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Comprehend

Inside Penguin Software, circa early 1983. From left: Mary Beth Pelczarski, Mark and Trish Glenn, Cheryl and Mark Pelczarski, Ron Schmitt, and (kneeling) Larry Weber.

Inside Penguin Software, circa early 1983. From left: Mary Beth Pelczarski, Mark and Trish Glenn, Cheryl and Mark Pelczarski, Ron Schmitt, and (at right front) Larry Weber.

It’s been quite some time since we’ve checked in with Penguin Software and its founder Mark Pelczarski, so let’s be about that today. The Penguin story is not only interesting in its own right but also a good illustration of what it was like for a small publisher trying to navigate the home-computer boom and bust.

On the heels of the considerable commercial success of Transylvania in 1982, Penguin was naturally eager to continue to work the games market. An old associate from Mark’s days at SoftSide magazine, Dave Albert, essentially took over that side of the company. Over the next couple of years he shepherded to completion a mixed bag of titles from outside contributors, including a number of action games, three more “hi-res adventures” in the mold of Transylvania, and even a couple of RPGs, one crazily original and one more typical of its genre. Most earned back their investment but were not major moneyspinners; only one of the action games, Spy’s Demise, and one of the adventures, The Quest, managed anything close to the numbers that Transylvania moved.

Penguin’s core product remained The Graphics Magician. Now with ports to the Commodore 64, Atari 8-bits, IBM PC and PCjr, and eventually even the new Apple Macintosh as well as the Apple II original, it was the closest thing the games industry had to a standard graphics tool in those wild early days, to be superseded only in the second half of the decade by Electronic Arts’s Deluxe Paint line. For a considerable period of time a considerable percentage of the games on the market employed it, as did countless amateur artists and programmers. Its ubiquity could bring its author into some surprising company.

There was, for instance, a period when Penguin kept getting calls from a kid named Conan O’Brien, editor of the Harvard Lampoon. The name was so crazy that it became a regular part of Penguin’s intra-office schtick: “Conan called again!” someone would shout almost every day. Mark finally agreed to come by Harvard on a business trip. Conan showed him around the campus, and also showed him a basketball “simulation” he and his buddies had developed with the aid of The Graphics Magician. In it the Boston Celtics took on a classical ballet troupe, to hilarious effect. Electronic Arts’s One-on-One, the spiritual father of the modern EA Sports line which pits Julius Erving against Larry Bird, was one of the most popular games in the country at the time; thus Conan’s little creation, whatever else it was, also qualified as satire of a sort. Conan claimed to have gotten a contract with EA to publish the game, but the project never made it to fruition. Had it done so, we might be talking today about Conan O’Brien the game developer rather than Conan O’Brien the talk-show host. (It’s also possible, of course, that “I have a contract” in this context meant “I’ve signed an agreement to quit publishing derivative works of EA intellectual property in exchange for not getting sued.”) For his part, Mark forgot about it — until he opened Newsweek a decade later to read that Conan O’Brien was replacing David Letterman in NBC’s late-night time slot.

The fury and frenzy of the home-computer boom was soon swirling around Penguin, bringing with it dramatic changes in the way that software was sold and marketed. Mark, a sober and grounded sort, wisely steered Penguin clear of the worst excesses of many of their competitors. Penguin didn’t flood the market with cheap cartridge-based titles (“it really didn’t match what we felt we were best at”); didn’t hire a big-name celebrity spokesperson; didn’t let the venture capitalists take control; didn’t mortgage their future via dangerous bank loans. Yet, as wise as those choices would soon prove to be, it became ever harder for a small company to get noticed amidst the glut of product being pumped into stores by 1984.

That year, concerned about the changes in the industry and increasingly nervous about relying so heavily for their sustenance upon a single product, Penguin formulated a three-pronged strategy for the future. They would devote about one third of their resources to continuing to support and improve The Graphics Magician. One third would go to a new line of edutainment software of which we’ll have occasion to hear more in a future article. And one third would go for a renewed and much more focused push into games. With Dave Albert about to leave Penguin to join Origin Systems, it seemed a good time for a change in strategy in this area. (Albert, incidentally, took with him to Origin Greg Malone and his oriental RPG Moebius amongst other projects in progress).

Henceforth Penguin would concentrate on adventure games, the genre which had been most successful for them and for which they were best known. Their previous adventures had all been essentially one-offs submitted by outside authors and programmed in whatever combination of assembly language and BASIC happened to seem most handy. All had originated on the Apple II, and porting them to the other popular platforms of the day had been tedious and expensive if it happened at all. Nor did their home-grown parsers acquit themselves all that well in this the heyday of Infocom’s reign. The answer to all these problems was to be Comprehend, a cross-platform adventure-game engine that should let Penguin put out more sophisticated adventures more quickly and on more platforms, and all in a consistent house style that players could come to know and intuitively understand like that of Infocom. In a collaboration he describes today as still “one of the most interesting and fun I’ve had writing and programming,” Mark designed Comprehend from whole cloth in front of a whiteboard over the summer of 1984 with a student from the nearby Northern Illinois University, Jeffrey Jay. They paid particular attention to the parser, which they put through a series of challenges posed to them by the folks at Infocom — pronoun handling, accurate handling of compound sentences, etc. — that most rival parsers definitively failed. What they ended up with didn’t come close to matching that magnificent Infocom parser, but it was several steps about the likes of the Telarium model.

Text adventures with graphics can be divided into two categories. First there are those, like the Telarium games, for which the graphics are static and ancillary to the text, there only for atmosphere — like, say, the occasional illustrations in an original-edition Dickens novel. Then there are those — counterintuitively, this is the older category, pioneered by Sierra’s original Hi-Res Adventure line — which make the graphics an integral part of the experience, using them to convey essential information about the game world that isn’t in the (generally much sparser) text and varying them with changes in its state: drawing dropped inventory objects and other characters that happen to be present into the scene, etc. This style had rather fallen out of fashion by 1984 as publishers rushed to jump onto the bookware bandwagon that posited adventure games as essentially literary experiences. Comprehend, however, bucked the trend by hewing to the older style that Sierra themselves had abandoned with the advent of AGI and King’s Quest. This could make Comprehend seem like a bit of a throwback even in its heyday. Still, the graphics possibilities were, as one might expect from “The Graphics People,” considerable, with the system even capable of some spot animation and other flourishes. The system also ran blazingly fast in comparison to the likes of Telarium’s SAL engine. Comprehend was, in short, a perfectly serviceable old-school adventure engine if hardly a technological game-changer. Now Penguin just needed some Comprehend games.

Antonio Antiochia, the teenage author of Transylvania, had been enjoying the fruits of that game’s success in the form of the royalty checks, insanely large by a high-school kid’s standard, that he found in his mailbox each month. Mark duly suggested to his young software star that he save his money for university, but Antonio did exactly what most of us would have done in his place: went out and bought a shiny new Mazda RX-7, which may or may not have contributed to his getting his “first bona fide girlfriend” late in his senior year. With such distractions on offer, it took Antonio some time to buckle down again to adventure writing. When he did, he decided he’d like to make a sequel to Transylvania, something that Penguin, in light of the success of the first game, was hardly likely to discourage. Antonio started drafting his game using a BASIC-based framework that another of Penguin’s outside authors, The Quest and Ring Quest author Dallas Snell, had developed, once again doing not only all the writing and programming but also drawing all of the pictures himself. (This incomplete early version leaked into pirating circles through the cracking group the Corsairs, and can still be found in some Apple II software archives today.) Later, when Comprehend was ready, Antonio dutifully learned its nuances and ported his work to the new system. After completing the sequel, dubbed The Crimson Crown, he returned to the original, crafting a new version for Comprehend with more text, locations, and puzzles. Together these became the first two Comprehend releases from Penguin in the fall of 1985. The Apple II versions of both games were reworked and re-released yet again early the following year, to use the “double-hi-res” graphics mode available on certain IIe setups and all models of the IIc. This welcome hardware enhancement let Penguin mostly if not entirely eliminate the color distortions that normally plagued Apple II graphics.

