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Loom (or, how Brian Moriarty Proved That Less is Sometimes More)

In April of 1988, Brian Moriarty of Infocom flew from the East Coast to the West to attend the twelfth West Coast Computer Faire and the first ever Computer Game Developers Conference. Hard-pressed from below by the slowing sales of their text adventures and from above by parent company Activision’s ever more demanding management, Infocom didn’t have the money to pay for Moriarty’s trip. He therefore had to go on his own dime, a situation which left him, as he would later put it, very “grumpy” about the prospect of his ongoing employment by the very company at which he had worked so desperately to win a spot just a few years before.

The first West Coast Computer Faire back in 1977 had hosted the public unveiling of the Apple II and the Commodore PET, thus going down in hacker lore as the moment when the PC industry was truly born. By 1988, the Faire wasn’t the hugely important gathering it once had been, having been largely superseded on the industry’s calendar by glitzier events like the Consumer Electronics Show. Nevertheless, its schedule had its interesting entries, among them a lecture by Chris Crawford, the founder of the Computer Game Developers Conference which Moriarty would attend the next day. Moriarty recalls showing up a little late to Crawford’s lecture, scanning the room, and seeing just one chair free, oddly on the first row. He rushed over to take it, and soon struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to him, whom he had never met before that day. As fate would have it, his neighbor’s name was Noah Falstein, and he worked for Lucasfilm Games.

Attendees to the first ever Computer Game Developers Conference. Brian Moriarty is in the reddish tee-shirt at center rear, looking cool in his rock-star shades.

Falstein knew and admired Moriarty’s work for Infocom, and knew likewise, as did everyone in the industry, that things hadn’t been going so well back in Cambridge for some time now. His own Lucasfilm Games was in the opposite position. After having struggled since their founding back in 1982 to carve out an identity for themselves under the shadow of George Lucas’s Star Wars empire, by 1988 they finally had the feeling of a company on the rise. With Maniac Mansion, their big hit of the previous year, Falstein and his colleagues seemed to have found in point-and-click graphical adventures a niche that was both artistically satisfying and commercially rewarding. They were already hard at work on the follow-up to Maniac Mansion, and Lucasfilm Games’s management had given the go-ahead to look for an experienced adventure-game designer to help them make more games. As one of Infocom’s most respected designers, Brian Moriarty made an immediately appealing candidate, not least in that Lucasfilm Games liked to see themselves as the Infocom of graphical adventures, emphasizing craftsmanship and design as a way to set themselves apart from the more slapdash games being pumped out in much greater numbers by their arch-rivals Sierra.

Brian Moriarty on the job at Lucasfilm.

For his part, Moriarty was ripe to be convinced; it wasn’t hard to see the writing on the wall back at Infocom. When Falstein showed him some photographs of Lucasfilm Games’s offices at Skywalker Ranch in beautiful Marin County, California, and shared stories of rubbing elbows with movie stars and casually playing with real props from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, the contrast with life inside Infocom’s increasingly empty, increasingly gloomy offices could hardly have been more striking. Then again, maybe it could have been: at his first interview with Lucasfilm Games’s head Steve Arnold, Moriarty was told that the division had just two mandates. One was “don’t lose money”; the other was “don’t embarrass George Lucas.” Anything else — like actually making money — was presumably gravy. Again, this was music to the ears of Moriarty, who like everyone at Infocom was now under constant pressure from Activision’s management to write games that would sell in huge numbers.

Brian Moriarty arrived at Skywalker Ranch for his first day of work on August 1, 1988. As Lucasfilm Games’s new star designer, he was given virtually complete freedom to make whatever game he wanted to make.

