent looking back.

In watching myself play, I found the command I typed most was “look.” So I said this is silly, why can’t the room description always be visible? After all, that’s what Scott Adams did in his original twelve adventures, with a split-screen showing the room description, exits, and your inventory at the top, while you type in the bottom. So I said, let’s take a giant step backward. The screen is split in half in most versions. On the left side of the top half is a programmable window. It can contain either the room description or your inventory. So as you walk from room to room, instead of the description coming in-line with your commands, as it does now in our games, this window is updated. If you say, “inventory,” the window changes to show your possessions.

Another thing I liked about the old Scott Adams games was the list of room exits at the top of the screen. That’s a part of writing room descriptions that has always bugged me: we have to have at least one sentence telling where the exits are. That takes up a lot of space, and there are only so many interesting ways to do that. So I said, let’s have a list of exits at the top. Now, that’s not such a revolutionary idea. I thought of putting in a compass rose and all this other stuff, but finally I came up with an onscreen map that draws a typical Infocom map — little boxes with lines and arrows connecting them. The right side of the upper screen has a little graphics map that draws itself and updates as you walk around. It shows rooms as boxes and lines as their connections. If you open a door, a line appears to the next room. Dark rooms have question marks in them. The one you’re in is highlighted, while the others are outlined.

This onscreen map won’t replace the one you draw yourself, but it does make it much easier to draw. It won’t show rooms you haven’t been to yet, but shows exits of your current room and all the exits of the adjoining rooms that you’ve visited.

There’s even more to this re-imagining of the text adventure. On machines equipped with mice, it’s possible to move about the world by simply clicking on the auto-map; function keys are now programmable to become command shortcuts; colors can be customized to your liking; even objects in the game can be renamed if you don’t like the name they came with. And, aware that plenty of customers had a strong traditionalist streak, Moriarty also made it possible to cut the whole thing off at the knees and go back to a bog-standard text-adventure interface at any time by typing “mode” — although, with exits now absent from room descriptions, it might be a bit more confusing than usual to play that way.

Remapping the function keys.

Remapping the function keys, just one of many useful bells and whistles.

But really, it’s hard to imagine any but the most hardcore Luddites choosing to do so. The new interface is smart and playable and hugely convenient, enough to make you miss it as soon as you return to a more typical text adventure, to wish that it had made it into more than the single Infocom game that would ultimately feature it, and to wonder why more designers haven’t elected to build on it in the many years since Infocom’s demise. Infocom wrote about the new interface in their Status Line newsletter that, “never a company to jump into the marketplace with gaudy or ill-conceived bells and whistles, we have always sought to develop an intelligently measured style, like any evolving author would.” It does indeed feel like a natural, elegant evolution, and one designed by an experienced player rather than a marketeer.

With the new interface design and the technology that enabled it now well underway, Moriarty still needed an actual game to use it all. Here he made another bold step of the sort that was rapidly turning his erstwhile thought experiment into the most ambitious game in Infocom’s history. It began with another open-ended question: “What kind of game would go well with this interface?” He settled on another first for Infocom: still a text adventure, but a text adventure “with very strong role-playing elements,” in which you would have to create a character and then build up her stats whilst collecting equipment and fighting monsters.

I spent a lot of time playing fantasy games like Ultima and Wizardry and, one that I particularly liked a lot, Xyphus for the Macintosh. And I realized it was fun to be able to name your character and have all these attributes instead of having just one number — a score — that says how well you’re doing. I thought it would be nice to adopt some of the conventions from this kind of game, so you don’t have one score, you have six or seven: endurance, strength, compassion, armor class, and so on. Your job in the game is, very much like in role-playing games, to raise these statistics. And your character grows as you progress through the puzzles, some of which cannot be solved unless you’ve achieved certain statistics. You can somewhat control the types of statistics you “grow” in order to control the type of character you have.

Viewing the state of your character

Viewing the state of your character.

In conflating the CRPG with the text adventure, Moriarty was, yet again, looking backward as much as forward. In the earliest days of the entertainment-software industry, no distinction was made between adventure games and CRPGs — small wonder, as text adventures in the beginning were almost as intimately connected with the budding tabletop RPG scene as were CRPGs themselves. Will Crowther, creator of the original Adventure, was inspired to do so as much by his experience of playing Dungeons and Dragons as he was that of spelunking in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. Dave Lebling was a similarly avid Dungeons and Dragons player at the time that he, along with three partners, created the original mainframe Zork, the progenitor of everything that would follow for Infocom. It was Lebling who inserted Dungeons and Dragons-style randomized combat into that game, which survived as the battles with a certain troll and thief that served as many players’ introductions to the perils of life in the Great Underground Empire in Zork I on microcomputers. About the same time, Donald Brown was creating Eamon, the world’s first publicly available text-adventure creation system that also happened to be the first publicly available CRPG-creation system. When Byte magazine made the theme of its December 1980 issue “Adventure,” no editorial distinction was made between games where you wandered around solving puzzles and those where you wandered around killing monsters. Years before Infocom would adopt the term “interactive fiction” as their preferred name for their creations, Lebling described Zork for that issue as a “computerized fantasy simulation,” a term which today smacks much more of the CRPG than the text adventure. In the same issue Jon Freeman, creator of Temple of Apshai and many of its sequels, spent quite some pages laboriously describing his approach to adventuring, which offered “character variation” that “affects the game in many ways.” He struggles, with mixed results, to clarify how this is markedly different from the approach of Zork and Scott Adams. In retrospect, it’s obvious: he’s simply describing the difference between a CRPG and a text adventure. Over time this difference became clearer, even intuitive, but for years to come the two forms would remain linked in gamers’ minds as representing separate sub-genres more so than categories onto themselves. “Adventure-game columnists” like Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia, for instance, continued to cover both into the 1990s and beyond.

That’s by no means inexplicable. The two forms shared plenty in common, like a story, a love of fantasy settings, and the need to explore a computer-simulated world and (usually) to map it. The forms were also connected in being one-shot games, long experiences that you played through once and then put aside rather than shorter experiences that you might play again and again, as with most action and strategy games of the period. And then there was the simple fact that neither would likely have existed in anything like the form we know them if it hadn’t been for Dungeons and Dragons. Yet such similarities can blind us, as it did so many contemporary players, to some fairly glaring differences. We’ll soon be seeing some of the consequences of those differences play out in Moriarty’s hybrid.

By the time that Moriarty’s plans had reached this stage, it was the fall of 1986, and Infocom was busily lining up their biggest slate of new games ever for the following year. It had long since been decided that one of those games should bear the Zork name, the artistic fickleness that had led the Imps to reject Infocom’s most recognizable brand for years now seeming silly in the face of the company’s pressing need for hits. Steve Meretzky, who loved worldbuilding in general, also loved the lore of Zork to a degree not matched even by the series’s original creators. While working on Sorcerer, he had assembled a bible containing every scrap of information then “known” — more often than not in the form of off-hand asides delivered strictly for comedic effect — about the Flathead dynasty, the Great Underground Empire, and all the rest of it, attracting in the process a fair amount of ridicule from other Imps who thought he was taking it all far, far too seriously. (One shudders to think what they would say about The Zork Compendium.) Now Meretzky was more than eager to do the next Zork game. Whirling dervish of creativity that he was, he even had a plot outline to hand for a prequel, which would explain just how the Great Underground Empire got into the sorry state in which you first find it in Zork I. But there was a feeling among management that the long-awaited next Zork game ought to really pull out all the stops, ought to push Infocom’s technology just as far as it would go. That, of course, was exactly what Moriarty was already planning to do. His plan to add CRPG elements would make a fine fit with the fantasy milieu of Zork as well. Moriarty agreed to make his game a Zork, and Mereztky, always the good sport, gave Moriarty his bible and proceeded to take up Stationfall, another long-awaited sequel, instead.

It was decided to call the new Zork game Beyond Zork, a reference more to its new interface and many technical advancements than to the content of the game proper. Having agreed to make his game a Zork, Moriarty really made it a Zork, stuffing it with every piece of trivia he could find in Meretzky’s bible or anywhere else, whilst recreating many of the settings from the original Zork trilogy as well as the Enchanter trilogy. Beyond Zork thus proclaimed to the world something that had always been understood internally by Infocom: that the Enchanter trilogy in a different reality — a better reality according to marketing director Mike Dornbrook’s lights — could have just as easily shipped as Zork IV through VI. But Moriarty didn’t stop there. He also stuffed Beyond Zork with subtler callbacks to almost the entire Infocom catalog to date, like the platypus, horseshoe, and whistle from Wishbringer and the magical umbrella from Trinity. Mr. Prosser, Arthur Dent’s hapless nemesis from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, shows up as the name of a spell, and Buck Palace, the statuesque B-movie star from Hollywood Hijinx, is the default name for your character if you don’t give him another. There are so many references that upon the game’s release Infocom sponsored a contest to see who could spot the most of them. Especially in retrospect, knowing as we do that we are now coming close to the end of the line for Infocom, all of the backward glances can take on an elegiac quality, can make Beyond Zork feel like something of a victory lap for an entire era of adventure gaming.

I’m less pleased with the actual plot premise of Beyond Zork, which, as unplanned sequels so often tend to do, rather clumsily undermines the message of its predecessor. Moriarty’s game builds on Spellbreaker, which saw you destroying magic in the name of saving the world. The ending of Spellbreaker:

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 835 moves. This puts you in the class of Scientist.