The Crimson Crown is a much bigger game than the original Transylvania. In fact, it’s really two adventure games, one on each side of its disk. Stealing a trick that was quite common in the British software market where sharply limited cassette-based machines were still the norm, The Crimson Crown arranges to funnel you through a bottleneck at its mid-point in which you lose your inventory and are moved to an entirely new piece of geography. In other words, everyone who gets this far is forced into the same state before continuing the game — or, I should say, before beginning the second game that occupies that second disk side.

The Crimson Crown

Following, like just about everyone else in the industry, the lead of Infocom, Penguin upped their packaging game considerably for the Comprehend line. The Crimson Crown shipped with not only an instruction manual but a separate journal setting the stage, a sealed letter to be opened at a certain point in the game, a map of Wallachia and Moldavia, and even a poster to hang on your wall. The Transylvania connection was oddly minimized, relegated to a subheading — “Further Adventures in Transylvania” — below the much larger Crimson Crown title. Mark Pelczarski notes today that such decisions point to a certain ongoing naivete at Penguin even in an increasingly cutthroat market, a determination to emphasize “fun and art” over “the monetary aspect.”

The mysterious tree stump of the original makes a return appearance.

The mysterious tree stump of the original makes a return appearance.

You play the hero of the first game, rescuer of the Princess Sabrina. The vampire who abducted her has turned out to be not as dead as everyone — you most of all — thought. (Well, I suppose he is technically dead, but you get the idea…) He’s murdered the king of your land of Wallachia and stolen the Crimson Crown that gives the king supernatural powers. And so it’s back into action, accompanied this time not only by Sabrina, who has gotten sick of playing the damsel in distress and scored one for female empowerment by learning the art of sorcery, but also her brother, the king-to-be Erik, more the earnest sword-wielding type. You’ll guide this three-headed monster through the entirety of the adventure, mostly doing things yourself but occasionally needing to call upon Sabrina or Erik’s prowess by giving them instructions.

You must contend this time with a zombie, sign of a more modern horror sensibility.

You must contend this time with a zombie, sign of a more modern horror sensibility.

The sequel has most of the same qualities going for it that made the original Transylvania such an old-school favorite of mine. Some of the delicious B-horror-movie atmosphere is absent, with the game this time having a bit more of a conventional fantasy feel; in addition to the vampire, there’s a zombie, a troll, a centaur, and a dragon to contend with this time instead of the werewolf of the original, and much of the second game takes place in what amounts to a typical fantasy dungeon rather than the Gothic landscape of the original. Indeed, Antonio seems to have been playing quite some Dungeons and Dragons at this point in his life; you and your companions are repeatedly referred to as “the party.” And the sequel is in general a bit trickier to solve. But, aside from one horrible choice which we’ll get to momentarily, The Crimson Crown is quite fair and even progressive in its design sensibilities, being notably free of mazes, uselessly empty geography, sudden random deaths, and most other things modern adventurers have come to hate. It even has a handy carry-all to make the inventory limit less onerous, and a “sage” who pops up from time to time to offer little nudges for some of the puzzles and strategic guidance for the game as a whole. Like its predecessor, it smartly works within its technological limitations. The parser, for instance, while not quite state of the art, doesn’t have to be because the game never tries to push it to places it isn’t capable of going — a marked contrast with Telarium, whose games made a habit of being too big for their parser’s britches. Despite these signs of maturity, The Crimson Crown retains its predecessor’s giddy teenage enthusiasm, which remains a big part of its charm. Solving this one is both possible and very, very enjoyable.

One of the occasional graphical flourishes, complete with some delightfully purple prose.

One of the occasional graphical flourishes, complete with some delightfully purple prose.

Except, that is, for the riddles. The Crimson Crown resoundingly fails to put its best foot forward by hitting you almost at the very beginning with four riddles. We’re talking absurdly abstract stuff like this:

I am, I’m not. I visit young and old,
Some I make timid and some I make bold,
Unwise is the one who pokes fun at me.
Beware, for I am a shadow of thee.

The answer to that one is (highlight to reveal) “dream”, and if you solved it you’d best get to playing The Crimson Crown immediately because three more just like it await your powers. As for the rest of you, I actually recommend that you play as well, but don’t spare a moment of thought to the riddles. Here are the other answers: “windmill,” “fear,” and “cloud.” You can download The Crimson Crown in its double-hi-res Apple II incarnation from this very site if you like.

We’ll continue the story of Penguin and of Comprehend in later articles, but next we’re going to turn away from text adventures for a while to look at developments in other genres over this period in North America.

(My thanks to Mark Pelczarski and Antonio Antiochia, whose memories informed this article.)

 
 

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An Alternate Chronicle of Amber

Those of you who’ve read the books will probably most appreciate this alternative version of them, as facilitated by Telarium.

I escape the hospital.

I escape the hospital.

I convince Flora to let me stay with her.

I convince Flora to let me stay with her.

Random arrives, and Flora and I help him to dispatch his pursuers.

Random arrives, and Flora and I help him to dispatch his pursuers.

Random and I begin the journey to Amber.

Random and I begin the journey to Amber.

Julian runs us down.

Julian runs us down.

But we turn the tables on him.

But we turn the tables on him.

We rescue Deirdre from Eric's men.

We rescue Deirdre from Eric’s men.

We part ways with Deirdre and march straight into Amber. A bit of toadying convinces Eric that I accept him as king.

We part ways with Deirdre and march straight into Amber. A bit of groveling convinces Eric that I accept him as king.

I Trump to Deirdre in Rebma and walk the Pattern (via a surprisingly entertaining mini-game).

I Trump to Deirdre in Rebma and walk the Pattern (via a surprisingly entertaining mini-game).

I use the Pattern to transport myself back to Amber.

I use the Pattern to transport myself back to Amber.

I Trump Bleys to me, and together we murder Eric.

I Trump Bleys to me, and together we murder Eric.

But now Bleys turns on me! This will really take some groveling...

But now Bleys turns on me! This will really take some groveling…

I locate Brand in shadow via his Trump, and rescue him from his imprisonment of Bleys's making.

I locate Brand in shadow via his Trump, and rescue him from his imprisonment of Bleys’s making.

We stumble across Benedict. Brand makes overtures which I reject, then leaves.

We stumble across Benedict. Brand makes overtures which I reject, then leaves.

I get a call from Bleys and Brand's former co-conspirator Fiona. We cut a deal of our own.

I get a call from Bleys and Brand’s former co-conspirator Fiona. We cut a deal of our own.

Amber is under attack! I agree to march with Benedict to her defense.

Amber is under attack! I agree to march with Benedict to her defense.

Back in Amber I reveal Bleys and Brand's nefarious schemes, leaving Fiona out of it. After I lead the forces of Amber to victory (doubtless from safely in the rear), most everyone except Bleys and Brand thinks I'm a pretty swell guy. I become king of Amber!

Back in Amber I reveal Bleys and Brand’s nefarious schemes, leaving Fiona out of it. After I lead the forces of Amber to victory (doubtless from safely in the rear), most everyone except Bleys and Brand thinks I’m a pretty swell guy. I become king of Amber!

 

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Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes in Amber

Technological futurists and the people who love them have been talking for some time now about something called the Singularity, that moment in the (near?) future when computing technology will reach some critical mass and change everything forever in ways we can hardly begin to imagine. I’m not so interested in discussing the merits of the idea here, but I do want to say that singularities can take many forms, and to note that the sort of singularities one sees are perhaps more emblematic of one’s own personal hobby horses than some might like to admit. In that spirit, I’d like to propose a singularity of my own, albeit one recently passed rather than oncoming. It landed right about the middle of the 1960s.

To see what I’m talking about, watch a movie or listen to a hit song from 1960 followed by one from 1970. While it may be extreme and rather narcisstic and certainly horridly Western-centric to divide all recent history into pre-1960s and post-1960s, it’s nevertheless hard for me to come up with another instant when everything changed so completely. Films and songs are of course only signifiers of the deeper changes in the culture: changes in gender roles and responsibilities, in race relations, in attitudes toward war and peace and government and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. The 1960s changed the way people talked, the way they dressed, they way they thought in a way far more profound than the mere vicissitudes of fashion. Perhaps most of all, they changed what is still for so many the most uncomfortable of uncomfortable subjects, sex, forever. We’re still dealing with the fallout every day: in the United States, at least, your decision of which party to vote for still has a great deal to do with whether you think all of these changes were in general a good or a bad thing.