Noah Falstein in Skywalker Ranch’s conservatory. This is where the Games people typically ate their lunches, which were prepared for them by a gourmet chef. There were definitely worse places to work…

For all their enthusiasm for adventure games, the other designers at Lucasfilm were struggling a bit at the time to figure out how to build on the template of Maniac Mansion. Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, David Fox’s follow-up to Ron Gilbert’s masterstroke, had been published just the day before Moriarty arrived at Skywalker Ranch. It tried a little too obviously to capture the same campy charm, whilst, in typical games-industry fashion, trying to make it all better by making it bigger, expanding the scene of the action from a single night spent in a single mansion to locations scattered all around the globe and sometimes off it. The sense remained that Lucasfilm wanted to do things differently from Sierra, who are unnamed but ever-present — along with a sly dig at old-school rivals like Infocom still making text adventures — within a nascent manifesto of three paragraphs published in Zak McKracken‘s manual, entitled simply “Our Game Design Philosophy.”

We believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake. So we don’t bring the game to a screeching halt when you poke your nose into a place you haven’t visited before. In fact, we make it downright difficult to get a character “killed.”

We think you’d prefer to solve the game’s mysteries by exploring and discovering. Not by dying a thousand deaths. We also think you like to spend your time involved in the story. Not typing in synonyms until you stumble upon the computer’s word for a certain object.

Unlike conventional computer adventures, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders doesn’t force you to save your progress every few minutes. Instead, you’re free to concentrate on the puzzles, characters, and outrageous good humor.

Worthy though these sentiments were, Lucasfilm seemed uncertain as yet how to turn them into practical rules for design. Ironically, Zak McKracken, the game with which they began publicly articulating their focus on progressive design, is the most Sierra-like Lucasfilm game ever made, with the sheer nonlinear sprawl of the thing spawning inevitable confusion and yielding far more potential dead ends than its designer would likely wish to admit. While successful enough in its day, it never garnered the love that’s still accorded to Maniac Mansion today.

Lucasfilm Games’s one adventure of 1989 was a similarly middling effort. A joint design by Gilbert, Falstein, and Fox, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure — an Action Game was also made — marked the first time since Labyrinth that the games division had been entrusted with one of George Lucas’s cinematic properties. They don’t seem to have been all that excited at the prospect. The game dutifully walks you through the plot you’ve already watched unfold on the silver screen, without ever taking flight as a creative work in its own right. The Lucasfilm “Game Design Philosophy” appears once again in the manual in almost the exact same form as last time, but once again the actual game hews to this ideal imperfectly at best, with, perhaps unsurprisingly given the two-fisted action movie on which it’s based, lots of opportunities to get Indy killed and have to revert to one of those save files you supposedly don’t need to create.

So, the company was rather running to stand still as Brian Moriarty settled in. They were determined to evolve their adventure games in design terms to match the strides Sierra was making in technology, but were uncertain how to actually go about the task. Moriarty wanted to make his own first work for Lucasfilm a different, more somehow refined experience than even the likes of Maniac Mansion. But how to do so? In short, what should he do with his once-in-a-lifetime chance to make any game he wanted to make?

Flipping idly through a computer magazine one day, he was struck by an advertisement that prominently featured the word “loom.” He liked the sound of it; it reminded him of other portentous English words like “gloom”, “doom,” and “tomb.” And he liked the way it could serve as either a verb or a noun, each with a completely different meaning. In a fever of inspiration, he sat down and wrote out the basis of the adventure game he would soon design, about a Loom which binds together the fabric of reality, a Guild of Weavers which uses the Loom’s power to make magic out of sound, and Bobbin Threadbare, the “Loom Child” who must save the Loom — and thus the universe — from destruction before it’s too late. It would be a story and a game with the stark simplicity of fable.

Simplicity, however, wasn’t exactly trending in the computer-games industry of 1988. Since the premature end of the would-be Home Computer Revolution of the early 1980s, the audience for computer games had grown only very slowly. Publishers had continued to serve the same base of hardcore players, who lusted after ever more complex games to take advantage of the newest hardware. Simulations had collected ever more buttons and included ever more variables to keep track of, while strategy games had gotten ever larger and more time-consuming. Nor had adventure games been immune to the trend, as was attested by Moriarty’s own career to date. Each of his three games for Infocom had been bigger and more difficult than the previous, culminating in his adventure/CRPG hybrid Beyond Zork, the most baroque game Infocom had made to date, with more options for its onscreen display alone than some professional business applications. Certainly plenty of existing players loved all this complexity. But did all games really need to go this way? And, most interestingly, what about all those potential players who took one look at the likes of Beyond Zork and turned back to the television? Moriarty remembered a much-discussed data point that had emerged from the surveys Infocom used to send to their customers: the games people said were their favorites overlapped almost universally with those they said they had been able to finish. In keeping with this trend, Moriarty’s first game for Infocom, which had been designed as an introduction to interactive fiction for newcomers, had been by far his most successful. What, he now thought, if he used the newer hardware at his disposal in the way that Apple has historically done, in pursuit of simplicity rather than complexity?