Strange as it may sound, I judge that jarring last sentence to be nothing less than Dave Lebling’s finest moment as a writer. It’s an ending that can be read to mean many things, from an allegory of growing up and leaving childish things behind to a narrative of human progress as a whole — the replacing of a “God of the gaps” with real knowledge, simultaneously empowering and depressing in the way it can leach the glorious mystery out of life.

But still more depressing is the way that Beyond Zork now comes along to muck it up. You play a novice enchanter (where have we heard that before?) who, even as the wise and powerful hero of Spellbreaker sets about destroying magic, is dispatched by the Guild to retrieve the “Coconut of Quendor” that can safeguard it for a return at some point in the future. Why couldn’t Moriarty just leave well enough alone, find some other premise for his game of generic fantasy adventure? About the best thing I can say about the plot is that you hardly know it’s there when you’re actually playing the game; until the last few turns Beyond Zork is largely a plot-free exercise in puzzles, self-improvement (in the form of easily quantifiable statistics and equipment), and monster bashing.

On those terms, Beyond Zork seems to acquit itself quite well in the early going. Brian Moriarty remains the most gifted prose stylist among the Imps, crafting elegant sentence that must make this game, if nothing else, among the best written generic fantasies ever. Zork always had a bipolar personality, sometimes indulging in unabashed comedy and at others evoking majestic, windy desolation. Perhaps surprisingly in that it comes from the author of the doom-laden Trinity, Beyond Zork leans more toward the former than the latter. But then anyone who’s played Wishbringer knows that Moriarty can do comedy — and the juxtaposition of comedy with darker elements — very well indeed. I particularly like the group of Implementors you meet; this sort of meta-comedy was rapidly becoming another Zork tradition, dating back to the appearance of the adventurer from the original trilogy in Enchanter or, depending on how you interpret the ending of Zork III, possibly even earlier. Moriarty lampoons the reputation the Imps had within Infocom, usually expressed jokingly but not always without an edgy undercurrent, of being the privileged kids who always got all the free lunches and other perks, not to mention the public recognition, while the rest of the company, who rightfully considered themselves also very important to Infocom’s success, toiled away neglected and anonymous.

Ethereal Plane Of Atrii, Above Fields
The thunderclouds are compressed into a flat optical plane, stretching away below your feet in every direction.

A group of Implementors is seated around a food-laden table, playing catch with a coconut.

One of the Implementors notices your arrival. "Company," he remarks with his mouth full.

A few of the others glance down at you.

>x coconut
It's hard to see what all the fuss is about.

A tall, bearded Implementor pitches the coconut across the table. "Isn't this the feeb who used the word 'child' a few moves ago?" he mutters, apparently referring to you. "Gimme another thunderbolt."

>get coconut
The Implementors won't let you near.

A cheerful-looking Implementor catches the coconut and glares down at you with silent contempt.

"Catch!" cries the cheerful-looking Implementor, lobbing the coconut high into the air.

"Got it." A loud-mouthed Implementor jumps out of his seat, steps backwards to grab the falling coconut... and plows directly into you.

Plop. The coconut skitters across the plane.

>get coconut
As you reach towards the coconut, a vortex of laughing darkness boils up from underfoot!

"More company," sighs the cheerful-looking Implementor.

You back away from the zone of darkness as it spreads across the Plane, reaching out with long black fingers, searching, searching...

Slurp! The coconut falls into the eye of the vortex and disappears, along with a stack of lunch meat and bits of cutlery from the Implementors' table. Then, with a final chortle, the vortex draws itself together, turns sideways and flickers out of existence.

"Ur-grue?" asks the only woman Implementor.

"Ur-grue," nods another.

>ask implementors about ur-grue
"I think I just heard something insignificant," remarks an Implementor.

"How dull," replies another, stifling a yawn.

"This is awkward," remarks a loudmouthed Implementor. "No telling what the ur-grue might do with the Coconut. He could crumble the foundations of reality. Plunge the world into a thousand years of darkness. We might even have to buy our own lunch!" The other Implementors gasp. "And it's all her fault," he adds, pointing at you with a drumstick.

"So," sighs another Implementor, toying with his sunglasses. "The Coconut is gone. Stolen. Any volunteers to get it back?"

One by one, the Implementors turn to look at you.

"I'd say it's unanimous," smiles the cheerful-looking Implementor.

A mild-mannered Implementor empties his goblet of nectar with a gulp. "Here," he says, holding it out for you. "Carry this. It'll keep the thunderbolts off your back."

>get goblet
The Implementor smiles kindly as you take the goblet. "And now you will excuse us. My fellow Implementors and I must prepare for something too awesome to reveal to one as insignificant as you."

At first, the CRPG elements seem to work better than one might expect. Randomized combat in particular has for many, many years had a checkered reputation among interactive-fiction fans. It’s very difficult to devise a model for combat in text adventures that makes the player feel involved and empowered rather than just being at the mercy of the game’s random-number generator. There weren’t many fans of the combat in Zork I even back in the day, prompting Infocom to abandon it in all of their future games; only the usually pointless “diagnose” command remained as a phantom limb to remind one of Zork‘s heritage in Dungeons and Dragons. Even Eamon as time went by moved further and further away from its original incarnation as a sort of text-only simulation of Dungeons and Dragons, its scenarios beginning to focus more on story, setting, and puzzles than killing monsters.

Battling a rat-ant (say, is that a Starcross reference?) in Beyond Zork.

Battling a rat-ant (say, is that a Starcross reference?) in Beyond Zork.

Beyond Zork doesn’t entirely solve any of the problems that led to those developments, but it does smartly make the process of preparing for the combats more compelling than the combats themselves can possibly be. As you explore the world and solve puzzles, you level up and improve your ability scores. Among other things, this lets you fight better. You can also sell treasure for money, a nice twist on the treasure-hunt model of old-school text adventuring, and use it to buy better weapons, armor, and magic items. As you improve yourself through these means and others, you find that you can challenge tougher monsters. Thus, while the combat is still not all that interesting in itself — it still comes down to the same old “monster hits you for X points of damage, you hit monster for Y points of damage,”  rinse and repeat until somebody is done for — the sudden ability to win a battle in which you previously didn’t have a chance can feel surprisingly rewarding. Many of the monsters take the place of locked doors in more conventional text adventures, keeping you out of places you aren’t yet ready for. It feels about as satisfying to defeat one of these as it does to finally come across the key for a particularly stubborn lock in another game. Indeed, I wish that Moriarty had placed the monsters more carefully in order to guide you through the game in the right order and keep you from locking yourself out of victory by doing the right things in the wrong order, as I’ll describe in more detail shortly.

It also helps that the combats are usually quite low-stakes. While undo is disabled in combat — how ironic that Infocom introduced undo in their first game ever with a good reason not to allow it! — it’s always obvious very quickly when you’re over-matched, and usually fairly trivial to back away and go explore somewhere else before you get killed. One other subtle touch, much appreciated by a big old softie like me who can even start to feel bad for the monsters he kills in Wizardry, is that you rarely actually kill anything in Beyond Zork. Monsters usually “retreat into the darkness” or something similar rather than expiring — or at least before expiring. While I suspect Moriarty did this more to avoid implementing dead monster bodies than to make a statement, I’ll take my instances of mercy wherever I can find them.

Beyond Zork blessedly doesn’t take itself all that seriously, whether as a CRPG or as anything else. Instead of the painfully earnest orcs and dragons that populate most CRPGs, Beyond Zork‘s monsters are almost uniformly ridiculous: Christmas tree monsters singing dreadful carols (anyone who’s ever visited a shopping mall on Black Friday can probably relate), cruel puppets who attack by mocking you (they “recite your nightly personal habits in excruciating detail” among other attacks), dust bunnies (got any lemony-fresh Pledge handy?). In a sense Beyond Zork is just another genre exercise for Infocom, albeit in a ludic rather than a literary genre this time, and as usual for them it can sometimes feel as much parody as homage. There are alternate, puzzlely solutions that can be used to defeat many monsters in lieu of brute strength, and usually in more entertaining fashion at that. In fact, in many cases cleverness is the only way forward. Vital clues to the various monsters’ weaknesses are found in the game’s version of Dungeons and Dragons‘s Monster Manual, the accompanying feelie “The Lore and Legends of Quendor”; if only other companies offered such entertaining and clever copy protection! And if fighting fair and square or puzzling your way around the monsters aren’t enough alternatives for you, you can just use your Wand of Annihilation or other magic. Not just monsters but also many other problems can similarly be defeated in various ways. Beyond Zork is surprisingly flexible.

But, sadly, it’s often dangerously flexible. Which brings us to the part of this article where I have to tell you why, despite its many innovations, despite Moriarty’s usual fine writing, and despite some fine puzzles, Beyond Zork in my opinion just doesn’t add up to all that great of a game.  I think I can best explain how things go wrong by dissecting one particularly dismaying sequence in some detail.

Fair warning: heavy spoilers begin here!

So, I come upon a mother and baby hungus — “part sheep, part hippopotamus,” as “The Legends and Lore of Quendor” helpfully tells us — caught in a bad situation.

A strip of dry path winds alongside a pool of quicksand. You see a baby hungus stuck into the wet, gritty surface.

A mother hungus is standing nearby, gazing anxiously at her baby.

Luckily, I happen to have found a Stave of Levitation. What I need to do seems pretty obvious.

