T Plus 6: All Prams Lead to the Kensington Gardens

26 Feb


‘Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom’s Tomb –
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb –
Than this smart Misery.

— Emily Dickinson

And so, as another Infocom game once put it, it’s all come down to this. We have indeed come a long way, looked at a lot of history. But now it’s time to refocus on the game of Trinity. Fair warning, then: massive spoilers ahead.

Throughout its considerable length Trinity has constantly implicated the Wabewalker, and through him we who pull his strings, in the tragic history of the atomic age, refusing to allow us the comfort of abstraction. We’ve been forced to cold-bloodedly kill a couple of cute, innocent little would-be pets to show us that killing is ugly and heartbreaking, not a mere matter of shifting columns and figures around on a spreadsheet showing projected death counts. We’ve met the same woman in two different times, once as a happy little girl in Nagasaki just before the bomb dropped and again as an old woman still bearing the visible scars of her suffering there many years later. We’ve frolicked with a dolphin who’s about to be stupidly, senselessly cooked alive by a hydrogen bomb in the name of some ephemeral geopolitical advantage, bringing home to us what these terrible weapons do to the fragile ecosystems of our one and only home. We’ve made a bomb of our own and experienced some of the heady rush that comes with harnessing such elemental forces of nature — the same rush that captured and possibly consumed both Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, each in his own way. We’ve watched history being written down before our eyes into a permanent and remorseless Book of Hours. And we’ve located the fulcrum of history in that fateful moment on the morning of July 16, 1945, way out in the New Mexican desert.

It eventually becomes apparent that the overriding objective of Trinity the game is to sabotage Trinity the first test of an atomic bomb. All of our hopscotching through time has been to set us up for that goal. At last, we achieve it. We expect something triumphant. Surely this means that humanity has been steered away from this senseless course, that all this tragic history we’ve been experiencing has been averted.


Well, what we get is this:

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

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

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

"Which line is it, Baker?"

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

The walkie-talkie hisses quietly.


You turn, but see no one.

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

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

A burst of static. "Minus ten seconds."

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

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

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

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

And then we’re stuck right back where we started, in the Kensington Gardens on the eve of World War III, to do everything we’ve already done all over again… ad infinitum.

There are two levels on which to wrestle with this strange, bitter ending: on the physical, as realistic storyworld plot logic; and on the symbolic or poetic. Let’s start with the first.

While it’s hardly crystal clear, we can best surmise that Trinity portrays an alternate reality whose laws of physics dictate that that first atomic bomb — and presumably all the ones to follow, should anyone have been able to create them — should have blown up vastly bigger than the scientists who created it expected — and bigger also than the bombs we know from our own reality. Thus the gadget of this subtly different universe “would’ve blown New Mexico right off the map.” Like so much else in Trinity, it’s an idea with an historical basis, which is discussed at some length in The Day the Sun Rose Twice by Ferenc Morton Szasz. This book, published only shortly before Moriarty started working on Trinity, became his bible for the details of the Trinity test; Szasz himself became an informal personal adviser.

As early as 1922 Nobel Lauerate Francis William Aston warned against “tinkering with angry atoms,” voicing concerns that a physicist might accidentally start a chain reaction that would fuse hydrogen in the earth’s atmosphere into helium, the same process that powers the sun — and the hydrogen bomb. The question of whether a human-induced chain reaction taking place inside a bomb could start a runaway chain reaction in the atmosphere at large would continue to nag in the background for a long time, right up through the Trinity test and even well beyond it. In July of 1942, when the Manhattan Project was just getting started in earnest, Edward Teller of all people produced a series of calculations that seemed to show that a fission bomb could in fact create enough heat to ignite the atmosphere. All work came to a halt for several panicked days while the other scientists checked his numbers. It was decided that a probability of better than 1 in 3 million of such an apocalypse actually occurring would be enough to scuttle the Manhattan Project entirely. In the end some of Teller’s numbers were proved to be in error, the probability judged to be somewhat less than 1 in 3 million, and work resumed.

Yet even after they had checked and rechecked their calculations a certain nervousness persisted amongst the scientist preparing for the Trinity test. Enrico Fermi dealt with the question with his typical black humor, offering wagers on whether the bomb would cause a runaway chain reaction at all and, if so, whether it would take out just New Mexico or the whole world. (In either of the latter cases, the winner was likely to be sadly unable to collect…) When the bomb finally exploded, a number of scientists recall an instant of panic at its sheer scale, an instant of wondering if the runaway chain reaction they had all shoved into the backs of their minds was happening before their eyes. Their relief as it became clear that the explosion had reached its limit was perhaps even greater than their relief and sense of triumph that the Manhattan Project had succeeded in its mission.

So, that’s one important part of Trinity‘s ending. But if we can feel ourselves on firm ground with a supersized version of the Trinity bomb absent the Wabewalker’s interference, the rest of what’s happened is rather less clear. Rather than causing the Trinity bomb to simply not work at all, our act of sabotage has merely reduced the scale of its explosion to the Trinity test we know from our own reality — i.e., to the scale the scientists were expecting all along. It seems very hard to believe that cutting a wire would really have allowed the Trinity bomb to blow up nevertheless, only not as big as it otherwise would. Still, we may have to accept the Wabewalker’s act as having had just that outcome. If we do, we must then assume that “bleeding off that quantum steam” entails that all future nuclear explosions will also be reduced in power to correspond with the one that’s just been sabotaged, as a result of some sort of heretofore undiscovered self-correcting quality of the universe. The Wabewalker, whom we might better name Sisyphus, must cycle again and again through time, (partially) sabotaging the Trinity bomb over and over to prevent that paradox that nature “doesn’t know” — the paradox that must be if he doesn’t perform the actions that give birth to the world he knew when he took his $599 London Getaway Package. We might consider him a hero, except that it’s not at all clear that his actions are a net positive. If “blowing New Mexico right off the map” would have led humanity to stop this madness and thus averted the nuclear apocalypse that comes in the Kensingtion Gardens, then according to the terrible logic of war in the nuclear age the lives of all those New Mexicans would better have been sacrificed in the name of saving billions more all over the world. Our victory in Trinity is the very definition of Pyrrhic.

