‘Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
– poem by John Merrick, “The Elephant Man”
This article does contain some spoilers for Ballyhoo!
Ballyhoo, a low-key mystery written by a new Implementor, was the last game ever released by an independent Infocom. When it appeared in February of 1986, Al Vezza and Joel Berez were desperately trying to reel in their lifeline of last resort, a competitor interested in acquiring this imploding company that had fallen from such a precipitous height in just a year’s time. Having come in like a lion with Zork, Infocom, Inc., would go out like a lamb with Ballyhoo; it would go on to become one of their least remembered and least remarked games. We’ll eventually get to some very good reasons for Ballyhoo to be regarded as one of the lesser entries in the Infocom canon. Still, it’s also deserving of more critical consideration than it’s generally received for its unique tone and texture and, most importantly, for a very significant formal innovation. In fact, discounting as relative trivialities some small-scale tinkering with abbreviations and the like and as evolutionary dead ends a blizzard of largely unsuccessful experiments that would mark Infocom’s final years, said innovation would be the last such to significantly impact the art of the text adventure as it would evolve after the commercial glory years of the 1980s.
If Ballyhoo is one of Infocom’s more forgotten games, its creator, Jeff O’Neill, is certainly the Forgotten Implementor. His perspective is conspicuously absent from virtually every history written of the company in the last quarter century. Most notably, he was the one Imp who declined to be interviewed for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp project. For reasons that we won’t dwell on here, O’Neill remains deeply embittered by his time with Infocom. Incredible as this may sound to those of us today who persist in viewing the company’s brief life as a sort of Camelot, that time in his own life is one that O’Neill would rather forgot, as I learned to my disappointment when I reached out to him before writing this article. He has a right to his silence and his privacy, so we’ll leave it at that and confine ourselves to the public details.
O’Neill, at the time a frustrated young journalist looking for a career change, was hired by Infocom in the spring of 1984, just one of what would prove to be a major second wave of talent — including among their ranks Jon Palace and Brian Moriarty — who arrived at about the same time. Like Moriarty, O’Neill’s original role was a practical one: he become one of Infocom’s in-house testers. Having proved himself by dint of talent and hard work and the great ideas for new games he kept proposing, after about a year he became the first of a few who would eventually advance out of the testing department to become late-period Imps after Infocom’s hopes for hiring outside writers to craft their games proved largely fruitless.
Whether we attribute it to his degree in Journalism or innate talent, O’Neill had one of the most delicate writerly touches to be found amongst the Imps. Ballyhoo adds a color to Infocom’s emotional palette that we haven’t seen before: world-weary melancholy. The setting is a spectacularly original one for any adventurer tired of dragons and spaceships: an anachronistic, down-at-the-heels circus called “The Traveling Circus That Time Forgot, Inc.” The tears behind a clown’s greasepaint facade, as well as the tawdry desperation that is the flip side of “the show must go on” for performers and performances past their time, have been amply explored in other art forms. Yet such subtle shades of feeling have been only rarely evoked by games before or after Ballyhoo. Ballyhoo, in the words of one of its own more memorable descriptive passages, “exposes the underside of circus life — grungy costumes strung about, crooked and cracked mirrors, the musty odor of fresh makeup mingled with clown sweat infusing the air.” Given what was going on around O’Neill as he wrote the game, it feels hard not to draw parallels with Infocom’s own brief ascendency and abrupt fall from grace: “Your experience of the circus, with its ballyhooed promises of wonderment and its ultimate disappointment, has been to sink your teeth into a candy apple whose fruit is rotten.”
The nihilistic emptiness at the heart of the circus sideshow, the tragedy of these grotesques who parade themselves before the public because there’s no other alternative available to them, has likewise been expressed in art stretching at least as far back as Freaks, a 1932 film directed by Tod Browning that’s still as shocking and transgressive as it is moving today. Another obvious cultural touchstone, which would have been particularly fresh in the mid-1980s thanks to Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play and David Lynch’s 1980 film, is the story of the so-called “Elephant Man”: John Merrick, a gentle soul afflicted with horrendous deformities who was driven out into the street by his father at age 17 and forced to sell himself to various exploiters as a traveling “human curiosity.” Some say that Merrick died at age 27 in 1890 because he insisted on trying to lie down to sleep — something his enormous, misshapen head would not allow — as part of his fruitless lifelong quest just to “be like other people.”