>point stave at baby
The baby hungus bellows with surprise as he rises out of the quicksand! Sweat breaks out on your forehead as you guide the heavy burden over the mud and safely down to the ground.

[Your strength just went down.]

The ungainly creature nuzzles you with his muddy snout, and bats his eyelashes with joy and gratitude. Then he ambles away into the jungle to find his mother, pausing for a final bellow of farewell.

[Your compassion just went up.]

Heartwarming, isn’t it? But you know what’s less heartwarming? The fact that I’ve just locked myself out of victory, that’s what. I needed to do something else, which we’ll get to in a moment, before rescuing the little fellow. It will, needless to say, likely be a long, long time before I realize that, especially given that the game actually rewards me by increasing my Compassion score. (As for the Strength loss, never fear, I’ll recover that automatically in a few turns.) This is terrible design, of the sort I expect from early Sierra, not late Infocom. I wrote in an earlier article that “we should reserve a special layer of Hell for those designs whose dead ends feel not just like byproducts of their puzzles and other interactive possibilities but rather intentional traps.” See you down below, Beyond Zork.

Beyond Zork is absolutely riddled with these sorts of traps, forcing you to restart many, many times to get through it, wondering all the while whether you didn’t render this latest puzzle you’re wrestling with insoluble a long time ago by some innocent, apparently correct action like the one above. What makes this even more baffling is that in other ways Beyond Zork is presented as an emergent, replayable experience, the sort of game where you take your lumps and move on until you either win or lose rather than constantly restoring and/or restarting to optimize your play. Taking a cue from the roguelike genre, large chunks of Beyond Zork‘s geography are randomly generated anew every time you play, as are the placement of most magic items and their descriptions; that Stave of Levitation I just used may be a Stave of Annihilation in another playthrough, forcing me to make sure I make good use of the various shops’ ability to identify stuff for me. As the manual tells you, “No two games of Beyond Zork are exactly alike!” But what’s the point of that approach when most of those divergent games leave you fruitlessly wandering about, blocked at every turn, wondering where you went wrong? Even an infamously difficult roguelike like NetHack at least puts you out of your misery when you screw up. By the time you do figure out how to tiptoe through this minefield of dead ends, you’ve internalized the whole game to such an extent that the randomness is just a huge annoyance.

The deterministic text adventure and the emergent CRPG end up rubbing each other raw almost every time they touch. When you discover a cool new magic wand or spell, you’re afraid to use it to vanquish that pesky monster you’ve been struggling with for fear that you’ll need to use it to solve some deterministic puzzle somewhere else. Yes, resource management was always a huge part of old-school dungeon crawls like Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale — arguably the hugest part, given that their actual combat engines were often little more sophisticated than that of Beyond Zork — but there was always a clear distinction between things you might need to solve puzzles and things for managing combat. The lack of same here is devastating; the CRPG aspects are really hard to enjoy when you’re constantly terrified to actually use any of the neat equipment you collect.

And just as the text adventure undermines the CRPG, the CRPG also undermines the text adventure. Near the hungi — never fear, we’ll return to that problem shortly! — I find this, yet another callback to Spellbreaker:

A stone idol, carved in the likeness of a giant crocodile, stands in a clearing.

You see a tear-shaped jewel in its gaping maw.

You see a tear-shaped jewel on the idol's maw.

>x idol
This monstrous idol is approximately the size and shape of a subway train, not counting the limbs and tail. The maw hangs wide open, its lower jaw touching the ground to form an inclined walkway lined with rows of stone teeth. A tear-shaped jewel adorns the idol's face, just below one eye.

>enter idol
You climb up into the idol's maw.

The stone jaw lurches underfoot, and you struggle to keep your balance. It's like standing on a seesaw.

>get jewel
The idol's maw tilts dangerously as you reach upward!
Slowly, slowly, you draw your hand away from the tear-shaped jewel, and the jaw settles back to the ground.

You edge a bit further into the open maw.

Creak! The bottom of the jaw tilts backward, pitching you helplessly forward...

This sequence begins a veritable perfect storm of problems, starting with the text itself, which contradicts itself and thus makes it hard to figure out what the situation really is. Is the jewel in the idol’s maw, on the idol’s maw (the weird doubled text is present in the original), or stuck to the idol’s face? Or are there two jewels, one stuck on his face and one in (on?) his maw? I’m still not sure. But let’s continue a bit further.

>turn on lantern
Click. The lantern emits a brilliant glow.

Inside Idol
This long, low chamber is shaped much like the gizzard of a crocodile. Trickles of fetid moisture feed the moss crusting the walls and ceiling.

>squeeze moss
The moss seems soft and pliant.

The moss is “Moss of Mareilon.” As described in “The Lore and Legends of Quendor,” squeezing it as I’ve just done will lead to a dexterity increase a few turns from now. And so we come to one of the most subtly nasty bits in Beyond Zork. To fully explain, I need to back up just a little.

Earlier in the game, in a cellar, I needed to climb a “stairlike spiral” of crates to get something on top of them. Alas, I wasn’t up to it thanks to a low dexterity: “You teeter uncertainly on the lowest crates, lose your balance, and sprawl to the ground. Not very coordinated, are you?” Luckily, some Moss of Mareilon was growing right nearby; I could squeeze it to raise my dexterity enough to get the job done.

So, when I come to the idol, and find more Moss of Mareilon growing conveniently just inside it, that combined with the description of my somewhat clumsy effort to grab the jewel lead to what still seems to me a very natural thought: that I need to squeeze the moss inside the idol to increase my dexterity enough to grab the jewel. I do so, then use a handy magic item to teleport out, then do indeed try again to grab the jewel. But it doesn’t work; I still can’t retrieve the jewel, still get pitched down the idol’s throat every time. After struggling fruitlessly with this poorly described and poorly implemented puzzle — more on that in a moment — I finally start thinking that maybe it can’t be solved because I didn’t give my character enough dexterity at the very beginning of the game. This can actually happen; Beyond Zork is quite possibly the only text adventure ever written in which you can lock yourself out of victory before you even enter your first command. (“The attributes of the ‘default’ [pre-created] characters are all sufficient to complete the story,” says the manual, which at least lets you know some of what you’re in for if you decide to create your own.) So, I create a brand new character with very good dexterity, and spend an hour or so, cursing all of the randomizations all the while, to get back to the idol puzzle. But I still can’t fetch the diamond, not even after squeezing the moss.

It does seem that the game has, once again, actively chosen to mislead me and generally screw me over here. But, intentionality aside, a more subtle but more fundamental problem is the constant confusion between player skill, the focus of a text adventure, and character skill, the focus of a CRPG. Let me explain.

A text adventure is a much more embodied experience than a CRPG. There’s a real sense that it’s you — or, increasingly in later games, a role that you are inhabiting — whom you are guiding through the simulated world. Despite the name, meanwhile, a CRPG is a more removed experience. You play a sort of life coach guiding the development of one or more others. Put another way, one genre emphasizes player skill, the other character skill. Think about what you spend the most time doing in these games. The most common activity in a text adventure is puzzle-solving, the most common in a CRPG combat. The former relies entirely on the wit of the player; the latter, if it’s done well, will involve plenty of player strategy, but it’s also heavily dependent on the abilities of the characters you guide. After all, no amount of strategy is going to let you win Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale with a level 1 party. CRPGs are process-intense simulations to a greater degree than text adventures, which rely heavily on hand-crafted content, often — usually in these early years — in the form of puzzles of one stripe or another. This led Jon Freeman in his Byte article to call text adventures, admittedly rather reductively, not simulations or even games at all but elaborate puzzle boxes built out of smaller puzzles: “It can be quite challenging to find the right key, the right moment, and the right command to insert it in the right lock; but once you do, the door will open — always.” In a CRPG, on the other hand, opening that lock might depend on a random number and some combination of a character’s lock-picking ability, the availability of a Knock spell, and/or the quality of the lock picks in her pack. More likely, the locked door won’t be there at all, replaced with some monster to fight. Sure things aren’t quite so common.

Of course, these distinctions are hardly absolute. CRPGs, for example, contained occasional player-skill-reliant puzzles to break up their combat almost from the very beginning. Muddying up the player-skill/character-skill dichotomy too much or too thoughtlessly can, however, be very dangerous, as Beyond Zork has just so amply demonstrated. While one hardly need demand an absolutely pure approach, one does need to know where the boundaries lie, which problems you can solve by solving a puzzle for yourself and to which you need to apply some character ability or other. Those boundaries are never entirely clear in Beyond Zork, and the results can be pretty ugly.

All that said, I still haven’t actually solved the idol puzzle. I guessed quite quickly that the description of standing on the idol’s maw as “like standing on a seesaw” was a vital clue. The solution, then, might be to place a counterweight at the front of the maw to keep it from pitching up and pitching me in. Yet the whole thing is so sketchily described and implemented that I remain unsure what’s actually happening. If I start piling things up inside the maw, they do fall down into the idol’s stomach along with me when I reach for the jewel — apparently, anyway; they’re not described as falling with me, but they do show up in the stomach with me once I get there. But if those things fall through, why not the jewel? If it’s sitting on the idol’s tongue, it’s hard to imagine why it wouldn’t. Or is it actually stuck to the idol’s face, and the stuff about it being in the maw is all a big mistake? Yes, we’re back to that question again. It’s worth nothing that the quicksand area and the hungi therein are similarly subtly bugged. If I rescue the baby before doing something with the mother, he’s described as “ambling away into the jungle to find his mother” even though she’s right there, and, since I’ve just hopelessly screwed up, will now remain there forevermore.