This chain of conjecture is a sometimes flimsy one, some of its logic a bit wobbly. Yet one feels that trying to parse Trinity‘s ending any more closely gets us into the fan-fiction territory of, say, hardcore Ultima fans trying to reconcile with itself Richard Garriott’s ever-changing world of Britannia, of frantic ret-conning to make sense of things that just, well, don’t make sense. As Andrew Plotkin once said of Trinity‘s ending, “I’ve always been uncertain about how well it hangs together. But just uncertain enough that I think it might be cooler than I am capable of grasping.” It’s Trinity‘s ability to evoke the doubt expressed in that second sentence that may just be its saving grace as a time-travel fiction.

But you know what? I’m not sure how much I care about the real-world logic behind Trinity‘s ending, simply because it’s so powerful on a poetic and philosophical level. Taken as just the culmination of a time-travel puzzle, it’s very clever, yes, if not quite clever enough to feel entirely bulletproof. (Where did the umbrella actually come from? If, as would seem to be implied, that’s your corpse you meet in the magical land, how to reconcile that with the apparently eternal loop you’re stuck in?) It’s clever in a way that any science-fiction fan has seen many times before, clever in the way of that cool twist at the end of a great thriller. Taken more abstractly, however, it becomes much more than merely clever. And it’s on that more abstract level that I find I really want to discuss it.

Before I do that, though, I should take a moment to talk a bit more about why I’m so willing to forgive Trinity its faults as realistic fiction. It’s a question I’ve spent quite some time considering, using as a point of comparison Trinity‘s perpetual point of comparison, Infocom’s other unabashed striving for the mantle of Literature A Mind Forever Voyaging. As many of you doubtless remember, I dinged that game pretty hard for its own various failings as realistic fiction. I therefore owe it to you to explain why I’m so blasé about this aspect of Trinity. One possibility is of course that I simply like Trinity better, and am thus more willing to excuse its failings. However, while the first part of that statement is certainly true, I’m not so sure about the second. Roger Ebert (every gamer’s favorite critic, right?) often used to say that every movie deserves to be reviewed on its own terms — i.e., on the terms of what it’s trying to be. If a movie wants to be a moody art-house character study, how much insight does it give into the proverbial human condition? If it’s a fast-paced action flick, how well does it get the adrenalin pumping? If it’s a porno… well, you get the idea. Unless I’ve misjudged its intent entirely, A Mind Forever Voyaging wants to be a compelling piece of hard science fiction, a realistic extrapolation of current trends in the spirit of the fictions it references on its back cover, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Trinity, though, wants to be something quite different, more poetic than realistic, more a philosophical meditation than a plot-driven story. Particularly when we’re in the magical land that serves as the hub of our historical explorations, we’re literally wandering through a landscape of symbolism, of ideas cast into physical reality. Trinity is a philosophical meditation given the superficial form of a story, like Gulliver’s Travels or Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

I think it’s fair to judge its ending in particular on those terms. I consider Trinity‘s ending to be both the bleakest and the most profound in the Infocom catalog, much more so than that of Infidel in that Moriarty’s ending serves as the essential culmination of his game’s message, not as a mere experiment to see whether a tragic ending could “work” in an interactive medium. Indeed, one could use the word “experiment” to describe most of Infocom’s pre-Trinity nods toward Literature. The ending of Infidel, the friendship and sad fate of Floyd in Planetfall, arguably even the political message and puzzleless structure of A Mind Forever Voyaging were treated almost as technical challenges: “Can we use interactive fiction to do XXX?” Trinity alone feels like a mature, holistic statement rather than an experiment. It doesn’t even bother wasting time on the question: “Of course we can, and now here’s an historical tragedy for ya.”

I want to come back to the idea of Trinity as a tragedy, but first I want to look more closely at another phrase I’ve thrown out there from time to time in this series of articles: this idea of Trinity as a “meditation on history.” Ridiculously simplified, there are two ways of viewing history, of viewing time itself: as a ladder or as a wheel.

History as a ladder is an ongoing process of improvement and perfection. Wars and other terrible things sometimes happen that knock us a notch or two back down the ladder, but we always pick ourselves up and start to climb again. As long as we keep working at it, the lives of most of the people on earth will most of the time continue to get better. It’s an idea that by this point seems intertwined into the very DNA of most Western societies. You can find it in the Christianity — particularly Protestant Christianity — whose moral precepts are still at the root of our systems of laws: a Christian, born into a heritage of sin, spends her life striving to overcome that heritage and improve both herself and the world around her, after which she’s rewarded with the ultimate perfection of Heaven. You can find it in our economic systems: capitalism is based on the assumption that we can always make more money than we did the previous year (an assumption which, as Karl Marx among others have pointed out, may not be sustainable in the long term). The United States, amongst the most Christian and the most unabashedly capitalist of Western societies, hews to the idea particularly closely: what else is the American Dream but an idealized narrative of personal improvement and eventual perfection, a secular version of Christianity’s spiritual journey? In the euphoric aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, American historians started enthusiastically writing about “the end of history,” declaring the world to have reached the top of the ladder and attained perfection at last — in, naturally, the image of the United States. But I’m not here to condemn the notion of history as progress. Far from it. As an American myself, it’s largely the way I too see the world — and, I would even say, with good reason. Still, we should give due weight to the other point of view.