The standard Lucasfilm interface of the late 1980s, shown here in Maniac Mansion.

Lucasfilm Games’s current point-and-click interface, while undoubtedly the most painless in the industry at the time, was nevertheless far too complicated for Moriarty’s taste, still to a large extent stuck in the mindset of being a graphical implementation of the traditional text-adventure interface rather than treating the graphical adventure as a new genre in its own right. Thus the player was expected to first select a verb from a list at the bottom of the screen and then an object to which to apply it. The interface had done the job well enough to date, but Moriarty felt that it would interfere with the seamless connection he wished to build between the player sitting there before the screen and the character of Bobbin Threadbare standing up there on the screen. He wanted something more immediate, more intuitive — preferably an interface that didn’t require words at all. He envisioned music as an important part of his game: the central puzzle-solving mechanic would involve the playing of “drafts,” little sequences of notes created with Bobbin’s distaff. But he wanted music to be more than a puzzle-solving mechanic. He wanted the player to be able to play the entire game like a musical instrument, wordlessly and beautifully. He was thus thrilled when he peeked under the hood of Lucasfilm’s SCUMM adventure-game engine and found that it was possible to strip the verb menu away entirely.

Some users of Apple’s revolutionary HyperCard system for the Macintosh were already experimenting with wordless interfaces. Within weeks of HyperCard’s debut, a little interactive storybook called Inigo Gets Out, “programmed” by a non-programmer named Amanda Goodenough, had begun making the rounds, causing a considerable stir among industry insiders. The story of a house cat’s brief escape to the outdoors, it filled the entire screen with its illustrations, responding intuitively to single clicks on the pictures. Just shortly before Moriarty started work at Lucasfilm Games, Rand and Robyn Miller had taken this experiment a step further with The Manhole, a richer take on the concept of an interactive children’s storybook. Still, neither of these HyperCard experiences quite qualified as a game, and Moriarty and Lucasfilm were in fact in the business of making adventure games. Loom could be simple, but it had to be more than a software toy. Moriarty’s challenge must be to find enough interactive possibility in a verb-less interface to meet that threshold.

In response to that challenge, Moriarty created an interface that stands out today as almost bizarrely ahead of its time; not until years later would its approach be adopted by graphic adventures in general as the default best way of doing things. Its central insight, which it shared with the aforementioned HyperCard storybooks, was the realization that the game didn’t always need the player to explicitly tell it what she wanted to do when she clicked a certain spot on the onscreen picture. Instead the game could divine the player’s intention for itself, based only on where she happened to be clicking. What was sacrificed in the disallowing of certain types of more complex puzzles was gained in the creation of a far more seamless, intuitive link between the player, the avatar she controlled, and the world shown on the screen.


The brief video snippet above shows Loom‘s user interface in its entirety. You make Bobbin walk around by clicking on the screen. Hovering the mouse over an object or character with which Bobbin can interact brings up an image of that object or character in the bottom right corner of the screen; double-clicking the same “hot spot” then causes Bobbin to engage, either by manipulating an object in some way or by talking to another character. Finally, Bobbin can cast “spells” in the form of drafts by clicking on the musical staff at the bottom of the screen. In the snippet above, the player learns the “open” draft by double-clicking on the egg, an action which in this case results in Bobbin simply listening to it. The player and Bobbin then immediately cast the same draft to reveal within the egg his old mentor, who has been transformed into a black swan.