The solution to the idol puzzle is clued in “The Lore and Legends of Quendor.” A hungus, it says, “will instantly charge at anything that dares to threaten its kin.” I have to attack the baby hungus and make use of the mother’s rage before rescuing her son.

>attack baby
[with the battleaxe]
Your battleaxe misses the baby hungus. It's just beyond your reach.

A sound like a snorting bull turns your attention to the mother hungus. It looks as if she's about to attack!

The mother hungus charges you. Ooof!

[Your endurance just went down.]

The baby hungus bellows helplessly, and its mother responds.

The baby hungus bellows mournfully as you walk away.

The unnerving cries of exotic birds echo in the treetops.

Time passes.

The mother hungus storms into view!

A stone idol, carved in the likeness of a giant crocodile, stands in a clearing.

You see a tear-shaped jewel in its gaping maw.

You see a tear-shaped jewel on the idol's maw.


Time passes.

The mother hungus storms into view!

[Your endurance is back to normal.]

>enter maw
You climb up into the idol's maw.

The stone jaw lurches underfoot, and you struggle to keep your balance. It's like standing on a seesaw.

The mother hungus clambers onto the bottom of the idol's maw, snorting with rage!

>get jewel
The idol's maw tilts dangerously as you reach upward, standing on tiptoe to grasp the sparkling treasure...

Got it! The jewel pops off the idol's face, slips from your grasp and rolls down to the mother hungus's feet, where she promptly eats it, turns and lumbers off the jaw.

Creak! The bottom of the jaw tilts backward, pitching you helplessly forward...

Getting the jewel out of the hungus is another puzzle, but a much better one, so I won’t spoil it here. (No, it doesn’t involve a laxative…)

Spoilers end.

The sequence I’ve just described is probably the ugliest in the game, but other parts suffer to a greater or lesser degree from many of the same problems. Many of the bugs and textual confusions can doubtless be laid at the feet of an overambitious release schedule, while some of the sketchy implementation is likely down to the space limitations of even the 256 K Z-Machine. In recent correspondence with another Infocom aficionado, we talked about how Trinity, another 256 K game, really doesn’t feel all that huge, how much of the extra space was used to offer depth in the form of a larger vocabulary, richer text, and more player possibility rather than breadth in the form of more rooms and puzzles. Beyond Zork, by contrast, does feel quite huge, marks the most overstuffed game that Infocom had yet released. Considering that it must also support a full-fledged, if simplistic, CRPG engine, depth was quite obviously sacrificed in places.

But Beyond Zork‘s most fundamental failing is that of just not knowing what it wants to be. In an effort to make a game that would be all things to all people, the guaranteed hit that Infocom so desperately needed, Moriarty forgot that sometimes a game designer needs to say, no, let’s save that idea for the next project. Cognitive dissonance besets Beyond Zork from every angle. The deterministic, puzzle-oriented text adventure cuts against the dynamic, emergent CRPG. The cavalcade of in-jokes and references to earlier games, catnip for the Infocom hardcore, cuts against appealing to a newer, possibly slightly younger demographic who are fonder of CRPGs than traditional text adventures. The friendly, approachable interface cuts against a design that’s brutally cruel — sometimes apparently deliberately so, sometimes one senses (and this is in its way more damning to Brian Moriarty as a designer) accidentally so. Beyond Zork stands as an object lesson in the perils of mixing ludic genres willy-nilly without carefully analyzing the consequences. I want it to work, love many of the ideas it tries to implement. But sadly, it just doesn’t. It’s a bit of a mess really, not just difficult, which is fine, but difficult in all the wrong, unfun ways. Spellbreaker is a perfect example of how to do a nails-hard text adventure right. Beyond Zork, its parallel in the Zorkian chronology, shows how to do it all wrong. I expect more from Infocom, as, based on Wishbringer and Trinity, I do from Brian Moriarty as well.

Despite receiving plenty of favorable reviews on the basis of its considerable surface appeal, Beyond Zork didn’t turn into the hit that Infocom needed it to become. Released in October of 1987, it sold a little over 45,000 copies. Those numbers were far better than those of any of the other Infocom games of 1987, proof that the Zork name did indeed still have some commercial pull, but paled beside the best sellers of previous years, which had routinely topped 100,000 copies. Enough, combined with the uptick in sales of their other games for the Christmas season, to nudge Infocom into the black for the last quarter of 1987, Beyond Zork wasn’t enough to reverse the long-term trends that were slowly strangling them. Moriarty himself left Infocom soon after finishing Beyond Zork, tempted away by Lucasfilm Games, whose own adventure-gaming star was rising as Infocom’s fell, and where he would at last be able to fulfill his ambition to dump the parser entirely. We’ll be catching up with him again over there in due time.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Other sources include the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Byte of December 1980; Questbusters of August 1987 and January 1988; Commodore Magazine of March 1988.

Beyond Zork is available for purchase as part of The Zork Anthology on


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Plundered Hearts

Plundered Hearts

Amy Briggs first discovered text adventures during the early 1980s, when she was a student at Macalester University in her home state of Minnesota. Her boyfriend there worked at the local computer store, and introduced her to the joys of adventuring via Scott Adams’s Ghost Town. But she only became well and truly smitten — with text adventures, that is — when he first booted up a Zork for her. The pair were soon neglecting their studies to stay up all night playing on the computer.

After graduating with a degree in English and breaking up with the boyfriend, Briggs found herself somewhat at loose ends, asking that question so familiar to so many recent graduates: “What now?” Deciding that six months spent back at home with her parents was more than enough, she greeted 1985 by moving to Boston, which made for a convenient location for seeking a fortune of a type still undetermined since she had a sister already living there. Only half jokingly, she told her friends and family just before she left that if all else failed she could always go to work for Infocom.

Lo and behold, she opened the Boston Globe for the first time to find two want ads from that very company, one looking for someone to test games and the other for someone to do the same for some mysterious new business product. Briggs, naturally, wanted the games gig. Straining just a bit too hard to fit in with Infocom’s well-established sense of whimsy, she wrote a cover letter she would later “blush about,” most of all for her inexplicable claim that she had “a ridiculous sense of the sublime.” Despite or because of the cover letter, she got an interview one week later — she “stumbled out something incomprehensible” when asked about the aforementioned “ridiculous sense of the sublime” — and got a job as a game tester two weeks after that. As she herself admits, she “just walked into it,” the luckiest text-adventure fan on the planet who arrived at just about the last conceivable instant that would allow her to play a creative role in Infocom’s future.

She joined at the absolute zenith of Infocom’s success and ambition, with the whole company a beehive of activity in the wake of the recent launch of Cornerstone. On her first or second day, no less august a personage than Douglas Adams came through to talk about the huge success of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game and to plan the next one. Her first assignment was to help pack up everything inside the dark warren that was Infocom’s Wheeler Street Offices and get it all shipped off to their sparkling new digs on CambridgePark Drive. Humble tester that she was, it felt like she had hit the big time, signed on with a company that was going to be the next big success story not just in games but in software in general.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Having enjoyed just a couple of months of the good times, Briggs would get to be present for most of the years of struggle that would follow. She kept her head down and kept testing games through all the chaos of 1985 and 1986 leading up to the Activision acquisition, managing to escape being laid off.

As a woman, and as a very young and not hugely assertive woman at that, Briggs was in a slightly uncomfortable spot at Infocom, one to which many of my female readers at least can probably relate. Infocom was not, I want to emphasize, an openly or even unconsciously misogynistic place. On the contrary, it was a very progressive place in most ways by the standards of the tech industry of the 1980s. But nevertheless, it was dominated by white males with big personalities, strong opinions, and impressive resumes. Very few who didn’t fit that profile would ever have much to say about the content of Infocom’s games. (Discounting outside testers, about the only significant female voice that comes to mind other than that of Briggs is Liz Cyr-Jones, who came up with the premise and title for Hollywood Hijinx and made contributions to many other games as one of Infocom’s most long-serving, valued, and listened-to in-house testers.) Briggs needed someone in her corner, “pushing me and showing me how to do everything from compiling ZIL to insisting that I be taken seriously.”

None other than Steve Meretzky stepped forward to fill that role.  He saw a special creative spark in Briggs quite early, when she helped test his labor of love A Mind Forever Voyaging and just got what he was trying to do in a way that many other testers, still stuck in the mindset of points for treasures, didn’t. He proved instrumental in what happened next for Briggs. When she told him that she’d like to become an Imp herself someday, he introduced her to ZIL. She started working on a little game of her own for two or three hours after work in the evenings and often all day on the weekends. Like the generations of hobbyist text-adventure authors who have set their first game in their apartments, Briggs elected to begin with what she knew, the story of a tester finding bugs and taking them back to the Imp in charge. But because it was after all adventure games that she wanted to write, she muddled up this everyday tale with Alice in Wonderland: the bugs in questions were literal, metamorphosed critters, and the Imp was a caterpillar smoking a hookah.