Even written science fiction, that literary ghetto which had hitherto marched along blissfully ignoring and being ignored by changes in the larger world of arts and letters, wasn’t insulated from these winds of change. A New Wave of writers poured into — the old guard might, and sometimes did, say “invaded” — the stolid old halls that the pulps had built. These new writers were very different from the old holy trinity of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. They replaced an absolute faith in objectivity and rationalism with a tolerance for ambiguity and an honest curiosity about spirituality, particularly (this being the 1960s) of the Eastern variety. They replaced adventures in outer space with explorations (this again being the 1960s, when psychedelics were everywhere) of inner space. They replaced workmanlike (not to say clunky) prose with literary flights of fancy and experimental structures showing the influence of folks like James Joyce and William S. Burroughs; a surprising number of the New Wave stars were poets in addition to short-story writers or novelists, for God’s sake. They replaced characters that served primarily as grist for the mill of Plot and Idea with real, three-dimensional humans whose subjective experiences were the point of the works in which they featured. American science fiction, like seemingly every other institution in the country, went to war with itself for a time, with John W. Campbell opining on behalf of the Old Guard in the pages of Analog that the Kent State protestors had gotten what they deserved while Michael Moorcock preached anarchism and feminism from his soapbox as editor of New Worlds.

Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny

One of the biggest stars of the New Wave is our real subject for today: the man with the perfect science-fiction writer’s name of Roger Zelazny. He burst onto the scene in the mid-1960s with a series of dazzling short stories and a short novel, This Immortal, which took place on a post-apocalyptic Earth populated by creatures and minor gods from a sort of fever dream of Greek mythology. Then in 1967 he delivered Lord of Light, an audacious transplantation of the Hindu pantheon — if you haven’t realized it already, Zelazny was big on myth — to an interstellar milieu. The structure was as intricate as many a Modernist novel, the language gorgeous. The central character, Mahasamatman (he “called himself Sam”), reminds one in his rebellion against the rest of the pantheon of no one so much as the Satan of Paradise Lost.

Lord of Light deservedly swept science fiction’s two biggest prizes, the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, for its year. Along with a groundbreaking collection of short stories of the same year edited by Harlan Ellison and to which Zelazny also contributed, Dangerous Visions, it’s gone on to stand as perhaps the perfect exemplar of New Wave science fiction and why it mattered — this even though Zelazny himself rejected the label. There was a moment there when Roger Zelazny was accorded the honor amongst a ridiculously strong field of fellow up-and-comers of being just possibly the most promising young writer in science fiction. Lord of Light was great, but, what with Zelazny still so young, many predicted even better things from him once he matured a bit, got beyond just dazzling with the sheer high-wire virtuosity of his language and plots and began to really dig into his worlds and themes.

But somehow that never quite happened. Oh, he continued to be astonishingly prolific, releasing for instance three novels in 1969 alone. His books remained readable; Zelazny was too professional to deliver anything else. Yet, while the reputation of contemporaries like Ursula Le Guin have only soared higher in the years since the heyday of the New Wave, Zelazny gradually found himself banished to the mid-lists, just another competent and salable genre writer. Much of his later work felt kind of forgettable, at its worst even kind of facile. Maybe it was down to an unwillingness to go to the hard places. Certainly it’s hard not to feel that this writer, who throughout his career cranked out novels at the rate of one or two every year along with a steady stream of short stories, might have benefited from just slowing down a bit, from applying all of his enormous energy to a single book for a while.

On the other hand, lots of readers — more than had enjoyed the likes of Lord of Light, actually — liked the later Zelazny, liked his readable, fast-paced novels that weren’t too demanding on either their reader or their writer. Zelazny, for his part, always rejected aspirations to literature in interviews, making it clear that he considered himself simply a working writer whose first consideration must be the financial. Even Lord of Light, he eventually revealed, had some commercial calculation at its base: he made it straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy in order to maximize its readership. Lovers of Zelazny’s early work could at least console themselves that even his most pedestrian novels still showed flashes of the old brilliance. Anyway, there was still plenty of time for him to buckle down and deliver another masterpiece. Until suddenly there wasn’t: he died of colorectal cancer at age 58 in 1995.

The flash point for lovers and haters of newer Zelazny is a series of ten fantasy novels set in a world called Amber. Drawing upon Zelazny’s usual mythical archetypes as well as Platonic philosophy, the Amber series postulates a perfect shining city on a hill, Amber itself, of which all other reality — or realities; infinite alternate universes worth of them — are but imperfect shadows. As one travels outward from Amber the shadows become steadily wilder and stranger, until one arrives at last at Amber’s polar opposite, the Courts of Chaos. The elemental forces of Order and Chaos which Amber and the Courts respectively represent exist in an uneasy symbiotic state — which doesn’t prevent them from constantly trying to get the upper hand on one another. Within Amber lives a royal family of superhumans and apparent immortals. They can communicate with one another and instantly jump to one another’s locations in Amber or in shadow via a set of magical cards, the family Trumps. They can also, albeit more laboriously, visit anywhere in shadow by simply walking — or driving, or riding — there, slowly manipulating and adjusting the reality around them as they go until they arrive at just the place they were looking for. (The early books dwell for some time on the intriguing philosophical question of whether they are visiting lands that always existed in shadow or creating them in their mind’s eye; like much else, however, this question is forgotten in the later books, by which time Amber is conducting trade negotiations with lands in shadow.) Amber’s royal family, consisting of an inconveniently absent father along with nine brothers and four sisters, is riven with far more strife and suspicion than one might expect from a family supposedly representing Order. Upon their various plots rest most of the series’s most compelling plots.

The first five Amber books, later to become known as the “Corwin Cycle,” were published between 1970 and 1978. They tell of the struggles of Prince Corwin of Amber, first against his hated brother Eric for the throne and later against the forces of Chaos who threaten Amber and the very fabric of reality itself. The books proved to be very popular, by far the most popular thing Zelazny had ever written. And so he wrote another five books, the “Merlin Cycle” describing the adventures of Corwin’s son, between 1985 and 1991. Most critics will tell you that the series declines in quality almost linearly, a half-step or so at a time starting right from the second book. The first book, Nine Princes in Amber, while much more straightforwardly written and plotted than the likes of Lord of Light, breathes the old Zelazny magic as we learn about this grandly mysterious multiverse and are introduced one by one to the family of Amber and their Shakespearian intrigues and rivalries. But as the books go on with strangely little differentiation from one to another — it really does feel as if Zelazny would just write the story until he had the 225 pages that was his publisher’s ideal length, then stop for a while — it begins to feel like just a series of long, anecdotal meanderings, particularly by the time we get to the much inferior Merlin Cycle. It’s pretty clear after a certain point in the latter that he’s making it up as he goes along, and apparently forgetting in the process a good part of what he’s already written. As Amber turns from a magical perfection to a mundane place that doesn’t seem all that qualitatively different from any of the shadows, as characters reverse themselves or change personalities entirely to suit Zelazny’s newest plotting whims, as ultimately pointless digressions come to occupy entire books worth of story, the later books manage to retroactively spoil much of what came before. By the time the whole thing sputters to a halt with the most anti-climactic of endings in which Merlin does exactly what he spent the previous several books saying he didn’t want to do, much of the allure of Nine Princes in Amber has long since been ground into dust.