Moriarty seemed determined to see how many of the accoutrements of traditional adventure games he could strip away and still have something that was identifiable as an adventure game. In addition to eliminating menus of verbs, he also excised the concept of an inventory; throughout the game, Bobbin carries around with him nothing more than the distaff he uses for weaving drafts. With no ability to use this object on that other object, the only puzzle-solving mechanic that’s left is the magic system. In the broad strokes, magic in Loom is very much in the spirit of Infocom’s Enchanter series, in which you collect spells for your spell book, then cast them to solve puzzles that, more often than not, reward you with yet more spells. In Loom the process is essentially the same, except that you’re collecting musical drafts to weave on your distaff rather than spells for your spell book. And yet this musical approach to spell weaving is as lovely as a game mechanic can be. Lucasfilm thoughtfully included a “Book of Patterns” with the game, listing the drafts and providing musical staffs on which you can denote their sequences of notes as you discover them while playing.

The audiovisual aspect of Loom was crucial to capturing the atmosphere of winsome melancholia Moriarty was striving for. Graphics and sound were brand new territory for him; his previous games had consisted of nothing but text. Fortunately, the team of artists that worked with him grasped right away what was needed. Each of the guilds of craftspeople which Bobbin visits over the course of the game is marked by its own color scheme: the striking emerald of the Guild of Glassmakers, the softer pastoral greens of the Guild of Shepherds, the Stygian reds of the Guild of Blacksmiths, and of course the lovely, saturated blues and purples of Bobbin’s own Guild of Weavers. This approach came in very handy for technical as well as thematic reasons, given that Loom was designed for EGA graphics of just 16 onscreen colors.

The overall look of Loom was hugely influenced by the 1959 Disney animated classic Sleeping Beauty, with many of the panoramic shots in the game dovetailing perfectly with scenes from the film. Like Sleeping Beauty, Loom was inspired and accompanied by the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whom Moriarty describes as his “constant companion throughout my life”; while Sleeping Beauty draws from Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name, Loom draws from another of his ballets, Swan Lake. Loom sounds particularly gorgeous when played through a Roland MT-32 synthesizer board — an experience that, given the $600 price tag of the Roland, far too few players got to enjoy back in the day. But regardless of how one hears it, it’s hard to imagine Loom without its classical soundtrack. Harking back to Hollywood epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the MT-32 version of Loom opens with a mood-establishing orchestral overture over a blank screen.


To provide the final touch of atmosphere, Moriarty walked to the other side of Skywalker Ranch, to the large brick building housing Skywalker Sound, and asked the sound engineers in that most advanced audio-production facility in the world if they could help him out. Working from a script written by Moriarty and with a cast of voice actors on loan from the BBC, the folks at Skywalker Sound produced a thirty-minute “audio drama” setting the scene for the opening of the game; it was included in the box on a cassette. Other game developers had occasionally experimented with the same thing as a way of avoiding having to cover all that ground in the game proper, but Loom‘s scene-setter stood out for its length and for the professional sheen of its production. Working for Lucasfilm did have more than a few advantages.

If there’s something to complain about when it comes to Loom the work of interactive art, it must be that its portentous aesthetics lead one to expect a thematic profundity which the story never quite attains. Over the course of the game, Bobbin duly journeys through Moriarty’s fairy-tale world and defeats the villain who threatens to rip asunder the fabric of reality. The ending, however, is more ambiguous than happy, with only half of the old world saved from the Chaos that has poured in through the rip in the fabric. I don’t object in principle to the idea of a less than happy ending (something for which Moriarty was becoming known). Still, and while the final image is, like everything else in the game, lovely in its own right, this particular ambiguous ending feels weirdly abrupt. The game has such a flavor of fable or allegory that one somehow wants a little more from it at the end, something to carry away back to real life. But then again, beauty, which Loom possesses in spades, has a value of its own, and it’s uncertain whether the sequels Moriarty originally planned to make — Loom had been envisioned as a trilogy — would have enriched the story of the first game or merely, as so many sequels do, trampled it under their weight.