In the fall of 1986, a call that was destined to be the last of its type went through the Infocom ranks, for a new Imp to help maintain the ambitious release schedule being pushed by Activision in the wake of the acquisition. Meretzky, showing himself to be far less sanguine on Infocom’s future prospects than he let on in public interviews, told Briggs that she should do her best to get it because “after this hiring there’s not going to be another Imp hired until one of us dies.” Along with a quiet word or two from Meretzky, her testing experience and the sample game she had been tinkering with for the last year were enough to convince management to give her a shot. Before the year was out she was an Imp, given a generous nine months — thanks to her being new on the job and all — to write, polish, and release her first game. What said first game would be was, within reason, to be left up to her.

The plan she came up with was a humdinger. She wanted to write an interactive romance novel, much like the literary guilty pleasures she had been addicted to ever since she was a teenager. Marketing immediately liked the idea of having Infocom’s first game with an explicitly female protagonist be written by a woman, saw great possibilities for opening up a “whole new market” with a game that should have huge appeal to female players. Infocom had halfheartedly pursued a similar idea before, entering into talks with a mid-list romance-novel author about a possible collaboration, only to see them peter out in the wake of the chaos wrought by Cornerstone and an evolving feeling that such partnerships with non-interactive authors usually didn’t work out all that well anyway. Now, though, they were happy to revisit the idea via a game helmed by an author who, if admittedly unproven, had been steeped in interactive fiction as well as romance fiction for quite some time now.

Meretzky, for his part, was much less bullish on the idea. A romance game must revolve around character interaction in a way that he, experienced Imp that he was, knew would be incredibly hard to pull off. Indeed, in some ways it marked the most ambitious concept anyone at Infocom had mooted since his own A Mind Forever Voyaging. And being a new, unproven Imp, Briggs would not even be given the luxury of the Interactive Fiction Plus format; her game would have to fit into the standard, aged 128 K Z-Machine. Meretzky’s advice was to do something else first and then circle back to the idea, much as Brian Moriarty had agreed to write Wishbringer before tackling his dream project Trinity. Perhaps sensing already that there might not be enough time left for that, perhaps just feeling stubborn, Briggs for once rejected his advice and pressed ahead with her original plan. Her reason for doing so was about as good as they come: this would be the Infocom game that she had always wanted to play.

Amy Briggs

Amy Briggs

Steeped sufficiently in romance novels to have become something of a scholar of the genre, Briggs had long since divided the books she read into four categories: contemporary romances; Gothic romances in the tradition of Jane Eyre and Rebecca; historical romances, or “bodice rippers,” with “lurid sex-filled plots in historical settings”; and the more subdued Regency romances in the tradition of Jane Austen, as much comedies of manners as stories of love and lust. She decided that she wanted to make her game a cross between a Regency novel, her personal favorite category, and an historical romance, with “more action than a Regency but less sex than an historical.” Whatever else it was, her game would still be an adventure game, and thus the emphasis on action seemed necessary. As for the lack of explicit sex, Briggs wasn’t suited by temperament to writing lurid sex scenes any more than Infocom was interested in publishing them — not to mention the complications of trying to craft interactive sex in a medium that struggled to depict even the most basic conversation.

Looking for an historical milieu, Briggs settled on the age of Caribbean piracy. Like Sid Meier, who was working on a very different pirate-themed game of his own 400 miles away in Baltimore, she wasn’t so interested in the historical reality of piracy as much as she was in the rich tradition of swashbuckling fiction. Many of the references she studied were doubtless the same as those being perused at the exact same time by Meier. Her actual statements about her game’s relationship to real history also echo many of Meier’s.

I already had plenty of experience with romance novels, from my reading, and I have long been interested in fashions, so I only needed to brush up on those. Pirates, though, I had to research, and sailing ships. I watched a lot of movies — Captain Blood-type movies and romantic adventures like Romancing the Stone. Plundered Hearts is about as historically accurate as an Errol Flynn movie. I tried not to be anachronistic if I could help it, but if the heroine’s hairstyle is from the wrong century or if pirates really didn’t make people walk the plank, if stretching the truth adds a lot to the story, does it really matter?

As the extract above attests, she gave her game the pitch-perfect title of Plundered Hearts. You take the role of the young Lady Dimsford, whose ship is waylaid on the high seas by a pirate who is both less and more than he seems. Captain Jamison, the legendary pirate known as “the Falcon,” is actually there to rescue you from kidnapping by the captain of your own ship, who’s in the thrall of the evil Governor Jean Lafond; Lafond already holds your father captive. Cast in the beginning in the role of damsel in distress, to survive and thwart the sinister plot against your family you’ll soon have to take a more active part in events. Along the way, you’ll need to rescue your erstwhile rescuer Captain Jamison a few times, and of course you’ll have the chance to fall in love.

As Emily Short notes in her review of the game, at times Plundered Hearts layers on the romance-novel stylings a bit thick, and with a certain knowingness that skirts the border between homage and parody, as in the heroine’s daydream that represents the very first text we see.

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?"

A number of Infocom’s other more unusual genre exercises similarly verge on parody, whether as a product of sheer commitment to the genre in question or the company’s default house voice of sly, slightly sarcastic drollery. One thing that redeems Plundered Hearts, as it also does, say, many a Lovecraftian pastiche, is the author’s obvious familiarity with and love for the genre in question. And another is that even its knowing slyness, to whatever extent it’s there, departs from the usual Infocom mold. There aren’t 69,105 of anything here, no “hello, sailor” jokes, no plethora of names that start with Zorkian syllables like “Frob,” no response to “xyzzy” — all of which (and so much more like it) was beginning to feel just a little tired by 1987. Like Jeff O’Neill, another recently minted Imp who brought a fresh perspective to the job, Amy Briggs just isn’t interested in plundering the lore of Zork. Unlike O’Neill, she gives us a game that’s eminently playable. Plundered Hearts is the polar opposite of the cavalcade of insider jokes and references that is The Lurking Horror. Yes, that game certainly has its charms… but still, new blood feels more than welcome here. Plundered Hearts really does feel like it wants to reach out to new players rather than just preach to the choir.

Yet at the same time that it’s so uninterested in so many typical Infocom tropes, Plundered Hearts might just be the best expression — ever — of the Infocom ideal of interactive fiction. The backs of their boxes had been telling people for years that interactive fiction was like “waking up inside a story.” Still, the majority of Infocom games stay far, far away from that ideal. Some, like Hollywood Hijinx and Nord and Bert, are little more than a big pile of puzzles built around a broad thematic premise. Others, ranging from Infidel to Spellbreaker, give you a dash of story in the beginning and a dab of story in the end, with a long, long middle filled with lots of static geography to explore and yet more puzzles to solve. Even Infocom’s two most forthrightly literary efforts, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, aren’t quite like waking up inside a story in the novelistic sense: there’s very little conventional narrative of any sort in Trinity, while for most of its length A Mind Forever Voyaging makes its hero more an observer than the star of its unfolding plot. The mysteries do offer relatively stronger narratives and more complex characters, but they’re very much cast in the classic mystery tradition of figuring out other peoples’ stories rather than really making one of your own.

Plundered Hearts, however, feels qualitatively different from them and almost everything else that came before. (The closest comparison in the catalog is probably Seastalker, Infocom’s only game marketed explicitly to children.) There’s a plot thrust — a narrative urgency — that’s largely missing elsewhere in the Infocom canon, coupled with many more of the sorts of things the uninitiated might actually think of when they hear the term “interactive fiction.” As you play, the plot thickens, events unfold, relationships change, characters develop and deepen, romance blossoms. In short, real, plot-related things actually happen. I don’t mean to say that this is the only way to write a compelling text adventure. Nor do I mean to say that there’s a lot of plot here by the standards of a typical novel or even novella, nor that you can do a whole lot to influence it beyond either clearing the hurdles before you and making it to the end — the game does offer a few alternate endings via a final branch — or screwing up and dying or suffering a “fate worse than death” that usually implies rape, and often a lifetime of indentured sexual servitude. What I am saying is that Amy Briggs took interactive fiction as Infocom preferred to describe it and made her best good-faith effort to live up to that ideal.  And, against all the odds, it works way better than it has any right to. I recently called the Infocom ideal of interactive fiction “something of a lost cause.” Well, I should have remembered that Plundered Hearts was waiting in the wings to prove me wrong just this once. Briggs dispenses with the things she can’t easily implement, like character interaction, via quick text dumps and concentrates the interactivity on those she can. By keeping the plot constantly in motion, she distracts us from the myriad flaws in her world’s implementation.

While Plundered Hearts has plenty of puzzles, those puzzles feel more organic than in the typical Infocom game, arising directly out of the plot rather than existing for the sake of their own cleverness. They’re also a bit easier than the norm, which suits the game’s purposes fine; you don’t want to spend hours teasing out the solution to an intricate puzzle here, you want to keep the plot moving, to find out what happens next. Most of the puzzles require only straightforward, commonsense deductions based on the materials to hand and your own goals, which are always blessedly clear. Yes, were Plundered Hearts written today, there are a few things a wise author would probably do differently. The timing of the first act, when you need to keep a powder keg in the hold of your ship from exploding, is tight enough that you might need to replay it once or twice to get it right, and it’s quite easy in one or two places to leave vital objects behind (don’t forget to grab that piece of pork when you make it to St. Sinistra!). Still, this game is far friendlier as well as far more plotty than the Infocom norm, and as a result it feels surprisingly modern even today.