That, anyway, is my attitude today. I should note that 25 years ago when I first read the Amber books I thought they were magnificent, Corwin and even Merlin the most dashing and cool heroes imaginable. Now they seem as often as not like smug, smirking jerks who are nowhere near as clever as they think they are. Merlin in particular, I’ve gradually come to realize, is actually as dumb as a box of rocks; he spends most of his time like the player’s character in a videogame, being manipulated and led by the nose through his foreordained plot by other characters in the story. Still, Amber remains readable even at its worst, even when you know that none of this is really going anywhere in particular; Zelazny knew how to craft a page turner. My wife and I used my omnibus Chronicles of Amber as bedtime reading for several months. By the end we were spending a lot of time making fun of its endless, exhaustively detailed fight scenes, the occasional stabs at free-verse poetry that misfire horribly, the creepy Mary Sue quality to Corwin and Merlin (like them, we weren’t surprised to learn, Zelazny was a fencing aficionado, but presumably beautiful women didn’t all fall swooning before him the way they did for them), and the sheer stupidity of the hapless Merlin, but we did finish all ten books. I suppose that says something. Thomas M. Wagner summed up the Amber series about as charitably as one can on his reviews site: “There’s no point in pretending this is great literature any more than, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but it captures the quintessence of pulp escapism with just about as much purity. It’s fast-paced, gobs of fun, and requires about as many brain cells as an old Johnny Weismuller movie.” That should be good enough. Or it would be if Zelazny hadn’t proved himself capable of so much more. I’ll leave you to come down on whichever side you prefer.

Given its intriguing if not exactly rigorous fantasy milieu as well as the politicking that can make it seem like a fantasical version of Diplomacy, not to mention its considerable popularity at one time, Amber made a compelling setting for ludic narrative. In 1991, Erick Wujcik published the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game, one of several streamlined tabletop RPG systems that appeared around that time with an emphasis on story and texture and, most of all, character interaction; this in contrast to older games like Dungeons and Dragons with their obsession with minutiae and tactical combat. Each player in the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game takes the role of a member of the royal family. If everyone is in the proper Amber spirit, the gamemaster need not say much beyond that; the intrigues and betrayals all blossom naturally. Although it never gained the commercial prominence of fellow second-generation RPGs like White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade, Amber attracted a cult of loyal players who still keep it alive today.

But long before The Diceless Roleplaying Game there was another ludic Amber, this one produced by Telarium for the computer. Like the simultaneously released Perry Mason game, Nine Princes in Amber appeared just as its source material was getting a boost in the form of new installments after a fallow period of some years. In the case of Amber, this material took the form of Trumps of Doom, the first volume in the Merlin Cycle and first Amber novel since the Corwin Cycle had concluded seven years before. Roger Zelazny was happy to cash Telarium’s checks, but otherwise contributed even less to the project than had Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury to their respective games. He did graciously sign his name to a suitable back-of-the-box blurb: “I’m thrilled to see my Amber books become a challenging computer adventure. For anyone interested in exploring contingent paths through my tale, the possibilities here are almost endless.” The actual game, however, is a product of the same committee approach that yielded Perry Mason.

As such things go, it’s at least a very relevant blurb. Like Perry Mason, Nine Princes in Amber is a crazily unusual and ambitious work of interactive fiction. There’s a modest slate of object-oriented puzzles to deal with as well as an elaborate and frustrating fencing simulation that has all the problems typical of randomized combat in text adventures. There’s also a graphics-based mini-game that is, unlike the horrid arcade sequences in earlier Telarium games, actually quite fun to play. Yet the main focus is once again on character interaction. The included verb list is even more far-ranging than that of Perry Mason, including some entrants that have quite possibly never featured in another work of interactive fiction before or since: verbs like “placate,” “flatter,” “mention,” “bluff,” and “stall.” The heart of the game is a series of tense encounters with your various siblings in which you’ll have the opportunity to try out those and many more.

That said, Nine Princes in Amber can at first seem underwhelming. The game seems to play out as a linear series of Reader’s Digest condensed scenes from the first two books, with most of the texture — like, inevitably, that provided by Corwin’s occasional amorous encounters — painfully absent. Do in any given scene what Corwin did in the book, and you get to continue to the next; do something else, and you get killed and see one of the “forty possible final endings” the box copy trumpets. As Jason Compton put it in a review on Lemon 64, gameplay can seem to devolve into, “All right, dammit, I know what Corwin did in the book, so how can I express it in terms the parser will understand?” In comparison to, say, Fahrenheit 451, which used its source novel as a springboard for something entirely new, this can seem depressingly unambitious, not to mention unchallenging for those who have read the books and impossible for those who haven’t.

But then, when you blunder your way at last to the end by trying to recreate the events of the novels as faithfully as possible, you get a shock: the ending you get is not a particularly good one. And so you begin to reexamine and reevaluate, and discover that Nine Princes in Amber is doing — or at at least trying to do — something very audacious. It really is possible to forge your own path through the story, to end up with a set of allies and enemies radically different from those the novel’s Corwin ended up with in his own quest for the kingship of Amber. The claim of forty endings may be a stretch, but it’s possible to reach and win the climactic battle and still see the story branch at least four ways depending on your actions earlier in the game and your relationships with your siblings.

While the Corwin of the novels eventually thinks better of his own ambition to be king, this remains the goal of the Corwin of the game. The game’s universe is even more amoral than that of the novels; not for nothing do you find a copy of The Prince in your sister Flora’s study early in the story. I found I could be most successful by going into full Harry Flashman mode, lying and backstabbing and wheedling my way through events.

There are several choke points through which the narrative will always funnel, whether the player is trying to diverge from the novel or follow its plot exactly. Veterans of the books will recognize them immediately: the Pattern walk in Rebma, the time in the dungeon of Amber, the encounter with Benedict near Avalon, the final battle at the foot of Mount Kolvir. In between, the narrative can branch off in many directions. (This certain amount of linearity is necessary not least because the game is distributed on four disk sides for the Apple II and Commodore 64; the amount of disk flipping required would otherwise be horrendous.) Impressively, the reasons you arrive at the various choke points can be very different, and the relationships you’ve built or failed to build are preserved as you pass through them. In this sense of making all the pieces fit while preserving the player’s freedom, Nine Princes in Amber is one hell of an intricate piece of design.

Indeed, the game is in its way an amazing achievement. I know of no other text adventure from its era — and, come to think of it, possibly of any other — that offers this level of choice over not just the beats of the story or the order in which puzzles are solved but of the very direction of such a grand narrative. Yet it’s also often a pain to play, thanks as usual to that problematic Telarium parser. It’s nice that the game offers verbs like “placate,” but most of the time, even in conversations, most of these clever verbs do nothing; worse, it’s often hard to figure out whether any given verb is doing anything or not. Nine Princes in Amber has, in other words, all of the same problems as Perry Mason. If anything, they’re even more pronounced here.

After thinking about it a bit, I began to feel that even if its parser was much better something would still be off about the game. Many commands that do work are absurdly wide in scope and open to interpretation, sometimes causing hours or weeks to pass in the story: “walk in shadow,” “go to Brand” “attack Amber.” Then it struck me: Nine Princes in Amber is really a choice-based narrative that’s been saddled with the wrong interface. Parsers are very good for complex but granular manipulations. Parser-based games are excellent tools for exploring geographical spaces and manipulating their contents, but not so good for exploring story spaces, for manipulating the narrative itself as does the player of Nine Princes in Amber. As Sam Kabo Ashwell wrote in his great series of articles about Choose Your Own Adventure books and other gamebooks (many of a vintage similar to this game), “CYOA is where you go when you want to prioritise free-flowing, bigger-scale narrative over deep or difficult interaction.” These are indeed the priorities of Nine Princes in Amber. The parser in this context only obfuscates what should be a delightful garden of forking paths. It leaves you constantly poking at unrewarding blind alleys that don’t work simply because that’s not one of the ways the plot is allowed to branch right now.

But imagine Nine Princes in Amber as a hypertext narrative with some limited state tracking and it all falls into place. One could create a node diagram like those Ashwell created for his articles if one was willing to spend enough time plumbing the game’s depths. This isn’t the first time I’ve observed such a disconnect between interface and content; I once went so far as to re-implement one of Robert Lafore’s pioneering experiments in ludic narrative as a choice-based game to prove a similar point. I won’t do the same here, although it is tempting; copyright concerns as well as the vastly greater complexity of the Telarium game prevent me. You’ll have to accept my word that this game would work perfectly well in any of the several viable modern hypertext-narrative engines.

