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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Underway in the USA

As you may have noticed, things have been quiet around here for a short time now. To respond to a few queries I’ve received (it’s so nice to know you care): yes, the blog will continue. However, it will be a few more weeks before that happens I’m afraid. My wife and I are taking my German in-laws on a road trip around the Southwest of the United States. (I’m writing this from our first stop after our starting point of Dallas, New Orleans.) We’ll be back home in Norway on the first of May, but it wil likely be a week or ten days after that before I can get caught up on other work and back to the blog. But bear with me please, because then we’ll be getting to Ultima III and the birth of Origin Systems, the continuing adventures of the text adventure in Britain, and at least one topic that may surprise you.

For now I’ll be wandering around my home country translating a lot of German and marveling at how unbelieavably cheap everything is here. Catch you in a few weeks!

(Update: Thanks for all your good wishes. We had a great trip. I’m back home in Oslo again now. Give me a week or so to get things settled, and then we should be rolling again around here.)

 

Infidel

Infidel

(This article doesn’t spoil individual puzzle solutions, but does thoroughly spoil the ending of Infidel. Read on at your own risk!)

In the spring of 1983, having released successful games in the fantasy, science fiction, and mystery genres, the Imps of Infocom sat down to ask each other a question they would repeat quite a number of times over the coming years: what remaining literary genres might make a good basis for a game? Mike Berlyn, who had just finished up Suspended, suggested, appropriately enough for an adventure game, the genre of adventure fiction, those tales of manly men braving exotic dangers in exotic locations which has its roots in the likes of H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle and reached its peak, like the mystery, in the 1930s, when pulpy stories filled the dime store shelves and the cinema screens to be consumed by a public eager for escape from economic depression and the looming threat of another world war. It sounded like a great fit to the Imps. The genre was even undergoing something of a commercial revival; Raiders of the Lost Ark had prompted a new interest by Hollywood and booksellers in classic adventure fiction. Somewhat to his chagrin, Berlyn was promptly assigned to write the first game in the new Tales of Adventure line, which the Imps agreed would have the player exploring a heretofore undiscovered Egyptian pyramid found buried under the sands of the Sahara. And so Pyramid, eventually to be renamed Infidel by the ever-helpful folks at G/R Copy, became Berlyn’s second project for Infocom.

It’s not hard to understand why Infocom chose pyramid-delving as the subject of the first Tale of Adventure. The exploration of a deserted environment filled with mechanical traps, tricks, and puzzles is a natural for an adventure game. It’s actually hard to think of a scenario more able to maximize the medium’s strengths and minimize its limitations. Thus quite a few early adventure authors discovered a latent interest in Egyptian archaeology. Greg Hassett, who at just twelve years old wrote and sold King Tut’s Adventure for the TRS-80 in 1979, was likely the first, but Scott Adams (Pyramid of Doom) and an official Radio Shack game (Pyramid 2000) weren’t far behind, as were various others. Somewhat allaying any concerns about a hackneyed premise was Infocom’s commitment to doing ancient Egypt right, with their expected polished writing and technology, and with at least a strong nod in the direction of historical accuracy. To help with this latter, Berlyn, no Egyptologist himself, trekked down to nearby Harvard University and recruited one Patricia Fogleman, a graduate student studying ancient Egypt. She helped him with his Egyptian mythology and with the design of the pyramid itself, which are of course largely one and the same thing.

Still, the game they came up with is mechanically almost shockingly unambitious, a double surprise considering it came from the designer responsible for Suspended, a game which morphed and stretched the ZIL development system more than any game Infocom released before or since. You wake up at the beginning of Infidel in your deserted desert camp. The guides and workers who came out here with you have conveniently (for Berlyn, that is) drugged you and split, leaving you all alone to find the pyramid and explore it. With the exception only of a plane which flies overhead at the beginning to drop a vital piece of equipment and some crocodiles which dwell (thankfully) inaccessibly on the other side of the Nile, Infidel is absolutely devoid of any life beyond your own, the only Infocom game about which that can be said. There is also none of the dynamism that marked Infocom’s other games of the period. After the plane flies away Infidel‘s environment is as static as it is deserted — just a set of locations to map and explore and a series of mechanical puzzles to solve. The only notable technical innovation is the inclusion of a knapsack that you can use to carry far more objects than your hands alone would allow. Similar carry-alls eventually started appearing in other adventures as a way to preserve some semblance of realism in not allowing you to carry a ridiculous number of items in your hands while bypassing the tedium of strict inventory limits. Thankfully, they were mostly more painless to use than this one is; here you have to remove the knapsack and set it down, then manually insert or remove items.