Ballyhoo‘s own collection of freaks are less extreme but can be almost as heartbreaking. There’s Comrade Thumb, the Russian midget who’s been crammed into a Czarist general’s uniform and sent out to do tricks. Like Merrick, whose deformities made speech almost impossible, Thumb can’t even communicate with his fellow humans; he speaks only Russian (I’ve had just a taste of this sort of linguistic isolation at times since leaving the United States, and know how hard it can be). But saddest of all is the case of Tina, the “827 pounds of feminine charm” who’s become the circus’s token fat woman.
West Half of Fat Lady
Dominating this once spacious room, geographic in her enormity, mountainous in her irreducibility, the fat lady sits (though no chair is visible) breathtakingly to the east. Paths around the attraction lead northeast and southeast. The exit is south.
The fat lady is wearing a big top, and the expression on her face is sad and distant, almost Rushmorean. She appears to be holding a small radio up to her ear.
It's a long haul, the scenery changing little. Eventually you arrive at ...
East Half of Fat Lady
The fat lady sits (though no chair is visible) breathtakingly to the west. Paths around the attraction lead northwest and southwest.
>give granola bar to tina
Tina is quick to confiscate the one-dollar-and-85-cent granola bar from your hand and grinds it up without hesitation. Turning her far-away gaze slowly in your direction, she seems to notice you for the first time this evening.
She merely sighs wistfully, which creates a gale-force gust, and cranes her wrecking-ball-sized hand over to you.
As you take hold, the fat lady's hand becomes relaxed, its full weight now residing in your arms like a sandbag and making your knees buckle.
Though unable to budge the fat lady's hand, your friendly intentions are nevertheless understood. The fat lady appears quite taken by your kindnesses. She clasps both her hands up to her chins, and stares ahead in teary silence.
If these passages, far from politically correct but by no means heartless, make you a bit uncomfortable, well, I like to think that they were meant to. After all, we’re among the sideshow gawkers. I’ve known people like Tina, cut off by their weight or other issues from a normal life, destined always to be noticed but never to be included. I recognize that wistful sigh, that far-off stare, that above-it-all stance that becomes their only defense. As for people like the circus’s manager Mr. Munrab — read the name backward — who we learn elsewhere “orders the roustabout to increase the frequency of her [Tina’s] feeding” every time she tries to go on a diet…. well, I’d like to think there’s a special circle of Hell for him along with Tom Norman, the man who stuck John Merrick in a cage and set it up for the punters on Whitechapel Road.
I don’t want to give the impression that Ballyhoo is all doom and gloom, and certainly not that it’s entirely one-note in its mood. As Tina’s passages show, the game takes place in a vaguely surreal David Lynch-ian realm that’s tethered to but not quite the same as our own reality. This gives ample room for some flights of fancy that don’t always have to make us feel bad. O’Neill’s love of abstract wordplay, the theme around which his second and final work of interactive fiction would be built, also pops up in Ballyhoo from time to time. When you find yourself with an irresistible craving for something sweet, for instance, it takes the form of a literal monkey on your back who drives you to the concession stand. O’Neill also toys with the parser and the player sitting behind it to a degree not seen in an Infocom game since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here’s what happens when you come upon a “piece of wood” that turns out to be a mousetrap:
You have just encountered that brief instant of time between the realization that you've caused yourself excruciating Pain and the actual onslaught of such Pain, during which time most people speak with exclamation points and ... well, say things like ...
Easy there! You're jeopardizing our "G" rating.
Bravisimo! Once more now, with feeling.
Cut! Cut! Okay, that's a wrap.
There’s even a fake death message, just the sort of faintly cruel player trickery that would have made Adams proud.
Indeed, there’s a little bit of bite, even a faint note of misanthropy, to O’Neill’s writing that’s largely missing from that of the other Imps. Your fellow circus-goers are uniformly boorish and boring. One or two situations, as well as the logical illogic needed to escape from them, smack of Infocom’s later social satire Bureaucracy, to which O’Neill (amongst many others) would make contributions.