So, chalk up Nine Princes in Amber as — stop me if you’ve heard this before — one more noble Telarium experiment that doesn’t really work as a playable game. Still, like Perry Mason, it’s worth some of your time just to marvel at its ambitions. Failures are after all often more instructive than successes. To experience Nine Princes in Amber, an interesting blend of both, feel free to download the Commodore 64 version here.

 
 

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Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder

Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder

When they announced the first Telarium games to considerable press fanfare in 1984, Spinnaker Software promised that they would represent not just a new line of adventure games but a whole new approach to interactive fiction that would take the form beyond what even Infocom had so far achieved. The new Telarium philosophy was expressed in interviews by PR mastermind Seth Godin:

The adventure-game market has been pretty much the same since 1976, when the first adventure game came out. That is, they’ve been puzzle-based games, be they text or graphics — they’ve always been based on a series of logic puzzles.

We’re trying to make a game that is based on plot and characterization, not puzzles — the way a book is. If you read Fahrenheit 451, you don’t get stuck on page 50. And if you play the game, you don’t get stuck on frame 50, because the whole idea is that you’re interested in the game because of the characters and the plot and what’s happening. You care about what’s going on.

In short, Telarium promised to “replace puzzles with character-oriented situations.”

Anyone who had been working with adventure games for a while and thus knew what a difficult proposition that was had their skepticism amply justified when the first slate of Telarium games actually appeared near the end of the year. Rendezvous with Rama was, predictably enough given its almost bizarrely adventure-game-like source novel, exactly the “collection of logic puzzles” set in a deserted landscape that Godin had said Telarium wasn’t interested in making. Fahrenheit 451, Dragonworld, and Amazon all played out in more populated worlds, but used their non-player characters as window dressing or, at best, puzzle solutions and password vending machines. And thanks largely to a parser that was truculent even by the standards of the era, Fahrenheit 451 in particular was full of exactly the sort of opportunities to get infuriatingly “stuck on frame 50″ that Godin had promised wouldn’t be there. The games just didn’t live up to the hype.

All of which made the next two releases in the line, which trickled out almost a year after that initial glut, doubly surprising. Both Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder and Nine Princes in Amber try much more earnestly to do the sorts of things that Godin had been talking about all along. Indeed, their character-interaction ambitions and determination to turn the adventure game into genuine interactive fiction exceed even Infocom’s farthest voyages into those fraught realms. Mind you, their ambitions don’t reach anything close to fulfillment, and can be read as an object lesson in the reasons that Infocom chose to shy away from similar projects in the name of crafting playable games. Still, their determination to push the boundaries make them if nothing else some of the most interesting games of their era.

These games can also serve as an object lesson in just how quickly the times can change. By the time they appeared ominous warning signs had turned into a full-blown home-computer-industry slump from which nothing suffered more than the nascent phenomenon of bookware. Perhaps due to the disappointing sales of that initial slate of games (from which, only and oddly, Michael Crichton’s Amazon was excepted), Byron Preiss and his team of talented young writers and illustrators had parted company with Spinnaker, taking with them an apparently all but complete game based on Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones as well as deals in the works with the likes of Philip José Farmer and Alfred Bester. Undaunted, Spinnaker took creative as well as technical ownership of Perry Mason and Nine Princes in Amber in-house; both games are products of committees, including in the case of Perry Mason no fewer than four people — among them the irrepressible Mr. Godin — writing the “scripts.” Whatever the usual merits of such an approach, in this case it results in no noticeable drop-off in quality or ambition. Whatever else you can say about them, these games are no camels.

Erle Stanley Gardner

The original creator of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner, can stand proudly alongside Dennis Wheatley as one of the great bad writers of the twentieth century, his life story a monument to sheer dogged persistence more so than any innate talent. A rather abrasive personality cut in the classic can-do American mold, he passed the bar and became a lawyer in 1911 without ever darkening the door of a law school. He turned to writing action, adventure, detective, and science fiction with the arrival of the pulps in the 1920s. Showing the commitment with which he approached everything he attempted, he forced himself to churn out 4000 words per night, 1.2 million per year. He was unashamed of his motivations: “I write to make money, and I write to give the reader sheer fun.” When questioned why his heroes always seemed to finish off the bad guy at last with the last bullet in their guns, Gardner said, “At three cents a word, every time I say ‘Bang’ in the story I get three cents. If you think I’m going to finish the gun battle while my hero still has fifteen cents worth of unexploded ammunition in his gun, you’re nuts.”

Once his finances allowed, Gardner further refined his approach to writing, hiring as many as six secretaries to whom he dictated outlines of his stories for completion and polishing; this literary assembly line earned him the sobriquet “the Henry Ford of detective fiction.” By the time of his death in 1970 his oeuvre was so huge and published in such diverse and often ephemeral places as to be virtually uncatalogable. It includes at least 150 novels, at least 500 short stories, a significant body of nonfiction writing (largely on travel and history) for the glossy magazines, radio and television scripts. His sales in his heyday were equally enormous: at one time the Guinness Book of World’s Records could name him nothing less than the best selling writer of all time.

For all that productivity, Gardner would be regarded, like Wheatley, as little more than an historical curiosity today were it not for a single member of his large stable of lawyers, private eyes, and adventurers: Perry Mason. The redoubtable lawyer first appeared in 1933 as the star of the novel The Case of the Velvet Claws. That version of Mason was created in the hard-boiled image of Sam Spade: a two-fisted brawler who’s all about the money his services will earn him and isn’t afraid to resort to blackmail to achieve his ends. But as time passed and Gardner and Mason made the transition from the rough-and-tumble world of the pulps to the more genteel environs of the Saturday Evening Post, Gardner’s Mason gradually softened into something in at least the same zip code as the glibly savvy do-gooder soon to become a fixture of American television.

In the years before that star-making turn by Raymond Burr, Perry Mason was adapted many times into other media, including a string of low-budget movies and a long-running radio serial. Like the novels themselves, all are largely forgotten today, along with the many actors who portrayed Mason in them. But when Gardner saw Burr audition for the television version in 1957, he just knew he’d found his man at last: “Raymond Burr is Perry Mason!” he declared. Aside from a brief, ill-considered stab at the role by Monte Markham in 1973, no one but Burr would ever dare play Perry Mason again.

Burr’s Mason became one of the most enduring characters in the history of television, lasting through not only the original series’s staggering 9-year, 271-episode run (they cranked ‘em out quick in those days) but also a series of 26 well-received television specials broadcast between 1985 and Burr’s death in 1993. He remains a fixture of daytime syndication schedules today, his theme song still immediately identifiable as soon as it comes over the airwaves (or cable line, or Internet…). The televised version of Mason came to entirely supersede his print counterpart, to the extent that even many loyal viewers of the television series then and now don’t realize that there ever was a Perry Mason before Raymond Burr.

Which brings us back to Telarium’s adaptation. Telarium was of course supposed to be a line of book adaptations. Spinnaker had already demonstrated what contortions they would go through to uphold the bookware concept with Shadowkeep, for which they hired Alan Dean Foster to write an inconveniently absent source novel. Still, no one in 1985 was interested in playing a game based on Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, which had largely fallen out of print and into obscurity following his death in 1970. So what we have is a hybrid that dully plays homage to the bookware concept by featuring the name of Erle Stanley Gardner prominently on the cover along with a nice “about the author” blurb to describe him, but which is otherwise an unabashed re-creation of the television version. This Mason is clearly Burr’s Mason. Not only does he feature on the package cover, but his colleagues and opponents in the in-game illustrations are perfect likenesses of the actors who portrayed them on television. The game even opens with a computerized rendering of that iconic theme song.

For obvious reasons, the polite fiction that the authors of the Telarium source materials were all intimately involved with their adaptations is here quietly but definitively dispensed with. This is a licensing deal, pure and simple, with the Gardner estate’s Paisano Productions holding company also getting its name on the box, albeit in the copyright fine print. The timing must have seemed perfect to both Spinnaker and Paisano: Perry Mason’s star was suddenly rising in the wider culture, thanks to the first of that series of television revivals that brought him back to prime time for the first time in many years just as the game was being published.