The most interesting of the puzzles is a sort of ongoing code-breaking exercise. You find throughout the pyramid hieroglyphs scratched onto the walls and other places. Each symbol — drawn using various dashes, slashes, asterisks, and exclamation points — corresponds directly to an English word in a way that must have horrified Fogleman or any student of language. The feelies provide translations of a handful of these to start you off, but after that it’s up to you to piece together the meanings by collecting the full set on notepaper and trying to determine what means what using contextual clues. Disappointingly or gratifyingly, depending on your tolerance and talent for such exercises, this meta-puzzle is largely optional. The hieroglyphs do give hints as well as additional tidbits about the meanings behind the wonders you encounter, but the game is mostly straightforward enough that the hints aren’t necessary. In the one exception to this rule the translation is quite a trivial exercise. Indeed, solving Infidel is not difficult at all. Players experienced with Infocom’s adventures are likely to march through with few problems, waiting all the while for the other shoe to drop and for this thing to get hard. It never really does.

So, were that all there was to Infidel we would have a competently crafted, solidly written game, but one that stands out as oddly, painfully slight in comparison to its stablemates in the Infocom canon, and this would be quite a short article. However, Infidel turned out to be as conceptually groundbreaking as it is mechanically traditional, leaving angry players and broiling controversy in its wake.

Infidel‘s story — its real story, that is, not the mechanics of collecting water, operating navigation boxes, and opening doors — lives mostly within its feelies. In them Berlyn sought to characterize his protagonist to a degree rivaled amongst previous adventure games only by Planetfall. But while that game had you playing a harmless schlub who spent his days swabbing decks and bitching about his superior officer, Infidel casts you as someone less harmless: a frustrated American treasure hunter with an unethical streak as wide as your thirst for money and glory. Your diary tells how you were contacted by a Miss Ellingsworth, an old woman who believes her archaeologist father located something big in the Egyptian desert back in the 1920s. You choose not to report her story to your boss, a well-known, hyper-competent treasure hunter named Craige, but rather to secretly mount an expedition of your own, deceiving Miss Ellingsworth into believing that you’re working in partnership with Craige, the person she really wanted for this quest. Once in Egypt you mismanage everything about your under-capitalized expedition horribly, breaking a vital piece of equipment needed to find the pyramid and mistreating your team of guides and workers. That’s how you come to wake up alone in your tent when the game proper finally begins.

The game proper originally did little to integrate the character described in the feelies with the one you actually control in the game. It occasionally, just occasionally, adapts a scolding or hectoring tone: the opening text describes how you “stupidly” tried to make your crew work on a holy day; examining some thickets near your camp brings the response that they are “just about as yielding as you were with your helpers.” Even less frequently do you get a glimpse of your character’s personality, as when you “sneer” at the “idiots” who didn’t believe in you when you find the pyramid at last. Yet the game that Infocom’s testers received otherwise played like a greedy treasure hunt to warm the protagonist’s heart, climaxing with your penetrating to the innermost vault of the pyramid and coming out with the fame and fortune of which you had dreamed. The testers, obviously a perceptive and sensitive lot, complained about the thematic dissonance. Berlyn took their concerns to heart, and decided to revise the ending to make a major statement.

Much as I enjoy the likes of King Solomon’s Mines and The Lost World, it’s hard today to overlook the racism and cultural imperialism in classic adventure fiction. Invariably in these tales strong Christian white men end up pitted against black, brown, yellow, or red savages, winning out in the end and carrying the spoils of victory back home to a civilization that can make proper use of them. Maybe if the savages are lucky the white men then return to organize and lead their societies for them. It’s the White Man’s Burden writ large, colonialism at its ugliest: kill them and take their stuff. More trivially, the second part of this dictum is also the guiding ethic of old-school adventure games, sometimes without the killing but not always; CRPGs were generally lumped in with adventures as a variant of the same basic thing during this era. Dave Lebling and Marc Blank had already had their fun with the amorality and the absurdities of adventure games in Enchanter by inserting the stupid magpie adventurer from Zork to let us view him from a different perspective. Now Berlyn decided to treat the subject in a much more serious way, making of Infidel a sort of morality tale. He would invert expectations in a downright postmodern way, pointing out the ugly underbelly of traditional adventure stories from within a traditional adventure story, the moral vacuum of old-school adventure games from within one of the most old-school games Infocom would create post-Zork trilogy. Derrida would have been proud. Speaking to Jason Scott, Berlyn noted that Infidel was the first adventure game that “said who you were, why you were there, then slapped you across the face for it. How many times can you walk through a dungeon and steal things and take them with you and plunder for treasure and not get slapped around for it? Well, Infidel was the end of that.” No wonder lots of people got upset.