>enter short line
You are now standing at the tail end of the short line.
The face of the man ahead of you lights up as he spots something. "Hey, guys! It's ME, Jerry," he yells to a sizable group nearby, and they approach.
"Haven't seen you turkeys in years. Howda hell are you guys?" They all reintroduce themselves. "Hey -- you clowns thirsty? Get in here, I'll buy y'all beer."
"You sure it's not a problem?" asks the catcher.
"Heck no, just scoot in right here."
With both your resolve and your heaving bosom firm against the crush of interlopers, you are nevertheless forced to backpedal.
Jerry continues backslapping the second baseman.
Jerry continues jiving with the center fielder.
>exit long line
You hear an inner voice whisper, "Do I really want to forfeit my position in the long line?" To which you answer:
You nonchalantly walk away from the long line.
>enter long line
A lot of other people must not have had the same idea as you, as they virtually hemorrhage over to the short line. Steaming to the front of the line, you get a two-dollar-and-25-cent frozen banana pushed at you and are whisked to the side before you can even count your change.
Ballyhoo was Infocom’s fourth game to be given the “Mystery” genre label. As such, it’s also an earnest attempt to solve a real or perceived problem that had long frustrated players of those previous three mysteries. The first of them, Deadline, had exploded the possibilities for adventure games by simulating a dynamic story with independent actors rather than just setting the player loose in a static world full of puzzles to solve; The Witness and Suspect had then continued along the same course. Instead of exploring a geographical space, the player’s primary task became to explore a story space, to learn how this dynamic system worked and to manipulate it to her own ends by judicious, precisely timed interference. While a huge advance that brought a new dimension to the adventure game, this seemingly much more story-oriented approach also remained paradoxically problematic to fully reconcile to the view of Infocom’s games as interactive fiction, as, as their box copy would have it, stories you “woke up inside” and proceeded to experience like the protagonist of a novel. The experience of playing one of these early mysteries was more like that of an editor, or a film director making an adaptation of the novel. You had to take the stories apart piece by piece through probing and experimentation, then put everything back together in a way that would guide the protagonist, from whom you stood at a decided remove, to the optimal ending. That process might offer pleasures all its own, but it kept the player firmly in the realm of puzzle-solver rather than fiction-enjoyer — or, if you like, guiding the fiction became the overarching puzzle. Even Infocom’s most unabashed attempt to create a “literary” work to date, Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, became abruptly, jarringly gamelike again when you got to the final section, where you had to head off a sequence of events that would otherwise be the end of you. In a film or novel based on A Mind Forever Voyaging, this sequence would just chance to play out in just the right way to let Perry Sim escape by the skin of his teeth and save the world in the process. In the game, however, the player was forced to figure out what dramatically satisfying narrative the author wanted to convey, then manipulate events to bring it to fruition, a very artificial process all the way around. Yet the alternative of a static environment given motion only when the player deigned to push on something was even farther from the idea of “interactive fiction” as a layperson might take that phrase. What to do?
Infocom’s answer, to which they first fully committed in Ballyhoo, was to flip the process on its head: to make the story respond to the player rather than always asking the player to respond to the story. Put another way, here the story chases the player rather than the player chasing the story. (Feel free to insert your “in Soviet Russia…” jokes here.) Ballyhoo is another dynamic mystery with its own collection of dramatic beats to work through. Now, though, the story moves forward only when and as the player’s actions make it most dramatically satisfying to do so, rather than ticking along according to its own remorseless timetable. So, for example, Comrade Thumb will struggle to get a drink of water from the public water fountain at the beginning of the game for hundreds of turns if necessary, until the player helps him by giving him a boost. He’ll then toddle off to another location to wait for the player to enter. When and only when she does, he’ll carry off his next dramatic beat. Later, a certain bumbling detective will wander onto the midway and pass out dead drunk just when the needs of the plot, as advanced by the player thus far, demand that he do so. Sometimes these developments are driven directly by the player, but at other times they happen only in the name of dramatic efficiency, of story logic. Rather than asking the player to construct a story from a bunch of component parts, now the author deconstructs the story she wants the player to experience, then figures out how to put it back together on the fly in a satisfying way in response to the player’s own actions — but without always making the fact that the story is responding to the player rather than unspooling on its own clear to the player. Ideally, this should let the player just enjoy the unfolding narrative from her perspective inside the story, which will always just happen to play out in suitably dramatic fashion, full of the close calls and crazy coincidences that are such part and parcel of story logic. Virtually unremarked at the time, this formal shift would eventually go on to become simply the way that adventure games were done, to the extent that the old Deadline approach stands out as a strange, cruel anomaly when it crops up on rare occasions on the modern landscape.