From the practical standpoint of a prospective purchaser of Loom upon its initial release, on the other hand, there’s room for complaint beyond quibbling about the ending. We’ve had occasion before to observe how the only viable model of commercial game distribution in the 1980s and early 1990s, as $40 boxed products shipped to physical store shelves, had a huge effect on the content of those games. Consumers, reasonably enough, expected a certain amount of play time for their $40. Adventure makers thus learned that they needed to pad out their games with enough puzzles — too often bad but time-consuming ones — to get their play times up into the region of at least twenty hours or so. Moriarty, however, bucked this trend in Loom. Determined to stay true to the spirit of minimalism to the bitter end, he put into the game only what needed to be there. The end result stands out from its peers for its aesthetic maturity, but it’s also a game that will take even the most methodical player no more than four or five hours to play. Today, when digital distribution has made it possible for developers to make games only as long as their designs ask to be and adjust the price accordingly, Loom‘s willingness to do what it came to do and exit the stage without further adieu is another quality that gives it a strikingly modern feel. But in the context of the times of the game’s creation, it was a bit of a problem.

When Loom was released in March of 1990, many hardcore adventure gamers were left nonplussed not only by the game’s short length but also by its simple puzzles and minimalist aesthetic approach in general, so at odds with the aesthetic maximalism that has always defined the games industry as a whole. Computer Gaming World‘s Johnny Wilson, one of the more sophisticated game commentators of the time, did get what Loom was doing, praising its atmosphere of “hope and idealism tainted by realism.” Others, though, didn’t seem quite so sure what to make of an adventure game that so clearly wanted its players to complete it, to the point of including a “practice” mode that would essentially solve all the puzzles for them if they so wished. Likewise, many players just didn’t seem equipped to appreciate Loom‘s lighter, subtler aesthetic touch. Computer Gaming World‘s regular adventure-gaming columnist Scorpia, a traditionalist to the core, said the story “should have been given an epic treatment, not watered down” — a terrible idea if you ask me (if there’s one thing the world of gaming, then or now, doesn’t need, it’s more “epic” stories). “As an adventure game,” she concluded, “it is just too lightweight.” Ken St. Andre, creator of Tunnels & Trolls and co-creator of Wasteland, expressed his unhappiness with the ambiguous ending in Questbusters, the ultimate magazine for the adventuring hardcore:

The story, which begins darkly, ends darkly as well. That’s fine in literature or the movies, and lends a certain artistic integrity to such efforts. In a game, however, it’s neither fair nor right. If I had really been playing Bobbin, not just watching him, I would have done some things differently, which would have netted a different conclusion.

Echoing as they do a similar debate unleashed by the tragic ending of Infocom’s Infidel back in 1983, the persistence of such sentiments must have been depressing for Brian Moriarty and others trying to advance the art of interactive storytelling. St. Andre’s complaint that Loom wouldn’t allow him to “do things differently” — elsewhere in his review he claims that Loom “is not a game” at all — is one that’s been repeated for decades by folks who believe that anything labeled as an interactive story must allow the player complete freedom to approach the plot in her own way and to change its outcome. I belong to the other camp: the camp that believes that letting the player inhabit the role of a character in a relatively fixed overarching narrative can foster engagement and immersion, even in some cases new understanding, by making her feel she is truly walking in someone else’s shoes — something that’s difficult to accomplish in a non-interactive medium.

Responses like those of Scorpia and Ken St. Andre hadn’t gone unanticipated within Lucasfilm Games prior to Loom‘s release. On the contrary, there had been some concern about how Loom would be received. Moriarty had countered by noting that there were far, far more people out there who weren’t hardcore gamers like those two, who weren’t possessed of a set of fixed expectations about what an adventure game should be, and that many of these people might actually be better equipped to appreciate Loom‘s delicate aesthetics than the hardcore crowd. But the problem, the nut nobody would ever quite crack, would always be that of reaching this potential alternate customer base. Non-gamers didn’t read the gaming magazines where they might learn about something like Loom, and even Lucasfilm Games wasn’t in a position to launch a major assault on the alternative forms of media they did peruse.