The following text, more shocking even than the death of Floyd, is what players read in disbelief after they entered the final command and sat back to savor the finishing of another adventure game:

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

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

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

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

It’s an ugly, even horrifying conclusion; lest there be any doubt, understand that you have just been buried alive. It’s also breathtaking in its audacity, roughly equivalent to releasing an Indiana Jones movie in which Indy is a smirking jerk who gets everyone killed in the end. This sort of thing is not what people expect from their Tales of Adventure. Infocom rarely did anything without a great deal of deliberation, and releasing Infidel with an ending like this one was no exception. Marketing was, understandably, very concerned, but the Imps, feeling their oats more and more in the wake of all of the attention they had been receiving from the world of letters, felt strongly that it was the right “literary” decision. The game turned out to be, predictably enough, very polarizing; Berlyn says he received more love mail and more hate mail over this game than anything else he has ever done.

The most prominent of the naysayers was Computer Gaming World‘s adventure-game specialist Scorpia, who was becoming an increasingly respected voice amongst fans through her articles in the magazine, her presence on the early online service CompuServe (where she ran a discussion group dedicated to adventuring), and a hints-by-post system she ran out of a local PO Box. Scorpia was normally an unabashed lover of Infocom, dedicating a full column in CGW to most Infocom games shortly after their release. On the theory that it’s better not to say anything if you can’t say something nice, however, she never gave Infidel so much as a mention in print. But never fear, she made her displeasure known online and to Berlyn personally, to such an extent that when he was invited to an online chat with Scorpia and her group on CompuServe he sarcastically mentioned the game as her “fave rave.” Things got somewhat chippy later on:

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

Berlyn: What do you want me to do? I can’t make you like something you don’t like. I can’t make you appreciate something that you don’t think is there. I will tell you this, though, you are being very narrow-minded about what you think an Infocom game is. It doesn’t HAVE to be the way you said and you don’t have to think that in *EVERY* game you play, that YOU’re the main character. A question for you: yes or no, Scorp, have you ever read a book, seen a TV program, seen a movie where the main character wasn’t someone you liked, was someone you’d rather not be?

Scorpia: Certainly.

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

Oct: May I comment on the Infidel protagonist?

Scorpia: Go ahead, Oct.

Oct: As far as I know (through about 8 games that I’ve played) Infidel is the only one that creates a role (in the sense of a personality) for the protagonist-player. A worthwhile experiment, but I somewhat agree with Scorp that it wasn’t completely successful. The problem is that a game provides a simulated world for the protagonist and just as in life the player must do intelligent things to “succeed” (in the sense of surviving, making progress). If the role includes stupidity or bullheadedness, then the player will not make progress, which in the context of the game means not being able to continue playing. Further, the excellence of the Infocom games is in their world-simulation, but simulating a personality for the *player* is not really provided for in the basic design, the fundamental interaction between game and player. I feel I’ve not articulated too well, but there’s a point in there somewhere!

Berlyn: I never claimed the protagonist works in Infidel. I only claim that it had to be tried and so it was. There are a lot of personal reasons for my disgust (I hate the game, myself) over the whole Infidel project, but none of it had to do with the protagonist/ending problems the game has. Let me put it to you this way: Like anyone who produces things or provides a service — you put it out there and you take a chance. You wait for the smoke to clear and then you listen to people like yourselves talking about whether the experiment succeeded or failed and I could have told you it might have gone either way when I was writing it. There was just no way to know.

Oct: I think I can better summarize the problem with roles, now. Ok?

Berlyn: Go ahead, Oct.

Oct: If you give the player a role, as in the set-up (the journal) and he/she wants to view him/herself that way, ok. The problem is that the only way that can be effectively represented is in how the other actors in the game view/respond to the player. If you try to implement it by saying “You now do this,” you’ve violated a basic premise, namely that *I* decide what I want to do (whether in a role or otherwise). “You now do this” just isn’t part of the game!

Berlyn: I agree. Some of the problems I faced in this game are what kind of a human being would even WANT to ransack a national shrine like a pyramid? And once I asked myself that question, I was sunk and there was no turning back. It wasn’t even a game I wanted to write. I got off on it by putting in all the weirdness, the ‘glyphs, the mirages, the descriptions but I’ve learned from the experience. Marc once said to me, “This is the only business where you get to experiment and people really give you feedback.” He was right. And I appreciate it.