As with many Infocom games, particularly in the latter half of the company’s history, much of the process of developing Plundered Hearts came down to cutting out all those pieces that wouldn’t fit into the 128 K Z-Machine. Briggs says that she finished the game inside six months, and then spent the remaining three cutting, cutting, and painfully cutting some more. Impossible as it is to make any real judgments without seeing the game she started with, Plundered Hearts doesn’t feel so much like a victim of those cuts as does Dave Lebling’s nearly contemporaneous The Lurking Horror. In some ways the cutting may have improved it, made it more playable. Briggs notes that she just didn’t have the space to allow the player to go too far astray, meaning that a screw-up more often leads to immediate death — or one of those other nasty, rapey endings — rather than a walking-dead situation. There are, she admits, “a lot of deaths” in Plundered Hearts. A lot of rapes too, more than enough to make the game feel squiggy if it had been written by a man. (Yes, this is a double standard. And no, I don’t feel all that motivated to apologize for it in light of the history that gave rise to it. Your mileage may obviously vary.)

In an interview published in Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, Briggs tried to head off accusations that the game offered a retrograde depiction of gender relations by noting that “feminism does not rule out romance, and romance does not necessarily have to make women weak in the cliché sense of romance novels.” She further pointed out, rightly, that the protagonist of Plundered Hearts must soon enough take responsibility for her own fate, must turn the tables to rescue her Captain Jamison (“several times!”) and certainly can’t afford to “act as an air-head.” Not having much — okay, any — experience with romance novels, I don’t know whether or how unusual that is for the form, and thus don’t know to what degree we can label Plundered Hearts a subversion of romance-novel tropes. I do think, however, that by the time near the end of the game that it’s you, the allegedly helpless female, who comes swinging down off a chandelier to effect a rescue, the game has quite thoroughly upended the gender roles of your typical Errol Flynn movie.

Plundered Hearts and Nord and Bert, released simultaneously in September of 1987, represented the two most obvious marketing experiments in a 1987 Infocom lineup that otherwise largely played to the adventure-gaming base. These were also the two titles about which marketing had been most excited at their inception, as chances to pry open whole new demographics. By that September, however, following a punishing nine months already full of commercial disappointments, such ideas seemed like the fantasies they had probably always been. Infocom’s marketing efforts on behalf of Plundered Hearts in particular were tentative to the point of confusion, playing up the romance-novel angle on the one hand while seeking on the other to reassure the traditional adventurers that Infocom could hardly afford to lose that, really now, this wasn’t all that big a departure from Zork. And so we got this testimonial from one Judith C.: “Infocom’s first romance does the genre proud. Playing Plundered Hearts was like opening a romance novel and walking inside.” But we also got this one from Ron T.: “I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t like the game at first, being male and playing it as a female, but once you got started it was NO PROBLEM! I enjoyed it!!!”

Neither marketing angle was sufficient to make Plundered Hearts a hit. The sales of it and its release partner Nord and Bert dropped off substantially from those of the pairing of Stationfall and The Lurking Horror of just a few months previous. The final numbers for Plundered Hearts reached only about 15,500. Briggs recalls no big thrill of accomplishment at seeing her name on an Infocom box for the first time, nor even a sense of creative fulfillment at having done something so different from the Infocom norm and done it so well, only a deep disappointment at what she and Infocom’s management viewed as just another failed experiment.

Briggs’s remaining time at Infocom proved equally frustrating. While certainly not the only Imp whose most recent game had failed to sell very well, she was in a precarious position as the newest and most inexperienced of the group, with no older, more successful titles to point to as proof of her artistic extincts. In contrast to Plundered Hearts, an idea which Infocom’s management had embraced from the get-go, her new ideas got rejected one after another by a company she characterizes as now “terrified,” desperate to find “the next Hitchhiker’s” that could save them all. Management wanted games with obvious “marketing tie-ins,” but her personal interests were “geekish.” At the same time, though, they gave her little real direction in what sorts of subjects might be more marketable: “Just write us a hit.” The most retrospectively promising of her ideas, one that would seem likely to have satisfied management’s own criteria if they’d given it a chance, was a game either heavily inspired by or outright licensing Anne Rice’s vampire novels. But it came perhaps just a little too early in the cultural conversation — Rice’s books hadn’t quite yet exploded into the mainstream to help ignite the still-ongoing craze for all things vampire in popular culture — and was ultimately rejected along with all her other ideas. About the time that management started pushing her to call up Garrison Keillor to try to get a game deal out of her very tangential relationship with him — she had worked as an usher on A Prairie Home Companion during her university days, and had attended occasional potlucks and the like with the rest of the cast and crew at Keillor’s house — she decided that enough was enough.

Briggs left Infocom in mid-1988 after completing her final work for them, the “Flathead Calendar” feelie that accompanied her old mentor Steve Meretzky’s Zork Zero. She said that she was leaving to go write the Great American Novel. But like many an aspiring novelist, Briggs found the reality of writing less enchanting than the idea; the novel never happened. She jokes today that her fellow Imps set expectations a bit too high at her farewell party when they gifted her with a tee-shirt emblazoned with the words “1989 Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.” She wound up taking a PhD in Experimental and Behavioral Psychology instead, and has since enjoyed a rewarding career in academia and private industry. Her one published work of interactive fiction — for that matter, her one published creative work of any stripe — remains Plundered Hearts.

It may be a thin creative legacy, but it’s one hell of an impressive one. Other Infocom games like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity may carry more thematic weight, but in terms of sheer entertainment I don’t think Infocom ever made a better game. The last game ever released for the original 128 K Z-Machine, it’s the interactive equivalent of a great beach read in all the best senses, grabbing hold quickly and just rollicking along through rapier duels, exploding powder kegs, daring waterborne escapes, secret passages, death-defying leaps, etc., all interspersed — this being an interactive romance novel, after all — with multiple costume changes, a little ballroom dancing, and a few sweaty seductive interludes sufficient to make the old bosom heave. Much as I usually shy away from the Internet’s obsession with ranking things, if I was to list my personal favorite Infocom games Plundered Hearts would have to be right there at number two, just behind Trinity. And this comes from someone who doesn’t know the first thing about romance novels.

Indeed, one of the thoroughgoing pleasures of Plundered Hearts, the gift that keeps on giving for years after you’ve played it, is watching players like me and our friend Ron T. above fall victim to its charms despite all their stoic manly skepticism. Even Questbusters‘s redoubtable William E. Carte, who in just the previous issue had declared Nord and Bert unfit for “true adventurers,” succumbed to Plundered Hearts despite being “a traditionalist and quite conservative as well.”

I must admit it bothered me a bit at first — my character being hugged and kissed by a man. After the initial scenes, however, I quickly got lost in the plot, and soon my character’s sex honestly didn’t matter. One female QB reader wrote me that she enjoyed the game and gave it to a male friend who also liked it. He particularly liked changing clothes repeatedly.

Don’t you love the sound of prejudices collapsing? I complain from time to time, doubtless more than some of you would like, about the lack of diversity in so much ludic culture. Leaving aside politics and social engineering and even concerns about simple fairness, I think that Plundered Hearts serves as a wonderful example of why diversity is something to be sought and cherished. Amy Briggs’s unique perspective resulted in an Infocom game like no other, one that gives people like me a glimpse of what people like her see in all those trashy romance novels. In a world that could use more of that sort of understanding, that can only be a good thing. But we don’t even have to go that far. In a world that can always use better and more varied games, more and more diverse game designers is the obvious best way to achieve that.

Like a number of people I’ve written about on this blog who have long since gone on to lead other lives, Amy Briggs’s own relationship to the game she wrote all those years ago is in some ways more distant than the one some of its biggest fans enjoy with it. It crops up in her life on occasions scattered enough that they always surprise, like the time that a student knocked on her door at the university where she was teaching to ask in awed tones if she was “the Amy Briggs.” He had played Plundered Hearts ten years before with his sister — young male fans, Briggs notes bemusedly, are almost always careful to make that distinction — had loved it, just wanted to say thank you. Briggs’s own memories of her brief, unlikely career as a game designer remain a mishmash of nostalgia for “the best job I’ve ever had” with the still-lingering disappointment of Plundered Hearts‘s commercial failure — a commercial failure that, at the time and even now, is all too easy for her conflate with its real or alleged artistic shortcomings. “There are actually people who think my game is really good,” she says with more than a tinge of disbelief in her voice. Yes, Amy, there are. We think your game is very good.

(As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Thanks again, Jason! Other sources include Infocom’s Status Line newsletters of Fall 1987 and Winter 1987, Questbusters of December 1987, and an XYZZY interview with Briggs.

Plundered Hearts and most of the other Infocom games are available for purchase as part of an iOS app.)


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Nord and Bert

Nord and Bert

Fair Warning: a handful of puzzle spoilers are sprinkled through this article.

For the most part, Infocom weathered Activision’s demand that they suddenly double their output of games almost unbelievably well. While I fancy I can see evidence of their sudden prolificacy in a parser that could have been a little bit smarter here or a puzzle that could have used just a little more thought there, I certainly can’t say that any of the games I’ve written about so far were spoiled by the new pressure. The one glaring exception to that rule, the only title that truly does seem like a tragic victim of its circumstances, is the one I’m writing about today, Jeff O’Neill’s Nord and Berd Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. Its failure to become the game it might have been is only made more disheartening by the fact that it was the most boldly experimental game concept Infocom had dared since Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, the perfect antidote to the sense of been-there/done-that ennui that was beginning to afflict some of Infocom’s other designs along with the Imps themselves. What could have represented a badly needed new direction would prove, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, a detour to nowhere.