Circumstances come and go, says the circular view of history, but through it all there is the Eternal Now. As the Book of Ecclesiastes, one of the most beloved and most theologically problematic books of the Old Testament, says: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” It’s a view that’s actually even older than Ecclesiastes, stretching back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers whose works often survive only as fragments. Since then it’s tended to be most prevalent in non-Western societies. Certainly we can see it in Hinduism and Buddhism with their nearly perpetual reincarnation of the soul rather than the single life as a journey toward perfection (or damnation). It was resurrected in the West only in the last few hundred years by the school of European continental philosophy, whose tolerance for ambiguity and subjectivity tends to stand it in opposition to the analytic tradition that dominates in Britain and the United States, with its emphasis on rationalism and empiricism. Thus you can find it in Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Recurrence. You can find it in our old friend Robert Pinsky’s metaphor of the Figured Wheel. You can find it in its most nihilistic incarnation in many apocalyptic fictions of the Cold War, such as Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which posits a humanity destined to pull itself out of the Dark Ages only to destroy its civilization as soon as nuclear weapons are (re)invented, over and over again in a futile cycle of stupidity spanning endless millennia. And of course you can find it in Trinity, which posits your grand adventure to be a perpetual loop — or, to choose another symbol from the game itself, a Klein bottle with no beginning, no end, and no measurable property of progress in between.

Trinity‘s despairing nihilism is a result of Brian Moriarty’s own conviction as of 1986 that nuclear war was inevitable, that it was only a question of “when” and “how,” never “whether.” Any thoughtful person studying the history of atomic weapons and the Cold War as of 1986 could experience the same sense of predestination, the sense of the futility of the individual, that permeates Trinity. Time and time again the reasonable men had been battered down by the paranoid and the power-mad. Robert Oppenheimer’s case is just one example. Another, perhaps more immediate one for Moriarty would have been the story of President Carter, who entered office determined to reduce the United States’s nuclear arsenal to a “minimal deterrence” level of just 100 to 200 missiles and reach reasonable accommodations with the Soviet Union on a host of issues; he exited four years later amidst boycotts and spiking tensions, and having initiated the arms buildup that would go on to become the most extreme in the peacetime history of the country under Ronald Reagan. Against the forces of history, it seemed that even a good and powerful man like Carter was ultimately powerless.

Can I, the individual, alter the course of history? My answer must first depend on whether I believe in free will. Trinity would seem to tell us that we do have free will on an individual, granular level. The Book of Hours we discover in the magical land shows the Wabewalker’s actions in its pages only as he performs them, not before. Yet on the other hand, virtually everything else in the game is set up to make us feel, as Moriarty put it in an interview published immediately after Trinity, “the weight of all this history, crushing you.” There’s not a lot of individual agency allowed by that description, is there? The magical land of metaphor that serves as the spine of the game would certainly seem to represent a view of time that’s mechanistic and eternally recurring. The sun sweeps around and around its perimeter under the control of the mechanical sundial at its center — literally a wheel of time — its shadow falling again and again on the same set of historical events. “No new thing under the sun” indeed. This is the tragic view of history.

And now, having stumbled upon that word yet again, I think it’s time for us to really think about it. Like so many words, it has at least a couple of valid usages. In everyday speech we use it pretty much any time something really sad or really unjust happens to anyone. So, yes, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen were tragic. But they weren’t tragedies in the philosophical or literary sense that Trinity is a tragedy.

Most of us were inculcated as schoolchildren in another version of tragedy: it’s all about the “tragic flaw.” A noble, virtuous, and capable man is utterly undone by a single failing in his character: perhaps Lust, perhaps Greed, perhaps Ambition, perhaps Jealousy. The tragic hero must of course die for his failing, but in the process of doing so he will be redeemed and restored to at least a measure of his former greatness through self-discovery and acknowledgement of his sins. Originating with Aristotle in roughly 350 BC, it proved to be a conception very well-suited to later Christian societies, for the cycle forms a neat allegory of the central narrative of Christianity: the Creation, the Fall, and Redemption in the after-life. How appropriate then that the earliest great tragedy of the Elizabethan era, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, not only follows this outline perfectly but has its protagonist directly interacting with metaphysical specters of Christian good and evil.

Still, despite lots of hammering and prodding over the centuries, the tragic flaw actually sits rather uncomfortably upon lots of tragic heroes. What’s the tragic flaw of Oedipus? He quite sensibly did everything he reasonably could to derail the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, only to have the universe screw him over anyway. What’s the tragic flaw of Hamlet? Some critics have tried to say it’s indecisiveness, but one can’t help but feel that wishy-washyness lacks a certain moral grandeur. What’s next? Messiness as a tragic flaw? (If so, and as anyone who’s ever seen my office will attest, I’m screwed.)

Aristotle’s word that is generally translated as “tragic flaw” is “hamartia.” It’s a term with its origins in archery, where it’s used to refer to a “missing of the mark.” It was removed from this context by Aristotle, and extended to mean any general mistake or failing. Later, Christian translators may have anachronistically inserted the concept into their own worldview, giving it a moral, even spiritual dimension it does not generally possess in Greek tragedy. There is no grand Christian narrative of guilt, punishment, and redemption to be found here, but rather a sort of cosmic joke and an illustration of the powerlessness of even the mightiest in the face of a universe determined to have its way with us no matter what we do. This is the conception of tragedy hinted at in the works of the philosophers who lived during and before the time of Sophocles, well before the time of Aristotle. It’s the conception of tragedy that Nitszche would rescue and begin to expound in the nineteenth century after centuries of neglect. Trinity also connects itself to these classical currents, not least via another in its arsenal of symbols: the ferryman Charon. In Greek mythology, he carries souls from the land of the living to that of the dead. In Trinity, he carries the Wabewalker to the Trinity site, the beginning of the end.