I find this discussion fascinating because it gets to the heart of what a narrative-oriented game is and what it can be, grappling with contradictions that still obsess us today. When you boot an adventure are you effectively still yourself, reacting as you would if transported into that world? Or is an adventure really a form of improvisatory theater, in which you put yourself into the shoes of a protagonist who is not you and try to play the role and experience that person’s story in good faith? Or consider a related question: is an adventure game a way of creating your own story or simply an unusually immersive, interactive way of experiencing a story? If you come down on the former side, you will likely see the likes of Floyd’s death in Planetfall and Infidel‘s ugly ending as little more than cheap parlor tricks intended to elicit an unearned emotional response. If you come down on the latter, you will likely reply that such “cheap parlor tricks” are exactly what literature has always done. (It’s interesting to note that these two seminal moments came in the two Infocom games released to date that were the most novel-like, with the most strongly characterized protagonists.) Yet if you’re honest you must also ask yourself whether a text adventure, with its odd, granular obsession with the details of what you are carrying and eating and wearing and where your character is standing in the world at any given moment, is a medium capable of delivering a truly theatrical — or, if you like, a literary — experience. Tellingly, all of the work of setting up the shocking ending to Infidel is done in the feelies. By the time you begin the game proper your fate is sealed; all that remains are the logistical details at which text adventures excel.

Early games had been so primitive in both their technology and their writing that there was little room for such questions, but now, with Infocom advancing the state of the art so rapidly, they loomed large, both within Infocom (where lengthy, spirited discussions on the matter went on constantly) and, as we’ve just seen, among their fans. The lesson that Berlyn claims they took from the reaction to Infidel might sound dispiriting:

People really don’t want to know who they are [in a game]. This was an interesting learning process for everyone at Infocom. We weren’t really writing interactive fiction — I don’t care what you call it, I don’t care what you market it as. It’s not fiction. They’re adventure games. You want to give the player the opportunity to put themselves in an environment as if they were really there.

Here we see again that delicate balancing act between art and commerce which always marked Infocom. When they found they had gone a step too far with their literary ambitions, as with Infidel and its antihero protagonist (it sold by far the fewest copies of any of their first ten games), they generally took a step back to more traditional models.

It’s tempting to make poor Scorpia our scapegoat in this, to use her as the personification of all the hidebound traditional players who refused to pull their heads out of the Zork mentality and make the leap to approaching Infocom’s games as the new form of interactive literature they were being advertised as in the likes of The New York Times Book Review. Before we do, however, we should remember that Scorpia and people like her were paying $30 or $40 for the privilege of playing each new Infocom game. If they expected a certain sort of experience for their money, so be it; we shouldn’t begrudge people their choice in entertainment. It’s also true that Infidel could have done a better job of selling the idea. Its premise boils down to: “Greedy, charmless, incompetent asshole gets in way of over his head through clumsy deceptions and generally treating the people around him like shit, and finally gets himself killed.” One might be tempted to call Infidel an interactive tragedy, but its nameless protagonist doesn’t have the slinky charm of Richard III, much less the tortured psyche of Hamlet. We’re left with just a petty little person doing petty little things, and hoisted from his own petty little petard in consequence. Such is not the stuff of great drama, even if it’s perhaps an accurate depiction of most real-life assholes and the fates that await them. If we set aside our admiration for Berlyn’s chutzpah to look at the story outside of its historical context, it doesn’t really have much to say to us about the proverbial human condition, other than “if you must be a jerk, at least be a competent jerk.” Indeed, there’s a certain nasty edge to Infidel that doesn’t seem to stem entirely from its theme. This was, we should remember, a game that Mike Berlyn didn’t really want to write, and we can feel some of his annoyance and impatience in the game itself. There’s little of the joy of creation about it. It’s just not a very lovable game. Scorpia’s distaste and unwillingness to grant Infidel the benefit of any doubt might be disappointing, but it’s understandable. One could easily see it as a sneering “up yours!” to Infocom’s loyal customers.

Infidel‘s sales followed an unusual pattern. Released in November of 1983 as Infocom’s tenth game and fifth and final of that year, it exploded out of the gate, selling more than 16,000 copies in the final weeks of the year. After that, however, sales dropped off quickly; it sold barely 20,000 copies in all of 1984. It was the only one of the first ten games to fail to sell more than 70,000 copies in its lifetime. In fact, it never even came close to 50,000. While not a commercial disaster, its relative under-performance is interesting. One wonders to what extent angry early buyers like Scorpia dissuaded others from buying it. Of course, the mercurial Berlyn’s declaring his dissatisfaction with his own game in an online conference likely didn’t help matters either. Marketing, who suffered long and hard at the hands of the Imps, must have been apoplectic after reading that transcript.