We can see the seed of Nord and Bert in another Meretzky game, Leather Goddesses of Phobos. That game’s most brilliant puzzle of all from a crowded field of contenders, still justly remembered and loved today, is a “T-removing machine” that can turn rabbits into rabbis and trays into “little Ray whatsisname from second grade.” This sort of interaction, all about the words themselves that carried all the freight in an all-text Infocom game, could never be entirely replicated in one of ICOM’s point-and-click adventures, in a Sierra animated adventure game, nor even in one of Magnetic Scroll’s text adventures with pretty pictures. For an Infocom that was feeling increasingly embattled by all of the above and more, that had a definite appeal: “Let’s see you try to do this with your fancy graphics!”

After writing Ballyhoo and duly putting in some time as Sisyphus pushing the rock that was the Bureaucracy project up that hill, Jeff O’Neill decided to take Meretzky’s idea to the next level, to make an entire game that was all about the words out of which it was formed. He approached his game of wordplay in what he calls a “backwards” fashion, beginning with the puzzles rather than any set fictional genre or concept, spending days with his nose buried in references books of clichés and homonym pairs and poring over a wide variety of word puzzles from the likes of Games Magazine. To keep things somewhat manageable for the player, he decided to make his new game a series of “short stories” rather than a single extended experience, a first for Infocom. This way each of the segments could focus on one type of wordplay. The fictions for each segment became whatever was most convenient for the type of puzzles O’Neill wanted to present there. Only quite late in the process did he come up with an overarching story to bind the segments together, of the “mixed-up Town of Punster” that’s beset with a confusion of wordplay. You must “cleanse the land of every wrongful, wordful deed” by completing the seven mini-games and a master game combining all of the types of puzzles from the earlier parts. This finale you can naturally only access after completing everything else.

While the master game’s existence does give a nod toward the traditional idea of the holistic, completeable adventure game, most of Nord and Bert departs radically from what people had long since come to expect of a text adventure. In addition to the unusual segmented structure, which led Infocom to dub the game “Interactive Short Stories” rather than “Interactive Fiction” on the box, many other tried-and-true attributes are missing in action. Mapping, for instance, is gone entirely. Infocom in general had been growing steadily less interested in this part of the text-adventure paradigm for years before Nord and Bert, first having excised the mazes and confusing nonreciprocal room connections that mark Zork, and of late having taken to including maps of one sort or another showing their games’ geographies right in the packages as often as not. Nord and Bert, however, takes it yet one step further, eliminating compass directions entirely in favor of a list of accessible rooms in the status line. Thanks to the segmented structure that holds each section to no more than a handful of rooms, you can simply “go to” the room of your choice. Actually, you usually don’t even have to do that much: just typing the name of a room, all by itself, is usually sufficient to send you there.

Indeed, Nord and Bert displays itself to best advantage when it barely feels like an imperative-driven text adventure at all, but rather an exercise in pure wordplay not quite like anything that had come to a computer before. Simply typing the name of an object will cause you to examine it — no “examine” or even “x” verb required — and many of the textual transformations that form the meat of its puzzles require simply typing the correct word or phrase rather than carrying out an in-world action per se. It all amounted to a very conscious bid to, as O’Neill puts it, “attract new fans as well as making the old ones happy. I tried to fulfill this goal by taking the tedium out of the game (mapping, etc.) and making the game more approachable for people.”

Like all Infocom games, Nord and Bert feels like a game for smart people, but it feels aimed toward a different sort of smart person than had been the norm heretofore, and not just because of the absence of dungeons and dragons or rockets and rayguns. A perfect world, at least by the lights of Infocom and Jeff O’Neill, would have seen it replacing the New York Times crossword puzzle on the breakfast tables of urbane sophisticates looking for something to toy with over their Sunday morning coffee. To keep it from becoming too frustrating for this more casual audience, O’Neill tried to build into the game both an extra layer of forgiveness and a tempting challenge to return to on the next Sunday by making it possible to “solve” most sections without actually figuring out all of the puzzles. Scoring is handled as a simple accounting of puzzles available and puzzles solved, and you can always jump back into a section you’ve completed to try to get those last pesky points. Likewise, you can always get out of one section to try another if you need a change of pace; the game remembers your progress in each section for you when you decide to jump back in. And if you absolutely can’t figure something out, Nord and Bert includes a built-in hint system that doles out clues bit by bit, InvisiClues-style, until finally giving the whole solution. This marks yet another first for Infocom in a game that’s fairly stuffed with them.

O’Neill’s prose feels as arch and playfully sophisticated — if sometimes just a bit too self-consciously so — as a classic New Yorker piece: “In this time when phraseology is practiced with mischief as the sole black art, when the currency is debased with the ceaseless random coinage of words, when verbicide is statistically the common household tragedy — now is the time when such a doer of good words is most welcome.” Looking for a visual counterpart to his style for the box art and the feelies, O’Neill happened upon a book of cartoons called The Day Gravity Was Turned Off in Topeka by one Kevin Pope, a journeyman commercial artist for greeting-card companies and the like who was trying to make it as a newspaper cartoonist via a syndicated panel called Inside Out. His work was perhaps just a little too redolent of Gary Larson’s The Far Side to stand out in its own right, but then The Far Side was also hugely popular among exactly the sorts of people at whom Nord and Bert was aimed — and a Kevin Pope didn’t carry the same price tag as a Gary Larson. A deal was quickly worked out, with Infocom pledging both royalties and a prominent plug for his newspaper cartoon and book in return for a dozen or so original cartoon panels to accompany the game. Each plays with words in one way or another, but otherwise they have little to do with the game they accompany. Nord and Bert is one of the few Infocom games that can be played perfectly happily without ever even glancing at the feelies, yet another nod in the direction of being a more casual sort of experience. Despite this, the best of the cartoons not only appears on the box cover but also gives the game its name — a name which, once again, has nothing to do with the contents of the disk.

Two more of the Kevin Pope cartoons included with Nord and Bert.

Two more of the Kevin Pope cartoons that were included with Nord and Bert.

Nord and Bert must have sounded pretty great in principle, both a bold new gameplay concept for a company that was growing tired of making the same old same old and a game that seemed like it could have the potential to reach a whole new type of player if Infocom could — and this was admittedly the trickiest part — find a way to reach her. Even in practice, when we fire up the actual game, things start out fine. The first section, the “Shopping Bizarre,” is the strongest in the game, a fresh delight to play after lots of adventures revolving around keys, maps, and fiddly in-world interactions. Its puzzles are all about finding homonyms, words that sound alike but are spelled differently, like a chocolate moose and chocolate mousseNord and Bert continues to acquit itself quite well in the next few sections. The second, “Play Jacks,” is themed around words and phrases that include a “jack”: “jack of all trades,” “jackhammer,” “Jacuzzi,” etc. Next comes “Buy the Farm,” another very strong section that deals in folksy clichés. And then we have “Eat Your Words,” which is all about English idioms like its title. But after that, alas, everything starts to go wrong. Having managed despite a few wobbles to keep its balance in a death-defying highwire act worthy of O’Neill’s earlier Ballyhoo for about half its length, when Nord and Bert finally falls it falls hard.

To understand why and how that should happen, we first have to acknowledge what a dangerous tightrope Nord and Bert really is walking right from the beginning. If you characterized the entire game as little more than a series of guess the verbs, nouns, and phrases, I might be able to accuse you of being ungenerous but I really couldn’t say that you were wrong. As such, it cuts against almost everything that Infocom had been striving for years now to make their games be. The parser, which Infocom had envisioned becoming eventually so smart and flexible that it would fade into the background entirely, a seamless conduit between player and world, is the entire focus of the play here. And instead of spurning the need for outside knowledge, instead of including everything you need to know to solve it within itself and its feelies as other Infocom games strove to do, Nord and Bert‘s success as a game is completely dependent on its player’s knowledge of clichés, turns of phrase, and quirks of American English. Certainly just about anyone who didn’t grow up with English as her first language will have a horrible time here. I tried to play Nord and Bert recently with my wife, who speaks excellent English but nevertheless has it as her third language. We gave up pretty quickly. Most of it was just baffling to her; it’s not much fun to watch your playing partner grin and giggle with each new intuitive flash as you wonder what the hell he’s on about. I would venture to guess that even some native speakers not from the United States could have some trouble with the folksy Americanisms in sections like “Buy the Farm.” When Nord and Bert does finally fall off that tightrope even for a wordplay-loving native-speaking American like me, it’s almost more surprising that we made it this far together than it is shocking that that the game finally went too far.

Still, the section where the big fall happens, “Act the Part,” is a mess by any standard. It seems that already by this point O’Neill was beginning to run out of workable wordplay ideas. The connection of “Act the Part” to the ostensible premise of the game as a whole is, at best, tenuous. You find yourself on the set of a banal sitcom, needing to determine the best action to advance a script that’s unknown to you. It devolves into a literal guessing game of trying to figure out what arbitrary action the game wants next, and a well-nigh impossible one at that. I’d be surprised if anyone in the history of Nord and Bert has ever actually connected a knife and “a bottle in front of me” to arrive at giving your deadbeat brother-in-law Bob a lobotomy without recourse to the hints. This is just bad, horrifically unfair design no matter how much we strain to make concessions for the sheer originality of the game as a whole. Just to add insult to injury (to use a phrase of which Nord and Bert would be proud), you have to solve every single inscrutable puzzle in this section to receive credit for completing the section as a whole.