The game’s case could have fit easily into either the television show or one of Gardner’s books. Your client, one Laura Kapp, was apprehended by the police in an insentient state in her apartment with a gun lying just a few feet away — the same gun, in fact, that killed her husband Victor, who was found lying across the room. It seems that Laura was just released from a mental hospital and was extremely jealous as well as unstable, and for good reason: it appears that Victor was conducting at least one affair in her absence. Open-and-shut case, right? Anyone who says yes has never seen an episode of Perry Mason; the fellow amassed a final record of 268 to 3 (with one defeat later overturned on appeal) on television getting clients out of equally tough spots.

But if The Case of the Mandarin Murder is a fairly typical episode of Perry Mason, it’s a very atypical adventure game, minimizing or dispensing entirely with some of the most established conventions of the genre, among them object-oriented puzzles, mapping and (geographical) exploration, even compass directions. The first part of the game, during which you search the Kapp apartment for clues under the watchful eyes of the police, is the most traditional. But that is only a prelude to the real meat of the experience, which plays out as a series of examinations and cross-examinations in the courtroom. Just as in the television show, you’ll need to direct your faithful colleagues Paul Drake and Della Street to follow up the leads that emerge in the apartment and over the course of the trial; they’ll often be running in to give you vital information in the very nick of time. Also present are Mason’s usual long-suffering foils, Police Lieutenant Arthur Tragg and District Attorney Hamilton Burger (one can’t help but wonder, given his record against Mason alone in the most open-and-shut of cases, how the latter in particular manages to keep his job). And then there are of course this episode’s guest stars and potential suspects, in the form of Laura herself along with the mysterious femme fatale with whom Victor was supposedly conducting his affair, Victor’s business partner and said partner’s wife, a restaurant critic with a grudge, and a doorman with a shady past. The trial can go in many different directions, with various final outcomes possible. It’s not that hard to amass enough evidence and cast doubt on enough testimony to gain a hung jury or even an acquittal for Laura. But to unmask the real culprit and force a patented Perry Mason confession amidst a hail of tears and recriminations… aye, there’s the rub, for both the right and the wrong reasons.

If you read my articles about the earlier Telarium games (or, better yet, if you’ve played any of them), you may be wondering how Telarium’s problematic parser fares in a production as dependent on character interaction as this one. The answer is, slightly better than you might think, but still nowhere near well enough. It’s not that the folks at Spinnaker, perhaps still stinging from criticisms of the parsing in those earlier games, weren’t aware of the challenge. Why else would they include in the package an elaborate and really quite clever “Mandarin Menu” which includes not only a vocabulary list but also a sentence-building chart for phrasing your interrogations?

Perry Mason's sentence-building menu

Still, it doesn’t work out all that well. Many queries, including plenty that seem to comply perfectly well with the chart, fall flat. It’s just way too hard to figure out how the game wants you to phrase things, what keywords — and remember we’re dealing here with lots of abstract subjects like feelings and affairs and alibis — it wants from you to trigger a response in a witness. Combine that with the stubborn lack of feedback typical of the Telarium parser, and you end up with a feeling all too common in interactive fiction, that of never being sure whether a given line of questioning is really unproductive or whether you’re just not phrasing things correctly. In other words, is this witness shaking his head at you for diegetic reasons, because his answer is really no, or is he doing it because the extra-diegetic parser doesn’t understand you? To further complicate matters, you’re constantly being graded by the jury on your competence, confidence and flair for courtroom drama. As soon as you start to bumble and stumble around up there the game is up. Thus playing becomes a matter of experimenting on each witness to figure out what she can understand and what you can get from her, then restoring to play the polished and all but omniscient Mr. Mason we know from television.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder

Another problem is more subtle than the war with the parser. The solution to the case, when it finally emerges, is convoluted and, well, pretty much ridiculous — hardly an anomaly in the world of Perry Mason. The problem in the context of a Perry Mason game, however, is that it’s effectively impossible for you to ever arrive at it until the guilty party breaks down and confesses. With no real hard evidence pointing to that guilty party, you’re largely left to just hammer on everyone until somebody finally cracks. You’re rather left in the position of the would-be know-it-all detective in Simon Christiansen’s modern interactive fiction Death Off the Cuff. Yet whereas that game knows what it’s doing and, indeed, is meant as a send-up of absurdly omniscent detectives just like Perry Mason, this game is not so knowing. Believe me when I say that the solution totally comes out of left field — and is totally stupid at that.

Another thing about the case, not so much annoying as just strange: while Victor was a prominent restauranter, nothing “Mandarin” has any real bearing on the case. The subtitle is apparently a reference to the restaurant Victor was planning to open next, but said restaurant isn’t germane to much of anything about the actual murder. About the best thing you can say about it is that it allows for that neat “Mandarin Menu” of sentence composition, a sort of backdoor homage to the hacker’s traditional love for Chinese food. (The subtitle could also be taken as an advertent or inadvertent homage to Gardner himself, who built his early law practice defending the rights of Chinese immigrants. He remained fascinated by China throughout his life, visiting the country several times and allegedly building up a passable proficiency in Cantonese, no mean feat for a Westerner.)

So, no, The Case of the Mandarin Murder doesn’t entirely work as game or as courtroom drama. Yet it’s nonetheless kind of fascinating for what it tries to do as well as for the way it tries to do it. Although it sprawls across the four disk sides typical of all the Telarium games, a single playthrough is unlikely to take much more than two hours (or maybe three if you play the Commodore 64 version I’m making available for download here, what with that machine’s painfully slow disk access). It’s implemented in depth rather than breadth, loaded with details to be uncovered and secrets to be discovered. Sure, some of the Easter eggs are just silly; the dumbest plays on the fact that one of the characters is named Julian, same as a character in Telarium’s contemporanous Nine Princes in Amber game.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder

But that sort of silliness is more the exception than the norm. Better are the moments here and there when the parser does understand you for a few turns at a stretch and you really do feel like Perry Mason up there jabbing and feinting at the witness and playing it up for the jury. Those moments, if not quite enough to make it worthy of an unabashed recommendation, are more than enough to make me toast its ludic dreams and ambitions nobly striven after if ultimately unfulfilled.

(Sorry for the long delay between posts, as well as this site’s going offline for a day or two recently. My mother suddenly and unexpectedly died, which led to lots of emotional turbulence and a frenzied trip back to America. In the midst of all that I neglected to renew my domain registration. Things will hopefully now be settling back into a normal rhythm.

Sources on Telarium this time out were pretty much the usual referenced in previous articles, especially the December 1984 Compute!’s Gazette and the June/July 1985 Commodore Power Play. A couple of interesting summaries among many of Erle Stanley Gardner’s life and career can be found at Thrilling Detective and at the website of his long-term home town of Temecula, California. And thanks as always to C. David Seuss for sharing some of his memories and some valuable resources from the glory days of Spinnaker Software.)

 

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Spellbreaker

Spellbreaker

As Infocom settled into their middle and latter period, their game releases also settled into a fairly predictable pattern that tried to balance innovation with traditionalism. Steve Meretzky:

The hardcore gamers, the people who liked Zork and just wanted more like Zork from Infocom, they were always made unhappy by [games like] A Mind Forever Voyaging or Plundered Hearts or Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. Anything that we did that was moving in a different direction or in any way experimental, they would always squawk. So the company’s plan was basically to try to do some of each, to always do a game or two every year that would be the “red meat” for those original hardcore players, and then to try to innovate with some of the other games each year.

Our subject for today, Spellbreaker, was the long-awaited third game in the Enchanter trilogy as well as Infocom’s most blatant of all bits of pandering to these traditionalists, who made up a much larger percentage of the company’s fan base than Infocom’s modern reputation for relentless innovation and dedication to the literary aspects of the humble text adventure might seem to imply. An “Expert” level game, it was explicitly created by Dave Lebling as a response to the carping of the hardcore of the hardcore that Infocom’s games had been getting much too easy since the days of Zork. “You want a diamond-hard, traditional puzzlefest?” Infocom asked. “Fine, we’ll give you a diamond-hard, traditional puzzlefest!” Coming out just weeks after the radical departure that was A Mind Forever Voyaging, Spellbreaker could almost be read as an apology to the hardcore for that namby-pamby, touchy-feely effort.