So, Infocom ended 1983 as they had begun it, with a thorny but fascinating Mike Berlyn game. With by far the most impressive catalog in adventure gaming and sales to match, they were riding high indeed. The next year would bring five more worthy games and the highest total sales of the company’s history, but also the first serious challengers to their position as the king of literate, sophisticated adventure gaming and the beginning in earnest of the Cornerstone project that sowed the seeds of their ultimate destruction. We’ll get to those stories down the road, but first we have some other ground to cover.

(I must once again thank Jason Scott for sharing with me additional materials from his Get Lamp project for this article.)

 

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Enchanter

Enchanter

In his seminal book Hackers, Steven Levy compares the differing cultures of the East Coast hackers at MIT and the West Coast hackers at Stanford during the glory days of 1970s institutional computing by riffing on their literary preferences. The MIT folks, he claims, preferred “the battle-strewn imagery of shoot-’em-up science fiction,” while those at Stanford went in for “the gentle lore of elves, hobbits, and wizards.” He then goes on to describe how these preferences show up the differing cultures inside the institutions. MIT is competitive, practical, a bit traditionalist and perhaps even prudish, a microcosm of the high-strung East-Coast establishment; while Stanford, having imbibed from the remnants of the hippie dream that persisted in northern California into the 1980s, is more laid-back, more willing to dream about the social potential for computers outside the lab. Like most such clever but broad comparisons, it’s ridiculously reductive.

Yet it also may contain more than a few grains of truth. For all that they enjoyed riffing on the Zork milieu with its grues and its Flathead dynasty, amongst the early Implementors only Dave Lebling read much fantasy literature — and that was because Lebling, an omnivorous and voracious reader then as he remains now, read a lot of everything. If there was a consensus literary genre of choice amongst this group, it was science fiction. You can see this clearly by looking at the string of games Infocom released between the fall of 1982 and the summer of 1983. At this stage, with the company ramping up quickly but with a structured marketing department not yet in place to tell the Imps what kind of games they needed to make to fill in empty spaces in a matrix of genres, everyone just wrote the game he wanted to write. The result was that out of five games by five different authors three were science fiction.

Still, Infocom remained the house that Zork had built. To not continue that series, to ignore the fantasy genre that still remained (as it still does today) the preferred genre of the gaming public at large, would have been crazy. Having lived with the idea of an “original Zork trilogy” for so long, it can be surprising and even a bit counterintuitive for us to recognize that neither Infocom nor their customers saw Zork in that way when the original three games were being written and released. As far as they were concerned Zork was an open-ended series of numbered games of the sort that Ultima and Wizardry would become. Nowhere is that made clearer than in Zork III itself. Here Marc Blank, having incorporated bits of Zork I and Zork II into what stands today as the first of an eventual several brilliant Infocom time-travel puzzles, added an additional little Easter egg: a preview of the as-yet unwritten Zork IV in the form of a grisly episode in which the player gets sacrificed by an evil priest of some sort.

Thus, for all their high-brow write-ups in the New York Times Book Review and the pushes they had made into new literary genres and new styles of play, Infocom needed during 1983 to deliver another good old traditional Zork game — and one that incorporated, Mad Libs-style, Blank’s ugly sacrifice scene — even if it felt like something of a step back. Problem was, it wasn’t clear where to go next with Zork. It may not have been consciously designed as the climax of a trilogy, but Zork III did nevertheless have an air of finality about it. At its end the player had completed her existential journey by becoming the being she had spent all three games struggling against, the Dungeon Master. What could follow that?

The game that they eventually created is a testament to Infocom’s skill at balancing artistic credibility with commercial considerations. It began when Lebling, looking for a reason to get excited about a Zork IV, started thinking back to the ending of his previous Zork game, Zork II. There the player, after vanquishing her irritating nemesis the Wizard of Frobozz, could claim his magic wand and try a few spells for herself. It made a relatively tiny part of the game, and not a terribly deeply-implemented part at that, but it was just such an intrinsically cool idea; you just knew Lebling was onto something here that deserved further pursuit. Lebling, the only Implementor with any grounding in Dungeons and Dragons, now worked up an almost D&D-like magic system for Zork IV. Such adaptations from the world of tabletop RPGs were one of Lebling’s ticks as a designer; he was, you may remember, also responsible for the little-loved randomized combat in Zork I.