The ancient Greeks called the elemental, irresistible force of the universe, the “what will be must be” of existence, “physis.” Some people prefer to call it God; some prefer to call it science — or, more specifically and interestingly, physics. Whatever you call it, it can be a bitch sometimes. The real key to Trinity the tragedy may lie in those lines from Hamlet quoted on the back of its box:

The time is out of joint;
O cursed spite, That ever I was
born to set it right!

Hamlet is arrogant enough to believe he’s some sort of Aristotlian tragic hero, destined to “set it right” through his redemptive, sacrificial heroism. What he fails to understand is that the universe is destined to kick his ass no matter what he does. The Wabewalker is arrogant enough to believe in his sweet, clueless American way that he can “fix” history and make everything better. He’s likewise about to get a swift kick in the ass to disabuse him of that notion. Oedipus the King, Hamlet, and Trinity all in fact share a protagonist who’s deluded enough to believe he can prevent or correct a monstrosity that should not be: a son married to his mother in Oedipus; a brother who has committed fratricide and married his sister-in-law in Hamlet; the atomic bomb in Trinity. The joke’s on them. The universe is, as Trinity‘s climactic text implies and as a little game called Zork once stated outright, “self-contained and self-maintaining.”

So, are we left with nothing more than a sick cosmic joke? An essential component of the Aristotelian conception of tragedy is the hero who is redeemed at last through his suffering. Where is the Wabewalker’s redemption? Those of us who play Trinity today can of course take comfort in the fact that what Moriarty saw as inevitable did not come to pass. Instead a hero emerged named Mikhail Gorbachev who, it turned out, actually was capable of breaking the tragic cycle and just possibly saving the world in the way that Oppenheimer, Carter, the Wabewalker, and so many others were not. Because of him life did not imitate Trinity‘s art.

But playing the Gorbachev card is kind of cheating, isn’t it? Is there redemption to be found within Trinity without recourse to external events? I’m not sure I know how to answer this question, how to describe or explain the way that Trinity makes me feel, but I’ll try.

The ancient Greeks talked about something called the “kairos moment,” the orgiastic instance when physis wells up and Great Change happens. Call it God time if you prefer; call it the ineffable transcendence. At that moment we’re at one with the universe, at one with time. The time is no longer out of joint; we’re living in time, oblivious to it. Those scientists in the New Mexico desert experienced a kairos moment when they saw their gadget explode — so awful and so awe-full. Somehow, in a way nobody has ever adequately described and that I certainly can’t begin to, we can also experience a vicarious kairos time at the culminating moment of tragedy, stare into the abyss and come away redeemed. It’s not about seeking redemption for Oedipus or Hamlet or the Wakewalker. It’s redemption for us.

When Nietzsche wrote of a wheel of time, of the Eternal Recurrence, it wasn’t an exercise in nihilism. Just the opposite. He was looking for a way to escape from the tyranny of linear chronology, from the eternal tragedy of the human condition, which is to live out of joint with time, always casting our mental gaze forward or backward, almost never living in the Eternal Now that is Life. If you’re like me, maybe you feel a bit wistful from time to time when you watch your pets play or eat or love, completely in the moment. They have something we can only touch occasionally, unpredictably. And yet it’s important to try. Because even if the world is headed to hell, even if the missiles are going to fly tomorrow, we have the Now. Because even if our individual Books of Hours are already completely written and we can’t do a damn thing about any of it, we still have the Now. Inside Trinity, we wind up after the supreme futility of the sabotage that wasn’t quite the sabotage we thought it was back in the Kensington Gardens. Okay, fair enough. Let’s take a stroll, feel the sun on our skin, enjoy the happy babble of life around us. Who cares if this is the last moment ever? It’s a moment, isn’t it? Pity to waste it. Anyway, last I checked there was a soccer ball and a perambulator and an umbrella to be gathered…


Posted by on February 26, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


Tags: , ,

32 Responses to T Plus 6: All Prams Lead to the Kensington Gardens

  1. Andrew Plotkin

    February 26, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    “It seems very hard to believe that cutting a wire would really have allowed the Trinity bomb to blow up nevertheless, only *not as big* as it otherwise would.”

    The way I run this theory, the bomb failed completely; the “quantum steam” effect applies to *this* bomb as well as all future ones.

    (To restate — you said most of this already: The force of paradox — history’s alteration — is exuded through every point in history where a nuclear bomb is supposed to go off. It causes a bomb-like effect; but, in this story-world, much smaller than a “real” nuclear explosion. Trinity becomes the first example.)

    If we try to follow this logic, it runs into the weeds and ties itself around our ankles. (As I said in the forum thread you linked!) Why doesn’t the Nagasaki bomb, lacking a saboteur, annihilate half of Japan? Etc.

    My fifteen-year-old self, outraged at the logic, sat himself down and wrote a letter of complaint to Infocom. I got a gracious reply — I believe it was in Moriarty’s own hand — essentially saying “This is the way we think the story had to go.” And you really can’t say much more than that, at a plot level.

    (I think that letter is still in my father’s basement somewhere. I really have to dig it out and post a scan.)

    Turning to the notion of tragedy… I can’t entirely dismiss the plot logic! James Nicoll once said (yes, he’s said more than one quotable line): “I don’t mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface.”

    When I try to view Trinity as a tragedy of history, it’s of a history where *nuclear bombs don’t work the way we think.* The physicists were wrong; they’re *still* wrong today. And that has consequences! It says something about history, both about the past (the threat of MAD) and the future (our dreams of fusion power?) But it doesn’t sit well with the talk of redemption and the joints of time(*). It makes Trinity’s ending a fuddle, no matter how you try to approach it.

    (* Hidden from our prudish view by the Trousers of Time, no doubt.)