The next section, “The Manor of Speaking” is also all but insoluble, and also bound by no identifiable connecting tissue of a consistent type of wordplay to give you some traction in divining its mysteries. A sample howler: you’re expected to spook a portrait of Karl Marx, whom the game tell you in the hints — but, naturally, nowhere else — “fears insurgencies,” by sticking a ticking alarm clock in a box and dropping it in front of him. Adventure games just don’t get any more “guess what the author is thinking” than that. The penultimate section, called “Shake a Tower,” recovers somewhat from those lowlights by at least once again building its interactions around an identifiable wordy theme, in this case Spoonerisms, word pairs with transposed sounds: for example, “gritty pearl” and “pretty girl.” But, with no contextual clues to tell you what you’re aiming to accomplish or what the game might expect, the scope of possibility remains far too wide. In short, all of these latter puzzles are just too hard, and not in a good way — a problem that persists into a master-game finale that throws everything that has come before into one unholy blender.

When playing Nord and Bert, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that at some point Infocom just gave up on it in light of all the other games on their plate, that they just did what they could with it and shoved it out the door as it was. An ironic source of temptation to do just that was likely those built-in hints, always a dangerous two-edged sword from the standpoint of good design. Players could never actually get stuck on the worst puzzles, could never have all that much to complain about, since the solutions were always waiting right there in the game itself, right? Well, no. Players still want to solve games for themselves. It’s not much fun, and kind of emasculating to boot, to play a game from its hint menu.

As if there wasn’t already enough novelty about Nord and Bert, it also represented something new for Infocom from a technical standpoint, a compromise between the venerable original 128 K Z-Machine, which ran on just about every computer under the sun but whose limitations now seemed to bite harder with every successive game, and the 256 K Interactive Fiction Plus Z-Machine, which offered a hell of a lot more breathing room along with more screen-formatting flexibility but could only run on computers with the magic combination of 128 K of memory and an 80-column screen, two requirements that excluded it from the slowly fading but still industry-dominating Commodore 64. Internally, Infocom referred to games for the 128 K Z-Machine as “ZIPs” (for “Z-Machine Interpreter Program,” not to be confused with the compression format) and those for the 256 K as “EZIPs” (“Extended ZIPs”). Nord and Bert debuted a new category, the “LZIP” (presumably “Large ZIP”) that slotted into a sweet spot right in between. While built around the revised Interactive Fiction Plus Z-Machine, the LZIP format could adapt itself to 40-column screens and, as long as its total size was restricted to under 180 K, could be shoehorned into a Commodore 64 on a double-sided disk. That extra 50 K or so of space may not sound like much today, but it was precious for Imps used to a hard limit of 128 K, enabling features like Nord and Bert‘s built-in hints.1 LZIP was just one of a plethora of new technological variations all suddenly all in the pipeline at the same time, from The Lurking Horror‘s sound support on the Amiga to a whole new major revision of the Z-Machine for Beyond Zork. Much as Infocom and Activision judged all this feverish innovation necessary to have any hope of remaining competitive, it certainly wasn’t making their testing process any easier, especially when taken in combination with the brutal release schedule.

All of this confused activity may have had something to do not only with Nord and Bert‘s fundamental design failings but also with some fit-and-finish issues that are very unusual to see in an Infocom game. In one or two places, for instance, correct responses are met first with a “[That sentence isn’t one I recognize.],” followed immediately by some text telling you that you have in fact solved a puzzle. Yes, it’s all made slightly more understandable by the radical overhauling the standard parser had to undergo for this game, but, nevertheless, the absence of exactly these sorts of glitches and parserial non sequiturs was one of the things that usually distinguished Infocom from even worthy competitors like Magnetic Scrolls. It’s hard to imagine these sorts of problems sneaking into a released Infocom game of an earlier, less hectic year. But then again, the very fact that such a strange experiment as Nord and Bert got a release at all is likely down to the simple reality that Infocom suddenly had so many slots to fill. With Activision craving so much pasta, might as well throw some crazy-colored penne at the wall as well as the usual spaghetti to see if it stuck.

Predictably enough, it didn’t, at least not that well. It turned out that plenty of traditional text adventurers just wanted their spaghetti, had no interest in the alternative Nord and Bert offered them. After the game’s release, William Carte, a reviewer for the very traditionalist Questbusters magazine (they had already found the likes of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Alter Ego far too avant garde for their tastes), became one of many to speak for this constituency. He misses mapping, saying “half the fun” is “finding secret doors and locations.” As for the puzzles that are there:

If you have a great vocabulary (or enjoy reading Webster’s Dictionary) and like limericks and wordplay, you may enjoy Nord and Bert. (As someone else phrased it, this game is for “word nerds.”) True adventure gamers will probably be disappointed.

With people who enjoyed Nord and Bert thus duly put in their place as untrue adventure gamers in this review and others like it, the game was going to face even more of an uphill commercial climb than other Infocom games of this late era. And as for the dream of reaching a new sort of brainy yet more casual player… well, you can probably guess about how well that went. Thanks to some fairly gushing articles in places like The New York Times Book Review and The Boston Globe Magazine, Infocom had actually begun to make some modest inroads into the less stereotypically nerdy end of the smart-people demographic during their peak years of 1983 and 1984. Sadly, however, free exposure like that hadn’t been their lot in life for some time now. These days they lacked the resources to mount an outreach effort of the necessary scale to reach such folks — or of any scale at all, really — and Activision, having now pivoted so completely to the traditional videogame market of teenage boys, neither understood nor cared about O’Neill’s broader vision for the game. Pushed out with little fanfare in September of 1987 in tandem with Plundered Hearts — the two already represented Infocom’s fifth and sixth games of the year, with yet three more being prepped for release within the next few months —  Nord and Bert if anything did somewhat better than its esoteric style and all but nonexistent promotion might have prompted one to expect, managing to sell about 17,000 copies, slightly more than its release partner and about 5000 more than the title that still remained Infocom’s worst-selling ever, Hollywood Hijinx. Still, the folks making that New York Times crossword had little cause for concern.

Nord and Bert, Jeff O’Neill’s second game, would also prove to be his last. He left Infocom shortly after its release, part of a slow exodus that began as relations with Activision continued to worsen and the future looked more and more bleak. His career at Infocom stands as the most disappointing of all of the Imps, the story of a fine writer and boldly innovative if inexperienced designer who began two wonderfully promising games in Ballyhoo and Nord and Bert only to have them fall apart — and both largely due to pressures outside his control. Given O’Neill’s inexperience, both just needed that extra bit of tender loving care that Infocom wasn’t quite in a position to give them. It’s not surprising, then, that he remains by far the most embittered of all the former Imps, the only one who declined to be interviewed for the Get Lamp documentary and, indeed, the only one to have maintained a nearly complete silence since Infocom folded.

Understandable as his bitterness is, at least one thing ought to lessen its sting.  Both of his games, commercial disappoints though they may have been in their day, have like A Mind Forever Voyaging proved hugely influential on the art of interactive fiction in the longer term. Just as Ballyhoo pioneered a new, less frustrating form of plotting that tailors the story to the player’s progress rather than making the player conform to the game’s chronology, Nord and Bert introduced to the world the delicious possibilities for interactive wordplay, for text adventures that revel in the very textuality that sets them apart from their graphical cousins. A persistent sub-genre has been the result, one that includes gems like Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and Emily Short’s more recent and even more delightful Counterfeit Monkey. Thanks to more time in the gestation, many more years of collective design wisdom on which to draw, and an audience of players that’s much more accepting of alternate approaches to interactive fiction than were many of Infocom’s fans, these games and a handful of other contenders like them largely avoided Nord and Bert‘s worst pratfalls to become acknowledged classics as well as some of my own all-time favorites. (Much as it may mark me as a less than true adventurer, I do love me some wordplay, so much so that it’s occasionally led me to be way too forgiving of even Nord and Bert‘s shortcomings in the past.) But then, this is much of the reason that Infocom’s catalog as a whole remains so vital and interesting after all these years. Even their failures cast a long shadow over everything that would follow them.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me, even though those archives sadly don’t include an interview with Jeff O’Neill himself. The one place I’ve found where O’Neill does talk at all about his work on Nord and Bert is some remarks included with Ross Ceccola’s review of the game in the March 1988 Commodore Magazine. William Carte’s review appears in the November 1987 Questbusters.

Nord and Bert sadly isn’t included in the Lost Treasures of Infocom iOS app, so you’ll have to track down a copy elsewhere if you want to play it; I’m sure most of you won’t have any trouble figuring out where to look. While its failings keep it out of my Hall of Fame, its first half is strong enough to be well worth playing for more than historical interest.)

  1. The formats are generally referred to today by the version numbering found in the story files themselves. Versions 1 and 2 were early versions of the 128 K Z-Machine used for the original releases of Zork I and II respectively. Version 3 is the finalized, stable version of the 128 K Z-Machine on which those early games were re-released, and which thereafter ran the bulk of Infocom’s games for most of the company’s existence. Version 4 is the first 256 K Z-Machine, used for the Interactive Fiction Plus (“EZIP”) games A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, and Bureaucracy, and now for the line of “LZIP” games like Nord and Bert. Yes, this is all quite confusing. No, if you’re not deeply interested in Infocom’s technology as opposed to their art, it’s not ultimately all that important. And yes, it’s going to get still more complicated before we’re done with their story. 


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