That said, it should also be noted that the concerns about creeping easiness, engendered by an ever more thorough testing process and the thoroughgoing sense of fair play that was always one of Infocom’s noblest traits, were not confined to fans outside the company. Meretzky himself, the perpetrator of A Mind Forever Voyaging, has noted that he also felt concerned as time wore on that at least certain types of Infocom games were losing some of their core appeal, that the struggle and sweat of the Zork games, the compulsion to jump out of bed in the middle of the night to test out some crazy action that just might solve a heretofore intractable puzzle, was the very thing that drew many people to them. Spellbreaker would be Infocom’s attempt to rekindle the masochistic joy of Zork.

There’s always a tendency in all forms of criticism to fetishize innovation over virtually everything else; music critics, for instance, will always favor the Clash, who morphed and relentlessly experimented and soon collapsed under the sheer weight of their artistic ambitions, over their punk-era counterparts Stiff Little Fingers, who have just continued to do what they’re good at for decades. It’s an understandable and even defensible impulse, but I also have to confess that, just as I’m more likely to pull out Stiff Little Fingers’s Go For It! than any Clash album, if you asked me which game among A Mind Forever Voyaging and Spellbreaker I most enjoy just playing every five to ten years, I’d have to name Spellbreaker. Spellbreaker is as constrained a design as A Mind Forever Voyaging is boundary-shattering: constrained by its need to please the puzzle-hungry hardcore, by its need to fit in with the two previous games of the Enchanter trilogy and continue with their spell-based puzzle mechanics and Zorkian fantasy premises. But it’s also an absolutely brilliant specimen of traditionalist adventure gaming, one of the best, tightest examples of pure game design Infocom ever crafted.

As old school as its sensibilities may appear in comparison to its immediate predecessor, Spellbreaker is not devoid of theoretical or historical interest. Far from it. In its quiet way, it asserts a profoundly important idea for the craft of adventure-game design: that fairness and difficulty are two independent scales. If virtually any of Infocom’s contemporaries decided to make a self-consciously difficult game like Spellbreaker, they would have simply filled it with punishing mazes and riddles and guess-the-verb problems and inscrutable puzzles dependent on unmotivated actions. We know this because that’s exactly what they did, over and over again. (For instance, have a look at Scott Adams’s two-part alleged brain-burner Savage Island for everything not to do in an adventure game in one convenient place). Certain designers never could seem to separate fairness from difficulty in their minds. (I can’t help but think of Anita Sinclair, who pronounced on the eve of Magnetic Scrolls’s second release Guild of Thieves that this would be an “easier” game. Actually, no, it turned out to be a very hard game — just one that wasn’t blatantly, repeatedly unfair like its predecessor The Pawn.) Many fans still have trouble with the concept today; I get occasional emails in response to my coverage of notable offenders like Roberta Williams’s The Wizard and the Princess and Time Zone asking why I’m so hard on “difficult” games, forcing me to respond that, no, I’m actually only hard on unfair games. One could advance a fairly compelling argument that the failure of the adventure-game industry at large to grasp this distinction played a big part in the commercial death of the text adventure — how many veteran gamers still remember the form largely for mazes, guess-the-verb, and illogical puzzles? — as well as the longstanding commercial doldrums of graphical adventures, what with their pixel hunts and click-everywhere-and-use-everything-on-everything-else-until-something-happens model of game design.

Spellbreaker is very tough, but it’s also downright noble in its commitment to fairness. There is, if you’ll pardon me, no bullshit here, none of the cheap tricks, designed and implemented in less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, that designers have so often used to artificially lengthen games and make players pull their hair out. You don’t even need to draw a map to play Spellbreaker — but never fear, you will likely want pen and paper to sketch and plan and diagram a long series of tantalizing puzzles that have been lovingly crafted over days and weeks. In my book, that’s the way a game like this ought to be. Spellbreaker is a veritable capsule history of adventure-game puzzles (the good ones, that is): intricate pure spatial and mathematical puzzles like those so common in the Phoenix games; clever object-application puzzles; logistical puzzles requiring long-term planning; the best and most satisfying application yet of the spell system invented for Enchanter; the latest and greatest and most intricate in an ongoing series of Infocom time-travel puzzles; even a social-interaction puzzle to keep you on your toes. And there are lots and lots of them. While it runs under the standard 128 K Z-Machine, Spellbreaker stuffs it right to its limit, and will take quite some hours to complete. There are one or two puzzles that I might wish had been a bit less difficult — most notably a certain puzzle that takes place in a lava field and hinges on a property of a certain little box that you’re unlikely to discover until you really have exhausted every possibility for experimentation — but none that I can label truly unfair if we’re willing to give the game a free pass on Graham Nelson’s prohibitions against the occasional need for knowledge of future events and knowledge gained from dying. The key thing is that you can trust Spellbreaker as you try to beat it, can trust that the solution to the puzzle on which you’re currently working can be arrived at through observation and deduction rather than being some random phrase to be typed or senseless action to perform. I can’t emphasize enough what a difference this trust — or, perhaps better said, its absence in so many other games — makes for the player’s experience.

The plot is obviously not the first priority for either player or writer of a game like this, but Spellbreaker‘s is in some ways more interesting than it ought to be. Having averted two previous disasters in Enchanter and Sorcerer, you’ve been elevated to head of the Circle of Enchanters. But now suddenly magic itself has begun to fail throughout the realm. The game opens at a conclave of Guildmasters that has been called to address the problem. Lebling was along with Brian Moriarty and perhaps Jeff O’Neall the best crafter of prose amongst all the Imps, and his writing is particularly good here, sparkling with subtle wit.

Sneffle of the Guild of Bakers is addressing the gathering. "Do you know what this is doing to our business? Do you know how difficult it is to make those yummy butter pastries by hand? When a simple 'gloth' spell would fold the dough 83 times it was possible to make a profit, but now 'gloth' hardly works, and when it does, it usually folds the dough too often and the butter melts, or it doesn't come out the right size, or..." He stops, apparently overwhelmed by the prospect of a world where the pastries have to be hand-made. "Can't you do anything about this? You're supposed to know all about magic!"

Hoobly of the Guild of Brewers stands, gesturing at the floury baker. "You don't know what trouble is! Lately, what comes out of the vats, like as not, is cherry flavored or worse. The last vat, I swear it, tasted as if grues had been bathing in it. It takes magic to turn weird vegetables and water into good Borphee beer. Well, without magic, there isn't going to be any beer!" This statement has a profound effect on portions of the crowd. You can hear rumblings from the back concerning Enchanters. The word "traitors" rises out of nowhere. Your fellow Enchanters are looking at one another nervously.

Then everyone except for you is abruptly turned into some variety of small amphibian, and your adventure truly begins. Ah, well, what did a committee hearing ever accomplish anyway?

You find yourself pursuing a mysterious antagonist — obviously the source of the magical disruptions — through a whole series of interlinked scenic vignettes, most no more than a few rooms in size (thus the lack of the need for mapping), which you reach by casting the Blorple spell (“explore an object’s mystic connections”) on a series of magical cubes you find. The acquisition of more of these cubes, representing as each does the next waypoint in a grand chase across time and space, turns out to be the main goal of most of the scenes you visit.

While certain aspects of Spellbreaker, like a group of wandering boulders on which you have to hitch a ride at one point, suggest that Lebling may have been reading Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels (as it happens, a subject we’ll get to very soon in another article), the most marked literary influence is Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, a great favorite of Lebling’s. Like the young wizard Ged, the protagonist of Spellbreaker realizes at the story’s climax that the shadowy being against whom he has been struggling is in fact a shadow of himself. The discovery is followed by Spellbreaker‘s ambiguously profound coda.

The shadow, now as solid as a real person, performs a back flip into the tesseract. "No!" It screams. "Stop! Fool, you've destroyed me! You've destroyed magic itself! All my lovely plans!" Now glowing as brightly as the construction it made, the figure approaches the center. It grows smaller and smaller, and just before it disappears, the hypercube vanishes with a pop, and the "magic" cube melts in your hand like an ice cube.