    • David Boddie

      February 26, 2015 at 7:02 pm

      I like the idea of a history where our understanding is incorrect, but just correct enough that we don’t notice. In a way, that’s how science works: you have a theory that predicts the outcomes of experiments until you run one that makes you go back and think again. Sometimes, it even makes you question how the theory could ever have been sufficient in the first place.

      Maybe another way of explaining why changing the first test would also affect every later explosion would be to consider that the first one marks the divergence of two worlds: one in which the explosions ignite the atmosphere, and the one the protagonist inhabits. Sabotaging the test presumably just means that we choose the second of these. In the game, what happens if you don’t cut the wire?

      In my English Literature classes at school, I remember thinking that we were often reading too much meaning into what some authors had written. With that in mind, it seems that games may not be art, but it seems they can be literature. ;)

      • Duncan Stevens

        February 26, 2015 at 7:54 pm

        One other ambiguity that, depending on how you view it, makes the game either moderately or extremely pessimistic: when you first enter the out-of-time world, you get this description:

        As your eyes sweep the landscape, you notice more of the giant toadstools. There must be hundreds of them. Some sprout in clusters, others grow in solitude among the trees. Their numbers increase dramatically as your gaze moves westward, until the forest is choked with pale domes.

        Each of those toadstools represents a nuclear blast, and their number “increase[s] dramatically as your gaze moves westward”–but are you looking west at that point? Or is your gaze simply “moving westward” from the eastern horizon? If the latter, then you may be simply looking at the (extensive) past history of nuclear testing; if the former, it seems like you’re looking at a full-scale nuclear war that was just beginning as you left–and which you do not, in fact, avert. In that view, it’s not just London that you fail to save, it’s the entire world, or much of it, at least.

        • David Auerbach

          March 15, 2015 at 3:16 pm

          I always read this as the scariest passage in the whole game, and didn’t see much ambiguity in it. The game starts with the opening of WW3, and in the context of the 1980s, the hundreds of toadstools immediately suggested the enormous nuclear stockpile (see the ending of the Trinity comic as well, the general standing in front of a gazillion missiles).

          Looking back now, I’m almost convinced it’s the other way around. There had been about a thousand nuclear tests by the mid-80s, and the timeline doesn’t go east to west but in a counterclockwise circle.

          On the other hand, it’s certainly the end anyway. On the sundial, Arizona is marked with alpha and London with omega, so whether due to the paradox loop cycle, global thermonuclear war, or narrative symmetry, the game certainly gives the impression that the London day you start at is THE END.

          It reminds me of something Charles Hayward said about his band This Heat, working at the turn of the 80s: “The dread and fear thing was this whole (nuclear) mutually-assured-destruction thing that was happening at the time. We all thought that we were going to die in about two, three years. We really did.”

      • Lisa H.

        March 4, 2015 at 6:58 am

        In the game, what happens if you don’t cut the wire?

        Well, first the bomb explodes, naturally:

        Time passes.

        “Zero minus ten seconds. Nine seconds. Eight. Seven. Six. Five seconds. Four. Three. Two.”

        You hear a loud clunk at the word “One.”

        All at once the sphere disappears in a flash of startling brilliance! You jam your hands over your eyes in the awful glare; never see the fireball closing in at many times the speed of sound; and never feel the stellar heat that annihilates much of the state of New Mexico.

        Then you wind up at The River with Charon picking you up, and the game ends. There isn’t a denoument about what happens to the rest of the world, if that was what you were wondering.

        • David Boddie

          March 4, 2015 at 11:30 pm

          Thanks, Lisa. So, the outcomes are consistent and the New Mexico thing is not just a throwaway remark in the other outcome. Interesting. It makes one wonder which of the two is the “winning” choice, though presumably only one earns you points.

          • Duncan Stevens

            March 5, 2015 at 4:38 am

            Right. Other suboptimal endings (when you get caught) note that you’re incinerated shortly afterwards in a “multigigaton blast.” In the rgif thread Jimmy mentioned, one of Infocom’s playtesters said he didn’t recall when the alternative-history angle came along, and when I tracked down one of the beta versions, it didn’t have the “multigigaton” references or other indications that the blast was something other than the real-life version, except for the “winning” ending. So those were added late in the process, probably in response to some tester asking about the inconsistency.

          • Jimmy Maher

            March 5, 2015 at 6:48 am

            A “multigigaton” blast, by the way, is almost inconceivably enormous. The largest atomic bomb ever exploded was the “Tsar Bomba” exploded by the Soviets in 1961: around 50 megatons. In addition to annihilating New Mexico (at least), one suspects it would have serious consequences for the planet as a whole.

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 27, 2015 at 8:04 am

      When Duncan and I were discussing this over email, I wrote:

      “I find it can be a little bit hard to get some readers, especially readers heavily into the sorts of genre literature that usually most interests computer gamers, to look for higher layers of meaning in a work beyond mere plot logic. And so you get all of the endless ret-conning that goes on to try to make Richard Garriott’s completely nonsensical Ultima world make sense, etc. Science fiction and fantasy readers in particular will accept elves and dragons and magic and “warp drives” and God knows what else, but give them, say, Gulliver’s Travels and they’ll spend hours complaining about how this Lilliputian land couldn’t really exist and is there some way they can ret-con it into the world as they know it, etc., all the while completely missing the real point of the story.”