Depending on how you see these things, you might view this new approach as a major advance or as a disappointment, even as a capitulation of sorts. Early adventure writers, including those at Infocom, were very invested in the idea of their games as simulations of believable (if simplified) worlds. See, for instance, the article which Dave Lebling published in Byte in December of 1980, which, years before Infocom would dub their games “interactive fiction,” repeatedly refers to Zork and the other games like it that Infocom hopes to make as “computerized fantasy simulations.” Or see the flyer found in Zork I itself, which refers to that game as “a self-contained and self-maintaining universe.” To tinker with such a universe, to introduce a hand of God manipulating the levers in the name of drama and affect, felt and still feels wrong to some people. Most, however, have come to accept that pure, uncompromising simulation does not generally lead to a satisfying adventure game. Adventure games may be better viewed as storytelling and puzzle-solving engines — the relative emphasis placed on the former and the latter varying from work to work — wherein simulation elements are useful as long as they add verisimilitude and possibility without adding boredom and frustration, and stop being useful just as soon as the latter qualities begin to outweigh the former.
Which is not to say that this new approach of the story chasing the player is a magic bullet. Virtually everyone who’s played adventure games since Ballyhoo is familiar with the dilemma of a story engine that’s become stuck in place, of going over and over a game’s world looking for that one trigger you missed that will satisfy the game that all is in proper dramatic order and the next act can commence. My own heavily plotted adventure game is certainly not immune to this syndrome, which at its extreme can feel every bit as artificial and mimesis-destroying, and almost as frustrating, as needing to replay a game over and over with knowledge from past lives. Like so much else in life and game design, this sort of reactive storytelling is an imperfect solution, whose biggest virtue is that most people prefer its brand of occasional frustration to others.
And now we’ve come to the point in this article where I need to tell you why, despite pioneering such a major philosophical shift and despite a wonderful setting brought to life by some fine writing, Ballyhoo does indeed deserve its spot amongst the lower tier of Infocom games. The game has some deep-rooted problems that spoil much of what’s so good about it.
The most fundamental issue, one which badly damages Ballyhoo as both a coherent piece of fiction and a playable game, is that of motivation — or rather lack thereof. When the game begins you’re just another vaguely dissatisfied customer exiting the big top along with the rest of the maddening crowd. Getting the plot proper rolling by learning about the mystery itself — proprietor Munrab’s young daughter Chelsea has been kidnapped, possibly by one of his own discontented performers — requires you to sneak into a storage tent for no reason whatsoever. You then eavesdrop on a fortuitous conversation which occurs, thanks to Ballyhoo‘s new dramatic engine, just at the right moment. And so you decide that you are better equipped to solve the case than the disinterested and besotted detective Munrab has hired. But really, what kind of creepy busybody goes to the circus and then starts crawling around in the dark through forbidden areas just for kicks? Ballyhoo makes only the most minimal of attempts to explain such behavior in its opening passage: “The circus is a reminder of your own secret irrational desire to steal the spotlight, to defy death, and to bask in the thunder of applause.” That’s one of the most interesting and potential-fraught passages in the game, but Ballyhoo unfortunately makes no more real effort to explore this psychological theme, leaving the protagonist otherwise a largely blank slate. Especially given that the mystery at the heart of the game is quite low-stakes — the kidnapping is so clearly amateurish that Chelsea is hardly likely to suffer any real harm, while other dastardly revelations like the presence of an underground poker game also aren’t exactly Godfather material — you’re left wondering why you’re here at all, why you’re sticking your nose into all this business that has nothing to do with you. In short, why do you care about any of this? Don’t you have anything better to be doing?