Fortunately, the magic system he now created is much more fondly remembered. You carry a spell book containing a few beginning spells. Over the course of the game you can collect more spells on scrolls, most of which you can inscribe into your spell book, thus becoming an ever more flexible and formidable magic user. Prior to casting a spell you have to “memorize” it (or load it into your head like a piece of ammunition), just like in D&D. Once cast, a given spell is gone from memory until memorized again. And there is, of course, a limitation to the number of spells you can have in your memory at once.

All told, the magic system was an absolutely brilliant addition to an otherwise standard text-adventure template. Collecting spells and using them proved to just be fun as all get-out. Removing so many puzzles from the realm of the mechanical to that of the arcane even hid many of the implementational seams that usually showed through; when stuck, the player tended to spend her time casting her spells at various objects, a more manageable set of possibilities to deal with than having her try all sorts of crazy physical manipulations. Indeed, Lebling and his co-author, the indefatigable Marc Blank, quickly realized that seeing their spells fail was almost as much fun to players as using them to solve puzzles. Lebling and Blank therefore spent a lot of effort to make sure that, say, casting Nitfol (“converse with beasts in their own tongue”) on any creature in the game got you something appropriate — and usually entertaining — back in return.

At some point fairly early in the new game’s development Lebling and Blank decided that the addition of magic made it feel so qualitatively different from what had come before that releasing it as Zork IV just didn’t feel right. Further, in these heady days when they were being touted as pioneers of a new interactive literature, they were eager to live up to their billing, to demonstrate a certain eclecticism and literary integrity rather than just continuing to crank out the Zork games. They therefore made the brave decision to rename the game Enchanter, first of a new, open-ended series of fantasy games with an emphasis on spellcraft. (As with Zork, Infocom wouldn’t definitively decide this series should be a trilogy until much later.) Having declared their artistic independence, Infocom could then temper things a bit by declaring the new series to be “in the Zork tradition” and by including plenty of callbacks within the game to make it clear that, while this may have been a new series, it took place in the same beloved fantasy world. Thus they thought they could have their cake and eat it too — and in this they were partially if (as we shall see) perhaps not entirely correct.

As Enchanter begins an evil warlock by the name of Krill has been growing in power, and now threatens to conquer the entire world. The Circle of Enchanters was not initially sure how to respond. To send one of their own number to fight Krill would be “ill-omened,” for Krill would sense the intruder’s magical aura as soon as he entered his stronghold and send his minions to destroy him. Therefore, borrowing a plot element from The Lords of the Rings that would subsequently be used by a thousand CRPGs to explain just why your party of first-level nobodies are entrusted with saving the world, they have decided to send you, a “novice Enchanter with but a few simple spells in your book,” instead. They teleport you onto a deserted road close to Krill’s stronghold, and the game begins.

Enchanter‘s structure feels very old school when contrasted with the handful of Infocom games that preceded it. Not only is it a very traditional game, lacking the radical formal experimentation of the mysteries and Suspended, but it lacks even the initial narrative thrust of Starcross and Planetfall. Both of those games opened with a dynamic scene to get the plot wheels cranking and set up the non-linear exploration of the long middle. Enchanter, however, simply plops you down in an expansive world and tells you to get started with mapping, collecting objects and spells, and solving puzzles, just like Zork I.

Some of the first puzzles you encounter, before you even get into the castle, involve collecting food and drink. Like Planetfall, Enchanter is the product of a very brief era when Infocom was suddenly enamored with the idea of requiring the player to deal with these necessities. In fact, it’s even more stringent than Planetfall in this respect, implementing eating and drinking as two separate necessities in addition to the need for sleep. Hunger and sleep timers would soon become passé at Infocom (not to mention since Infocom’s era) as pointless annoyances that add little to the games into which they’re shoehorned. Yet, as in Planetfall, they don’t bother me greatly here, and even manage to feel somehow organic to the experience. When you sleep your dreams even deliver vital clues.

Once you get inside Krill’s stronghold you find a brilliant collection of interlocking puzzles that are challenging but solvable. Even better are little touches of whit and whimsy that abound everywhere, a sign of Dave Lebling really coming into his own as an author. Although Enchanter is credited as a joint production of Blank and Lebling, it feels like there is a lot more of the loquacious, playful Lebling than the terser, more stoic Blank here. Indeed, for being yet another struggle of Good vs. Ultimate Evil Enchanter has a remarkably light tone, with only a few discordant touches — most notably the sacrifice scene previously advertised in Zork III, which seems dropped in from another game entirely for the very good reason that it was — to remind you of the stakes. Let me tell you about a few bits that particularly delight me.