      Yes, that’s almost unbearably smug and condescending, and you of all people are certainly not deserving of my condescension. Problem is, I don’t quite how to frame this in a way that *doesn’t* make me sound like everybody’s worst caricature of the smug Literature professor (like, say, that guy from The Squid and the Whale). I really don’t want to make it sound like a personal failing if you don’t appreciate Trinity like I appreciate Trinity. As David Boddie slyly winked at, it’s very possible I’m reading way too much into all this anyway. On the other hand, the assumption of many students that the goal of literary criticism is to figure out “what the author meant to say” is flawed in itself and…

      Oh, boy, I’m not helping my cause here, am I? Various people come to literature (and games) expecting various things, and that’s fine. Also, you’re awesome and I admire your work greatly. How’s that? :)

      • David Boddie

        February 27, 2015 at 3:37 pm

        I wasn’t necessarily suggesting that you were reading too much into Trinity, Jimmy. :)

    • Andrew Plotkin

      February 28, 2015 at 8:55 pm

      I’ve extended my comment here into a blog post, basically a “How would I have handled this ending?” retrospective from our privileged thirty-years-on vantage.

  2. Duncan Stevens

    February 26, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    As far as the ending hanging together: a time-travel loop to restore the present is a known subgenre, but usually the time traveler has himself triggered some worse outcome that he/she then has to undo, both to avoid a paradox and prevent the nastier fate. Here, there’s nothing about Wabewalker going back in time that could logically have caused the Trinity test to ignite the atmosphere and blow up all of New Mexico. (The game is quite clear that, in the future that Wabewalker is coming from, these runaway chain reactions didn’t happen–“the future that created you cannot occur.”) So that’s one big objection to the logic here.

    But I agree that insisting on precise logic is probably not the best way to look at Trinity. Had the ending simply been “and then there was no bomb, everything was great,” it’s hard to see how the player would be left feeling “the weight of all this history,” in Moriarty’s words. And “you failed to stop the test, you accomplished nothing” would be a pretty sour ending to the game. The alternative-history/looping resolution both works on the poetic/philosophical level and addresses the need to end the story in a way that wasn’t overly sunny but also didn’t leave the whole thing feeling like a waste of time. If logic was a casualty, well, you can’t have everything.

    To my mind, Trinity works better than AMFV because it uses the traditional “game” aspects of IF to its advantage. The puzzle-solving drives the story and gives it pace, and the puzzles themselves, in most instances, reflect and reinforce the themes of the game. The gnomon puzzle mirrors the harnessing-elemental-forces theme; the skink and lemming puzzles force the player to deal out death in the name of avoiding greater disasters, just as the makers of the bomb believed they were doing (and introduce the idea of complicity for an IF protagonist); the corpse/Charon puzzle forces the player to confront his/her own mortality; the bubble puzzle reinforces the fragility of existence; the lemming puzzle reminds us of mankind’s self-destructive nature; the Nagasaki crane puzzle, perhaps, reminds us of the hope for peace, and the power of the peace movement. Some of the puzzles don’t reflect the themes (the emerald recipe puzzle, say, unless you want to view yourself as creating your own Manhattan Project, throwing ingredients together with limited knowledge about where it will all lead), but most do. And most of them aren’t set pieces; they serve the logic of the story to an extent unusual in IF circa 1986.

    So viewed, the logical holes–the eternal umbrella, the strange encounter with one’s own corpse–become a little less nagging because they help reinforce the game’s themes. Moreover, the puzzles are, on the whole, hard enough that the player feels a sense of accomplishment, helping to offset the downbeat nature of the ending. (To be sure, in the middle section, the motivation for the puzzle/solving is a tad uneven. Why, exactly, am I so anxious to visit all these earlier blasts? Putting a vital (yet mundane) object/task behind each door is a rather artificial way to send the player on a tour through nuclear history. But once you accept the magpie/explorer role of an IF protagonist, the themes fall into place.)

    I also think that Trinity benefits by not clearly inhabiting any particular genre, whereas AMFV, with its focus on gadgetry, was immediately recognizable as relatively “hard” SF. The magic-realism air of the middle section helps make some of the logical difficulties feel a bit more forgivable than the corresponding problems in AMFV (and those problems were much more central to the conceit of the game in AMFV than they are in Trinity). That Trinity is much more lyrically written than AMFV also helps.

    • Duncan Stevens

      February 26, 2015 at 6:07 pm

      Meant to mention that one later game that carries off a similar “puzzles united by thematic elements” is So Far. Something tells me this might not be a total coincidence.

      • Andrew Plotkin

        February 27, 2015 at 3:29 am


  3. Lisa H.

    February 26, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    It eventually becomes apparent that the overriding objective of Trinity the game is to sabotage Trinity the first test of an atomic bomb.

    You probably wanted either “is to sabotage Trinity”, full stop, or “is to sabotage the first test of an atomic bomb”.

    If, as would seem to be implied, that’s your corpse you meet in the magical land

    Eh? This never occurred to me. Implied by the fact that you get the boots from it? (Wow, between this and never realizing the girl in Nagasaki was the woman in Kensington Gardens, I am starting to feel really stupid.)

  4. Lisa H.

    February 26, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    Additional: Oops, I get your phrasing now about Trinity-the-game vs. Trinity-the-test. Never mind.

  5. Keith Palmer

    February 26, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    After all the work you’ve put into looking at this game and the dark larger history it’s built upon, it does seem sort of ungrateful of me to admit that, when Internet access arrived in my home town and I found clues at last for Trinity (and A Mind Forever Voyaging) to get to the end of a game I’d made perhaps more of an effort to play through than with others (I almost gave up at the puzzle of how to cool the meteorite before hitting on the solution, but couldn’t figure out how to escape Nagasaki), my immediate reaction to the conclusion seemed similar to what you describe as Scorpia’s to Infidel (which I don’t think bothered me when I’d played to the end of that game with heavy reliance on the hintbook). It seemed to me sudden, arbitrary, at once smug and despairing; for years to follow whenever I saw Trinity praised (up to and including your own “Let’s Tell A Story Together”) I would just dwell on my negative reaction. If, as you’ve said, there are “Trinity people” and “AMFV people,” I suppose I was an “AMFV person” almost by default.