In the end, Loom wasn’t a flop, and thus didn’t violate Steve Arnold’s dictum of “don’t lose money” — and certainly it didn’t fall afoul of the dictum of “don’t embarrass George.” But it wasn’t a big hit either, and the sequels Moriarty had anticipated for better or for worse never got made. Ron Gilbert’s The Secret of Monkey Island, Lucasfilm’s other adventure game of 1990, was in its own way as brilliant as Moriarty’s game, but was much more traditional in its design and aesthetics, and wound up rather stealing Loom‘s thunder. It would be Monkey Island rather than Loom that would become the template for Lucasfilm’s adventure games going forward. Lucasfilm would largely stick to comedy from here on out, and would never attempt anything quite so outré as Loom again. It would only be in later years that Moriarty’s game would come to be widely recognized as one of Lucasfilm Games’s finest achievements. Such are the frustrations of the creative life.

Having made Loom, Brian Moriarty now had four adventure games on his CV, three of which I consider to be unassailable classics — and, it should be noted, the fourth does have its fans as well. He seemed poised to remain a leading light in his creative field for a long, long time to come. It therefore feels like a minor tragedy that this, his first game for Lucasfilm, would mark the end of his career in adventure games rather than a new beginning; he would never again be credited as the designer of a completed adventure game. We’ll have occasion to dig a little more into the reasons why that should have been the case in a future article, but for now I’ll just note how much an industry full of so many blunt instruments could have used his continuing delicate touch. We can only console ourselves with the knowledge that, should Loom indeed prove to be the last we ever hear from him as an adventure-game designer, it was one hell of a swansong.

(Sources: the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; ACE of April 1990; Questbusters of June 1990 and July 1990; Computer Gaming World of April 1990 and July/August 1990. But the bulk of this article was drawn from Brian Moriarty’s own Loom postmortem for, appropriately enough, the 2015 Game Developers Conference, which was a far more elaborate affair than the 1988 edition.

Loom is available for purchase is from GOG.com. Sadly, however, this is the VGA/CD-ROM re-release — I actually prefer the starker appearance of the original EGA graphics — and lacks the scene-setting audio drama. It’s also afflicted with terrible voice acting which completely spoils the atmosphere, and the text is bowdlerized to boot. Motivated readers should be able to find both the original version and the audio drama elsewhere on the Internet without too many problems. I do recommend that you seek them out, perhaps after purchasing a legitimate copy to fulfill your ethical obligation, but I can’t take the risk of hosting them here.)

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Beyond Zork

Beyond Zork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remapping the function keys.

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

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

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

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

Viewing the state of your character

Viewing the state of your character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of the others glance down at you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plop. The coconut skitters across the plane.

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

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

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

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

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

"Ur-grue," nods another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair warning: heavy spoilers begin here!

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

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

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

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

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

[Your strength just went down.]

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

[Your compassion just went up.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

>u
You edge a bit further into the open maw.

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

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

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

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

>squeeze moss
The moss seems soft and pliant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mother hungus charges you. Ooof!

[Your endurance just went down.]

The baby hungus bellows helplessly, and its mother responds.

>ne
The baby hungus bellows mournfully as you walk away.


Birdcries
The unnerving cries of exotic birds echo in the treetops.

>z
Time passes.

The mother hungus storms into view!

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

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

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

>z

Time passes.

The mother hungus storms into view!

[Your endurance is back to normal.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoilers end.

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

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

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

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

Beyond Zork is available for purchase as part of The Zork Anthology on GOG.com.)

 
 

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ICBM

Michael Davis has created an original game based on my recent series of articles on Trinity. To say too much more about it would be to spoil it, so I’ll just tell you that it’s well worth a play — if perhaps not quite in the way you might expect. My thanks to Michael!