On the beach just outside the castle we meet the most prominent of a few animals in the game, a turtle, “his enamelled shell shining with all the colors of the rainbow.” When we dutifully cast Nitfol on him we learn how his shell got that way:

"How do you like my shell? A wizard did that to me about 75 years ago. It's nice to find a human who talks turtle. Not many do, you know. Most people think turtles are boring, just because we talk slowly."

Our new friend turns out to be a droll but helpful old fellow whom I find just about as charming as Planetfall‘s Floyd in yet vastly less space:

"Are you a magician? Are you going to do something about that annoying Warlock, then?"

The turtle is the centerpiece of a puzzle that is superficially similar to the one that required us to order a robot about in Zork II, the first Infocom game that allowed us to talk and give orders to others. This time it’s much more fun, however, because, well, it’s our turtle friend who’s helping us rather than a personality-deprived robot. We just need to speed him up before we get started, which we can accomplish with a touch of magic. When his task is finished:

The turtle drops a brittle scroll at your feet. "Not bad, huh?"

I’ve always loved this little guy, as has Lebling; he lists him as one of his favorite creations. The turtle and a few other creatures, all accessible to us thanks to the Nitfol spell, bring life to Enchanter, pulling it a million miles from the windy solitude of Zork III.

But the most remembered character of all in Enchanter is actually you — not the you who is playing the game now, but the you who dutifully marched through the three Zork games to get here. In one area of the castle we find a “Hall of Mirrors,” behind which lies a dim underground labyrinth. In it we occasionally catch a glimpse of “a bedraggled adventurer, carrying a brass lantern and an elvish sword, which is glowing dimly.” He is, of course, our old avatar from Zork. We can use our magic to summon him to the castle.

All at once, the bedraggled adventurer appears before you, brightly glowing sword in hand. His jaw has dropped and his eyes are bulging. His eyes dart this way and that, as if looking for a way to escape.

The game then proceeds to mercilessly but affectionately lampoon this rather dim fellow, along with the old-school design tropes he represents. By far his biggest interest is in collecting valuable objects to put in the trophy case he presumably has back in his white house:

The adventurer offers to relieve you of some of your possessions.

The adventurer asks what you would be needing treasures for.

The adventurer, not overly tactful, asks what you're holding.

In effect we’re seeing the adventurer as the troll, the thief, and their buddies in Zork I must have seen him (us?). He wanders about snarfing every object that isn’t nailed down, fiddling constantly with a weird map (“a convoluted collection of lines, arrows, and boxes”), and serving as an extended in-joke to anyone who spent any time with the Zork games.

The adventurer tries to make some small talk, but only mumbles. He'll have to speak up if he expects you to hear him.

The adventurer waves his sword menacingly in your direction.

The adventurer stares at his possessions as if expecting a revelation.

The adventurer seems to have dropped out of existence. In a voice that seems to recede into the void, you hear his final word: "Restore...." You muse about how a mere adventurer might come to possess a spell of such power.

The adventurer smiles at you like an idiot.

The adventurer asks for directions to Flood Control Dam #3.

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

The adventurer waves at you and asks "Hello, Sailor?" Strange, you've never even been to sea.

In the spirit of shoe-on-the-other-foot, he also proves annoying in the way many of the non-player characters within the Zork games were, scattering objects hither and yon so you never know just where anything is.

At the risk of ruining a great joke by making of it grist for some theoretical mill, it’s remarkable that Infocom is already playing with the clichés and expectations of the adventure-game form so early, just six years after Adventure itself. This sort of knowing self-referentiality is a very modern phenomenon, one that appeared only after decades or centuries in other art forms. It’s the sort of thing I want to point to when I say that Infocom was more knowing, more sophisticated — just a little bit smarter — about what they were doing than their peers. And yet Infocom is doing it from within what is ultimately a very old-school design of its own, a perfect example of their talent for giving the people what they want, but doing it with a grace and style that eluded most of their competitors.

Enchanter would make an ideal case study in gated puzzle design. Its wide-open map conceals several intricate chains of puzzle dependencies that give the game a structure that Zork, with its mostly unrelated puzzles strewn randomly about its geography, lacked. The adventurer, annoying as he can be, is also a critical link in one of these chains. He gives us our key for solving the “maze.”

A certain fascination with pseudo-mazes is another of Lebling’s design ticks, one which he also passed to Steve Meretzky. He claims to have lost interest in the standard approach to mazes even before his friends at MIT added a couple of monstrously cruel examples of the form to the original PDP-10 Zork. What he delighted in instead was to give us areas that seem to be mazes, but which have some trick — other than the tried-and-true dropping of objects and plotting connections, that is — to solving them. His first pseudo-maze, the baseball puzzle in Zork II, misfired horribly. His second attempt in Starcross was much more reasonable, a labyrinth that could be solved only by convincing someone else to guide you. His third attempt is here in Enchanter in the form of the “Translucent Rooms,” and it’s even more clever. I’m going to spoil here its concept, although not the mechanics of its solution, as an illustration of the marvelous and varied puzzle design inside Enchanter.