    In realizing you would get around to the game here, though, I made a fresh effort to do some more thinking about it. I might have been a little conscious of how often I’m willing to try and be sympathetic towards certain other works criticized as if making a big deal of “obvious” reactions and inclined to think they just might not be viewed “deeply” enough (as much as I can imagine this opens me up to criticism in turn…) Other forecasts of nuclear war may hold their own doses of “despair,” but I’ve started wondering if they can at least be seen as trying to drive their audiences towards taking some form of action to stand against apocalypse. The “driven by your effort” nature of interactive fiction, however, might have made the sudden suggestion of “fate being fixed” seem that much more inescapable and oppressing. Beyond that, I suppose I’m now willing to see “the conclusion I’d been expecting” as a story in which “magic” pops up at the last second to save everyone, which would be a story with its own dangerous connotations. I do know that with Brian Moriarty’s statements on record attempts to seek “other ways out” might still be too much of a stretch, but in any case your own thoughts on the matter were interesting too.

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 27, 2015 at 7:43 am

      I actually think the fact that Trinity doesn’t really try to exhort its players to “take a stand against apocalypse” is one of its key strengths. Most protest art is pretty terrible, at least when taken outside of its historical context. Trinity has a dignity about it that a more muckraking piece wouldn’t. (Such a piece would be historically interesting just for trying to say something about the world, which very few games were doing in the 1980s, but interesting in a very different and, in my opinion, shallower way.)

      • Keith Palmer

        February 27, 2015 at 5:31 pm

        I can see now how a “Don’t want that to happen? Do this!” conclusion to any work can make it easier to dismiss. It just seems that when I got to the end of Trinity, I was convinced I was being “ordered” to accept that *all* effort was futile. I might yet try and butter that up a bit by wondering if “interactivity” provided greater impact than the familiar variant of time travel stories where any action to change the future only ends up bringing the original state to pass, but I do know it was a somehow extreme reaction.

  6. B1AF02B6DB5D

    February 26, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    Does anyone know of a way to play that game today, without doing something illegal and with a student’s budget (also, no old hardware)?

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 27, 2015 at 7:32 am

      There is an iOS app which Activision sells through the Apple Store. The app is free, but each game after Zork I is an in-app purchase — but only a dollar or two, so hopefully manageable on a “student’s budget.” ;) The app, for what it’s worth, is really well done. I was kind of disappointed it didn’t get more attention when it came out.

      Otherwise Infocom’s story files are not hard to find with a quick Google. Not strictly legal, mind you, but legality isn’t always morality. You’ll can decide where your own moral line is drawn…

      • B1AF02B6DB5D

        February 27, 2015 at 3:48 pm

        Thanks very much for the answer! I would love to try out the app, but will not be able to, due to a lack of iDevices. So maybe I’ll look into the other option. Thanks again though!

  7. Steve

    February 27, 2015 at 12:40 am

    On the contradistinction between the linear and cyclical views of time, I found Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels an enlightening read.

    The characterisation made of Protestant Christianity came across to me as nearly the opposite what Protestantism actually stands for. The principles of justification by faith alone, through God’s unmerited favour alone, are central to Protestantism and run all the way back to Christianity’s roots – see Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome.

    How did you come to the conclusion that “capitalism is based on the assumption that we can always make more money than we did the previous year”? I don’t see why a capitalist would even need to accept this assumption, much less regard it as foundational?

    I don’t find the case for Gorbachev as the hero of the cold war to be plausible. His hand was largely forced by circumstances beyond his control. It seems, frankly, like the kind of idea that comes from struggling just a little bit too hard to see Reagan as the villain.

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 27, 2015 at 7:25 am

      Thanks for the recommendation!

      Your last 3 points, in order:

      1. Justification through faith versus justification through works is of course a longstanding debate in Christianity. But if, like most Protestants, you accept the former, I believe there is an assumption that, having accepted God, you have a duty to make yourself and the world around you better. Yes, you will fail sometimes, and God will forgive you if you ask Him, but the expectation is still there. Yes, you can never *overcome* your heritage of sin through good works alone — you need God for that — but you still have a duty to try to follow His moral code and to help your fellow humans. And yes, a mass murderer could theoretically repent and accept God on his deathbed, be forgiven, and enter the Kingdom of Heaven without doing anything to “deserve” it, but for most it doesn’t work like that.

      I believe there’s actually been quite a lot written about the rise of Protestantism with its ethics of personal improvement and self-reliance and the associated rise of capitalism and our modern view of history. I’m certainly no scholar on such things, but the connection has always felt pretty solid to me.

      2. This is a fairly basic philosophical assumption of capitalism, isn’t it? Our modern economies are driven by investment. You get nothing back from investment — other than dividends, and who invests for dividends these days? — unless the company in which you invest makes more money than it did the previous year. (See how the analysts react to a company that just treads water year after year. You can get away with it at the level of the small businessperson, but that’s not where most of the capital in our economies reside.) For the last couple of hundred years, this has been possible. But — so some people say — it may not be possible for too much longer, as we’re going to simply run out of resources. Maybe a market economy is possible absent the assumption — I kind of hope so — but it would have to be different mechanically and philosophically than the one we have today. It’s also of course possible that the people saying this are simply wrong; there were lots and lots of people saying the same thing at the time of the Great Depression, after all.

      3. I don’t disagree that Gorbachev’s hand was “forced by circumstances beyond his control,” but I’m not really sure how that bears on his being a hero. *Most* heroes’ hands are “forced by circumstances beyond their control.” Those same circumstances could have led him to do any number of things, many of them damaging to the world, some of them just possibly entailing the destruction of the world. He chose the wise, humane course, against the tide of his country’s history and the Cold War’s history, the very same history that Trinity paints as an irresistible force. To me that makes him a hero.