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

Your score is 600 of a possible 600, in 835 moves. This puts you in the class of Scientist.

As with so much of Brian Moriarty’s best work, Spellbreaker‘s ending makes more mythic than literal sense. It seems our efforts have only led to the end of the Age of Magic and the beginning of the Age of Science. You can read this in many ways — personal and public, negative and positive. You can cast it as the proverbial setting aside of childish things (while hopefully still leaving space for the occasional computer game), marching into a future of adulthood and responsibility with clear eyes. You can cast it in a melancholy light, as the loss of, well, magic in a modern world where everything is already explored and mapped and monitored. Or you can, as I prefer, cast it as the dawning of a better age free of the prejudices and superstitious dependencies of the past. Any way you cast it, to my mind this textual Rorschach test is one of the strongest endings in the Infocom canon; the contrast of “Scientist” with your penultimate title of “Archimage” is bracing and surprising in all the right ways.

That, then, is Spellbreaker, and a thoroughly admirable effort it is. But I couldn’t conclude this article without also describing the great Spellbreaker vs. Mage feud of 1985, an internal struggle so pitched that it still prompts sheepish half-grins and slight discomfort amongst the principal antagonists, Mike Dornbrook and Dave Lebling, today.

Almost from the point he first accepted the assignment to finish out the Enchanter trilogy, Lebling had planned to call his game Mage. It not only gave the names in the trilogy a nice consonance, what with all being synonyms for a wizard or magic user, but also implied a progression of increasing magical potency. When Dornbrook’s marketing people did some impromptu person-on-the-street questioning, however, they discovered a dismaying fact: most people had never heard the word “mage” and had no idea how to pronounce it. Most opted for either something that rhymed with “badge” or a vaguely French pronunciation, like the second syllable in “garage.” The package designers were also concerned that the name was just too short and bland-looking, that it wouldn’t “pop” like it needed to on a store shelf. So Dornbrook went back to Lebling to tell him that the name just wasn’t going to work; they’d have to come up with another.

This in itself wasn’t all that unusual; games like Wishbringer, which had the perfect name almost from the beginning and kept it until release, were more the exception than the rule at Infocom. Most of the time the Imp responsible realized that his title was less than ideal and was willing to accept alternatives. That, however, was not the case this time. Lebling got his back up, determined that his game would be Mage and only Mage. Dornbrook got his up in response, and a lengthy struggle ensued. The other Imps and the other marketers fell in behind their respective standard bearers, leaving poor Jon Palace caught in the middle trying to broker some sort of compromise for a situation which didn’t really seem to allow for one; after all, in the end the game would either be called Mage or it wouldn’t.

From the perspective of today, the most interesting thing about this whole situation is the fact that so many people didn’t know the word “mage” in the first place. It really serves to highlight how much fantasy (nerd?) culture has penetrated the mainstream in this post-Peter Jackson, post-Harry Potter, post-World of Warcraft world in which we live. In 1985 Lebling’s strongest argument against marketing’s findings, one which strikes me as entirely reasonable, was that Dornbrook and company had simply been polling the wrong people. While the average person on the street may not have known the word “mage,” those likely to be interested in the third game of a fantasy trilogy explicitly pitched toward Infocom’s most hardcore fans almost certainly did. As for the aforementioned person on the street, she wasn’t likely to buy the game no matter what it was called.

As usual with such spats inside any relationship, there was actually a lot going on here beyond the ostensible bone of contention. Dornbrook had been frustrated for years already by what he saw as the Imps’ refusal to properly leverage the most valuable marketing tool at their disposal, the name Zork itself. Back in the company’s earliest days, when he had founded the Zork Users Group, he had simply assumed that Infocom would stamp the Zork brand on everything that would hold still for long enough.

It [the game that became Deadline] would have been Zork: The Mystery, etc. I thought that made sense at the time. We had this incredibly strong brand name. To me they were just going to be Zorks. We were going to own a word like “aspirin.” The name for a text adventure was going to be a Zork, and we were going to own that. But a decision was made while I was in business school and not contributing to the decision-making that we didn’t want to go down that path.

Dornbrook’s frustrations were made worse by 1983′s Enchanter, which everyone had assumed would be Zork IV until very shortly before its release, when Lebling and his coauthor Marc Blank suddenly announced that they didn’t want to be “typecast” by forever doing Zorks. Dornbrook tried fruitlessly to explain that, while it might not make sense that people would buy a game if it was called Zork but not if it was called Enchanter, that was just the way that branding worked. Observing how each game in the new trilogy sold fewer copies than the Zork games had and, even more dismayingly, fewer copies than its immediate predecessor, Dornbrook was soon convinced that the company had sacrificed tens or even hundreds of thousands of sales to the Imps’ effete artistic sensibilities.

I felt that marketing needed to be a little more respected, and if we had a strong feeling about something they [the Imps] shouldn’t just… I mean, the game developers, I got along very well and respected them, but there was a bit of, um… they were a little too full of themselves. A little too self-important. A little too, at times, megalomaniacal. Okay, that’s too strong a word… but it was frustrating sometimes from just a business standpoint. They kind of positioned themselves as, “We’re above all that! We’re artists!” Sometimes it seemed a little too precious.

As the 1980s wore on, Dornbrook couldn’t help but compare Infocom to competitors like Origin Systems and Sierra, who unabashedly milked their flagship brands — Ultima and King’s Quest respectively — for all they were worth via an open-ended series of numbered sequels, and, not coincidentally he believed, by mid-decade and beyond were selling far more games than Infocom. Dornbrook now saw a convenient opportunity to force through a mid-course correction of sorts. He thought about how Enchanter still had the internal inventory code of “Z4″ at Infocom, Sorcerer and Lebling’s new game “Z5″ and “Z6″ respectively.

There was a time later on when I came back and seriously suggested, when there was the big fight over Mage vs. Spellbreaker, why don’t we just call it Zork VI? “You can’t do that! What about Zork IV and V?” I said, “Won’t that create a whole bunch of great questions? Maybe it will help sell Enchanter and Sorcerer if they finally realize, oh, those were Zork IV and V.” I never won that argument.

So Dornbrook still didn’t get his Zork; Lebling, who admits he was “terribly exercised” over the whole situation, wasn’t going to allow him that satisfaction, although he does concede it to have been an interesting idea worth considering today. But Lebling didn’t get his Mage either. The game shipped as another suggestion of Dornbrook’s people, Spellbreaker — not a half-bad name in my book, for what it’s worth. Lebling, however, wasn’t pleased at all, and indulged in an uncharacteristic final bit of sour-grapesmanship by sneaking a new routine into the final version that caused it to call itself Mage in the title line about one time out of every hundred.

Spellbreaker

The worrisome downward sales trend that Dornbrook had spotted wasn’t halted by Spellbreaker. Like its predecessor A Mind Forever Voyaging, it sold only about 30,000 copies, making these latest games the two least successful Infocom had so far released. There were obvious reasons for the low sales of each attributable to it specifically rather than Infocom’s position in the market as a whole — A Mind Forever Voyaging was highly experimental and required a fairly powerful computer to run, while Spellbreaker was unlikely to appeal to anyone who wasn’t already a hardcore Infocom fan who had already played Enchanter and Sorcerer — but, well, let’s just say that Dornbrook and everyone else had good reason to be worried.

But such external concerns needn’t distract us from playing and enjoying Spellbreaker today. It’s certainly not the place to start with Infocom, but when you’re ready for it it will be there waiting for you. It really is a masterful piece of game design, and even offers some lovely writing as well. It just might be Dave Lebling’s finest hour — and considering that Lebling also co-wrote Enchanter (and considering how much this critic loves that game as well) that’s really saying something.

(Most of the information here is, again, drawn from Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interview archives. The insight about A Wizard of Earthsea‘s influence on Spellbreaker I owe to an eight-year-old email exchange with Graham Nelson — to whom I also owe thanks just for getting me to read that book.)

 

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