A similar aimlessness afflicts the puzzle structure. Ballyhoo never does muster that satisfying feeling of really building toward the solution of its central mystery. Instead, it just offers a bunch of situations that are clearly puzzles to be solved, but never gives you a clue why you should be solving them. For instance, you come upon a couple of lions in a locked cage which otherwise contains nothing other than a lion stand used in the lion trainer’s act. You soon find a key to the cage and a bullwhip. You have no use for the lion stand right now, nor for the lions themselves, nor for their cage. There’s obviously a puzzle to be solved here, but why? Well, if you do so and figure out how to deal with the lions, you’ll discover an important clue under the lion stand. But, with no possible way to know it was there, why on earth would any person risk her neck to enter a lion cage for no reason whatsoever? (Presumably the same kind that would creep into a circus’s supply tent…) Elsewhere you come upon an elephant in a tent. Later you have the opportunity to collect a mouse. You can probably imagine what you need to do, but, again, why? Why are you terrorizing this poor animal in its tiny, empty tent? More specifically, how could you anticipate that the elephant will bolt away in the perfect direction to knock down a certain section of fence? This George Hillary approach to design is everywhere in Ballyhoo. While “because it’s there” has been used plenty of times in justifying adventure-game puzzles both before and after Ballyhoo, Infocom by this time was usually much, much better at embedding puzzles within their games’ fictions.
With such an opaque puzzle structure, Ballyhoo becomes a very tough nut to crack; it’s never clear what problems you should be working on at at any given time, nor how solving any given puzzle is likely to help you with the rest. It all just feels… random. And many of the individual solutions are really, really obscure, occasionally with a “read Jeff O’Neill’s mind” quality that pushes them past the boundary of fairness. Making things still more difficult are occasional difficulties with the parser of the sort we’re just not used to seeing from Infocom by this stage: you can MOVE that moose head on the wall, but don’t try to TURN it. There’s also at least one significant bug that forced me to restore on my recent playthrough (the turnstile inexplicably stopped recognizing my ticket) and a few scattered typos. Again, these sorts of minor fit-and-finish problems are hardly surprising in general, but are surprising to find in an Infocom game of this vintage.
Assuming we give some of Hitchhiker’s more dodgy elements a pass in the name of letting Douglas Adams be Douglas Adams, we have to go all the way back to those early days of Zork and Deadline to find an Infocom game with as many basic problems as this one. Ballyhoo isn’t, mind you, a complete reversion to the bad old days of 1982. Even leaving aside its bold new approach to plotting, much in Ballyhoo shows a very progressive sensibility. On at least one occasion when you’re on the verge of locking yourself out of victory, the game steers you to safety, saying that “the image of a burning bridge suddenly pops into your mind.” Yet on others it seems to positively delight in screwing you over. My theory, which is only that, is that Ballyhoo was adversely affected by the chaos inside Infocom as it neared release, that it didn’t get the full benefit of a usually exhaustive testing regime that normally rooted out not only bugs and implementation problems but also exactly the sorts of design issues that I’ve just pointed out. Thankfully, Ballyhoo would prove to be an anomaly; the games that succeeded it would once again evince the level of polish we’ve come to expect. Given that Ballyhoo was also the product of a first-time author, its failings are perhaps the result of a perfect storm of inexperience combined with distraction.
Ballyhoo was not, as you’ve probably guessed, a big seller, failing to break 30,000 copies in lifetime sales. It’s a paradoxical little game that I kind of love on one level but can’t really recommend on another. Certainly there’s much about it that I really respond to. Whether because I’m a melancholy soul at heart or because I just like to play at being one from time to time, I’m a sucker for its sort of ramshackle splendid decay. I’m such a sucker for it, in fact, that I dearly want Ballyhoo to be better than it is, to actually be the sad and beautiful work of interactive fiction that I sense it wants to be. I’ve occasionally overpraised it in the past for just that reason. But we also have to consider how well Ballyhoo works as an adventure game, and in that sense it’s a fairly broken creation. I won’t suggest that you tax yourself too much trying to actually solve it by yourself, but it’s well worth a bit of wandering around just to soak up its delicious melancholy.