So, with the adventurer’s aid we come upon a map which we quickly realize shows the Translucent Rooms.

The map consists of a drawing with nine points, each represented by a strange character, with interconnecting thin pencil lines. Using your native alphabet, it looks like this:

B       J
!      / \
!     /   \
!    /     \
!   K       V
!          / \
!         /   \
!        /     \
R-------M       F
 \     /        
  \   /        
   \ /        
    H       P

We also find a magic pencil, using which we can draw in new connections between rooms and also erase them. When we do so, the connections appear not only on the (paper) map but also within the real-life maze. The catch, however — there’s always a catch — is that we have enough lead left to draw just two lines, and enough eraser left to erase just two. That shouldn’t be any problem, right? As you’ve probably guessed, the currently inaccessible room at P contains the item — a powerful spell we can use to banish Krill to “another plane of existence” — that is the point of this whole exercise. Unfortunately, it also contains a powerful entity of eternal Evil who makes old Krill look like a pussycat in comparison. We glean from a book found elsewhere in the game that he was banished there many centuries ago by our magic-using ancestors to save the world (evidently this world of ours tends to need a lot of saving). As soon as we give the entity an escape route to the exit, room B on the map, he’ll start moving toward it. When he’s in a room with us, meanwhile, we’re too terrified to do anything at all. So, the puzzle is to lure the entity out of room P, but to shut off his escape route before he gets all the way out while ourselves getting into room P and then out of the maze — all without using more than two pencil strokes and two erases.

Even in 1983, when adventure-game engines from other companies were beginning to make technological strides, Infocom was the only company who could have made such an intricate, dynamic puzzle with the associated necessity for a parser capable of understanding the likes of “draw line from H to P.” I’ve made this point before, but it’s worth stating again that Infocom’s parser was not just a wonderful luxury; it enabled better puzzles, better game design. This puzzle is a good example of the sort found throughout the game, being fair, challenging but not exasperating, and built with some intricate programming that, like the all the best intricate programming, is likely to go completely unremarked by the player; it just works.

Lest I be accused of overpraising, let me also note here that Enchanter is a product of 1983, and does show some signs of its age. In addition to hunger, thirst, and sleep timers (the first of which gives a hard limit to the time you can spend in the game, since there is only so much food to eat), there is an inventory limit. And there’s a fair amount of learning by death. Whatever you do, don’t get the bright (ha!) idea of casting the Frotz spell on yourself so as to have a constant source of light; since there is no way extinguish this spell and since one puzzle is dependent on darkness, you’ll lock yourself out of victory thereby. Worse, you’ll probably have no idea why you can’t proceed, and when you finally break down and turn to the hints will throw the game against the (metaphorical) wall and hate it forever. The big climax is another offender in this department, although one less likely to force you to replay large swathes of the game. You have only seconds to defeat Krill and the minions he throws at you, and no idea which spells you need to have memorized to do so without dying a few times to gather that information. But other than its past-lives issues in this and a few other places, Enchanter plays very fair. Just remember, as a wise man once said, to save early and often.

It’s probably safe to say that Infocom’s decision to make Enchanter its own thing had commercial consequences. It sold reasonably well, but lagged behind the older Zork games. Released in September of 1983, it sold just over 19,000 copies before the end of that year, followed by a little over 31,000 copies the following year. Enchanter did prove to have longer legs than many older Infocom titles in the company’s later years. All told, it sold over 75,000 copies as a standalone game or as a part of the Enchanter Trilogy bundle. Today it stands as one of the more fondly remembered of Infocom’s games, with more than its fair share of appearances on favorites lists, and has served as the template for some well-regarded games of more modern vintage. Its individual spells, meanwhile, have taken on a life of their own within modern IF circles, being used as the names of interpreters and various other programs and bits of technology — not to mention the name of the domain on which you’re reading this. As my choice of domains may indicate, Enchanter is in my personal top five or so of Infocom games, the first I’ve come to on this blog about which I can say that. Unlike my other favorites, which tend to push the envelope of what a text adventure can be in one way or another, Enchanter stands for me almost as a platonic ideal of an old-school, traditional adventure game, executed with thoroughgoing charm and craftsmanship. I love it dearly.

 

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