      As for Reagan: I see him as neither hero nor villain. Of all the personal descriptions I’ve read of him, the one that feels most correct to me, and seems best supported by the evidence of staffer interviews, etc., is the one in Way Out There in the Blue by Frances FitzGerald: that he was a genial fellow with a peculiar emptiness at the heart of his personality and a certain endemic intellectual laziness. Certainly flawed, but I wouldn’t use the word “villain.” Or, if we dispense with the psychoanalysis: he (or, perhaps better said, his administration) was a huge problem, until, coaxed by Gorbachev, he stopped being. Which was progress, but not quite heroic progress.

  8. Andrew McCarthy

    February 27, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    So, are we left with nothing more than a sick cosmic joke? An essential component of the Aristotelian conception of tragedy is the hero who is redeemed at last through his suffering. Where is the Wabewalker’s redemption? Those of us who play Trinity today can of course take comfort in the fact that what Moriarty saw as inevitable did not come to pass. Instead a hero emerged named Mikhail Gorbachev who, it turned out, actually was capable of breaking the tragic cycle and just possibly saving the world in the way that Oppenheimer, Carter, the Wabewalker, and so many others were not. Because of him life did not imitate Trinity‘s art.

    I suspect that this is perhaps the real point of Trinity, its ultimate raison d’être.

    Simply by playing the game, people who were not previously disposed to worry overmuch about the consequences of nuclear warfare might recoil in horror… and, years later, those same people might be the ones making decisions at the highest levels of government.

    In that respect it’d be a cautionary tale, rather like Dr. Seuss’ darkest children’s book, The Lorax.

    And, as such, Trinity offers a way to break free of the cycle of eternal repetition… even as we appreciate the Eternal Now.

    If, as you say, Moriarty was convinced at the time of the inevitability of nuclear war, he may not himself have appreciated this aspect of the game when he made it. But I’m pretty sure he’d find it fitting.

    After all, Nicholas Meyer accomplished much the same thing, when Ronald Reagan happened to watch The Day After.

  9. Veronica Connor

    February 28, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    “You can find it in the Christianity — particularly Protestant Christianity — whose moral precepts are still at the root of our systems of laws…”

    That’s a bridge too far, Jimmy. The moral (ethical, actually) precepts that form the basis of our laws predate Chrisitianity by thousands of years. You can go the Louvre and read the Code of Hammurabi right off the stone it was carved into, and it reads like a biblical prequel story. This is but one example of our current ethics and morals predating all theologies.

    Chrisitianity is, like all theologies, built upon those that came before. No philosophy exists in a vacuum or was created from whole cloth, much as they all like to sound as though they were. They are human stories, building upon other human stories. It’s what we do.

    In fact, the science increasingly shows that the fundamental aspects of ethical law that form our civilization are in fact innate- it has always been an envolutionary advantage not to hurt each other, which is why we mostly dislike doing so. The finer points of law have been built upon those basics as we’ve learned what is needed to live together in increasingly large groups.

    Whether one believes in God or gods outside that framework is a separate and deeply personal choice. But to ascribe American laws to some roots in Christianity is a fool’s errand.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 1, 2015 at 8:24 am

      Thanks for the reply, but it doesn’t seem to be responding to what you actually quoted. ;) I made no claim that these moral precepts originated with Christianity nor that they are unique to it, just that the bedrock morality that the law upholds is essentially the same as Christian morality. I would further claim that these laws were *created* with sometimes implicit but often explicit reference to Christianity even in a country like the USA that ostensibly separates church from state. See for example the law’s upholding of marriage and punishment of adultery in divorce court and the prohibitions against the (arguably) victimless crime of prostitution. Or just the fact that witnesses still swear on a Bible unless they choose something else…

      I do think that the civilizing effect Christianity had on many societies is sometimes too readily dismissed by those eager to condemn its manifold abuses. But as neither a committed atheist nor a Christian — I’m happily, wishy-washily agnostic — I don’t really have a dog in that fight.

  10. Nate Cull

    March 2, 2015 at 4:21 am

    @Andrew: The Lorax (1971) is indeed a powerful ecological fable – I remember watching the 1972 TV special in school in the 1980s. The gut-punch of that story has never left me. I wish more people had read and absorbed that book.

    But! There’s an even better example in the current discussion. Seuss actually wrote a children’s book specifically about nuclear war and Mutually Assured Destruction. (Of course he did.) The Butter Battle Book, in 1984.

    It’s every bit as terrifying as Trinity and only a slightly bit more hopeful in its ending: “Who’s going to drop it? Will you? or will he?”

    And this wasn’t at all an outlier. There were actually so many happy friendly children’s books about the total and utterly inevitable annihilation of the world in the 1980s and oh my God I need to stop geeking out about this right now because I’m totally showing my age.

    But you could write a dozen theses on 80s nuclear fatalism and a dozen more on how all this cultural art product just vanished into a pit of self-induced cultural amnesia in the 1990s when WWIII got unexpectedly, impossibly, cancelled. It’s been long enough, we really need to start remembering.

    • Andrew McCarthy

      March 2, 2015 at 10:26 am

      @ Nate Cull

      Fascinating! I think I read that book once, long ago.

      But as a child, I read The Lorax first–and naturally was slightly traumatized. So of course it’s the “dark Dr. Seuss” book that comes foremost in my recollection.

    • Andrew McCarthy

      March 2, 2015 at 10:29 am

      Also, as a child of the 1990s, I grew up without constant references to the Cold War dominating everyday life. So, while the message of The Lorax was evident to me even at that tender age, the subtext of The Butter Battle Book escaped me at the time.

  11. DZ-Jay

    March 11, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    >> “we’re literally literally wandering through…”

    I think one of those is literally redundant. :)

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 12, 2017 at 10:27 am



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.