 

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Trinity Postscript: Selling Tragedy

Like A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity seemed destined to become a casualty of an industry that just wasn’t equipped to appreciate what it was trying to do. Traditional game-review metrics like “fun” or “value for money” only cheapened it, while reviewers lacked the vocabulary to even begin to really address its themes. Most were content to simply mention, in passing and often with an obvious unease, that those themes were present. In Computer Gaming World, for instance, Scorpia said that it was “not for the squeamish,” would require of the player “some unpleasant actions,” that it was “overall a serious game, not a light-hearted one,” and then on to the firmer ground of puzzle hints. And that was downright thoughtful in comparison to Shay Addams’s review for Questbusters, which tried in a weird and clunky way to be funny in all the ways that Trinity doesn’t: “It blowed up real good!” runs the review’s tagline, which goes on to ask if they’ll be eating “fission chips” in the Kensington Gardens after the missiles drop. (Okay, that one’s dumb enough to be worth a giggle…) But the review’s most important point is that Trinity is “mainly a game” again after the first Interactive Fiction Plus title, A Mind Forever Voyaging, so disappointed: “The puzzles are back!”

Even Infocom themselves weren’t entirely sure how to sell or even how to talk about Trinity. The company’s creative management had been unstintingly supportive of Brian Moriarty while he was making the game, but “marketing,” as he said later, “was a little more concerned/disturbed. They didn’t quite know what to make of it.” The matrix of genres didn’t have a slot for “Historical Tragedy.” In the end they slapped a “Fantasy” label on it, although it doesn’t take a long look at Trinity and the previous games to wear that label — the Zork and Enchanter series — to realize that one of these things is not quite like the others.

Moriarty admits to “a few tiffs” with marketing over Trinity, but he was a reasonable guy who also understood that Infocom needed to sell their games and that, while the occasional highbrow press from the likes of The New York Times Book Review had been nice and all, the traditional adventure-game market was the only place they had yet succeeded in consistently doing that. Thus in interviews and other promotions for Trinity he did an uncomfortable dance, trying to talk seriously about the game and the reasons he wrote it while also trying not to scare away people just looking for a fun text adventure. The triangulations can be a bit excruciating: “It isn’t a gloomy game, but it does have a dark undertone to it. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.” (Actually, it is.) Or: “It’s kind of a dark game, but it’s also, I like to think, kind of a fun game too.” (With a ringing endorsement like “I like to think it’s kind of a fun game,” how could anyone resist?)

Trinity‘s commercial saving grace proved to be a stroke of serendipity having nothing to do with any its literary qualities. The previous year Commodore had released what would prove to be their last 8-bit computer, the Commodore 128. Despite selling quite well, the machine had attracted very little software support. The cause, ironically, was also the reason it had done so well in comparison to the Plus/4, Commodore’s previous 8-bit machine. The 128, you see, came equipped with a “64 Mode” in which it was 99.9 percent compatible with the Commodore 64. Forced to choose between a modest if growing 128 user base and the massive 64 user base through which they could also rope in all those 128 users, almost all publishers, with too many incompatible machines to support already, made the obvious choice.

Infocom’s Interactive Fiction Plus system was, however, almost unique in the entertainment-software industry in running on the 128 in its seldom-used (at least for games) native mode. And all those new 128 owners were positively drooling for a game that actually took advantage of the capabilities of their shiny new machines. A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity arrived simultaneously on the Commodore 128 when the Interactive Fiction Plus interpreter was ported to that platform in mid-1986. But the puzzleless A Mind Forever Voyaging was a bit too outré for most gamers’ tastes. Plus it was older, and thus not getting the press or the shelf space that Trinity was. Trinity, on the other hand, fit the bill of “game I can use to show off my 128” just well enough, even for 128 users who might otherwise have had little interest in an all-text adventure game. Infocom’s sales were normally quite evenly distributed across the large range of machines they supported, but Trinity‘s were decidedly lopsided in favor of the Commodore 128. Those users’ numbers were enough to push Trinity to the vicinity of 40,000 in sales, not a blockbuster — especially by the standards of Infocom’s glory years — but enough to handily outdo not just A Mind Forever Voyaging but even more traditional recent games like Spellbreaker. Like the Cold War Trinity chronicles, it could have been much, much worse.

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

 

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T Plus 6: All Prams Lead to the Kensington Gardens

kensington

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

— Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

Right?

Well, what we get is this:

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

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

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

"Which line is it, Baker?"

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


The walkie-talkie hisses quietly.

"Congratulations."

You turn, but see no one.

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

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

A burst of static. "Minus ten seconds."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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