(This article doesn’t spoil individual puzzle solutions, but does thoroughly spoil the ending of Infidel. Read on at your own risk!)
In the spring of 1983, having released successful games in the fantasy, science fiction, and mystery genres, the Imps of Infocom sat down to ask each other a question they would repeat quite a number of times over the coming years: what remaining literary genres might make a good basis for a game? Mike Berlyn, who had just finished up Suspended, suggested, appropriately enough for an adventure game, the genre of adventure fiction, those tales of manly men braving exotic dangers in exotic locations which has its roots in the likes of H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle and reached its peak, like the mystery, in the 1930s, when pulpy stories filled the dime store shelves and the cinema screens to be consumed by a public eager for escape from economic depression and the looming threat of another world war. It sounded like a great fit to the Imps. The genre was even undergoing something of a commercial revival; Raiders of the Lost Ark had prompted a new interest by Hollywood and booksellers in classic adventure fiction. Somewhat to his chagrin, Berlyn was promptly assigned to write the first game in the new Tales of Adventure line, which the Imps agreed would have the player exploring a heretofore undiscovered Egyptian pyramid found buried under the sands of the Sahara. And so Pyramid, eventually to be renamed Infidel by the ever-helpful folks at G/R Copy, became Berlyn’s second project for Infocom.
It’s not hard to understand why Infocom chose pyramid-delving as the subject of the first Tale of Adventure. The exploration of a deserted environment filled with mechanical traps, tricks, and puzzles is a natural for an adventure game. It’s actually hard to think of a scenario more able to maximize the medium’s strengths and minimize its limitations. Thus quite a few early adventure authors discovered a latent interest in Egyptian archaeology. Greg Hassett, who at just twelve years old wrote and sold King Tut’s Adventure for the TRS-80 in 1979, was likely the first, but Scott Adams (Pyramid of Doom) and an official Radio Shack game (Pyramid 2000) weren’t far behind, as were various others. Somewhat allaying any concerns about a hackneyed premise was Infocom’s commitment to doing ancient Egypt right, with their expected polished writing and technology, and with at least a strong nod in the direction of historical accuracy. To help with this latter, Berlyn, no Egyptologist himself, trekked down to nearby Harvard University and recruited one Patricia Fogleman, a graduate student studying ancient Egypt. She helped him with his Egyptian mythology and with the design of the pyramid itself, which are of course largely one and the same thing.
Still, the game they came up with is mechanically almost shockingly unambitious, a double surprise considering it came from the designer responsible for Suspended, a game which morphed and stretched the ZIL development system more than any game Infocom released before or since. You wake up at the beginning of Infidel in your deserted desert camp. The guides and workers who came out here with you have conveniently (for Berlyn, that is) drugged you and split, leaving you all alone to find the pyramid and explore it. With the exception only of a plane which flies overhead at the beginning to drop a vital piece of equipment and some crocodiles which dwell (thankfully) inaccessibly on the other side of the Nile, Infidel is absolutely devoid of any life beyond your own, the only Infocom game about which that can be said. There is also none of the dynamism that marked Infocom’s other games of the period. After the plane flies away Infidel‘s environment is as static as it is deserted — just a set of locations to map and explore and a series of mechanical puzzles to solve. The only notable technical innovation is the inclusion of a knapsack that you can use to carry far more objects than your hands alone would allow. Similar carry-alls eventually started appearing in other adventures as a way to preserve some semblance of realism in not allowing you to carry a ridiculous number of items in your hands while bypassing the tedium of strict inventory limits. Thankfully, they were mostly more painless to use than this one is; here you have to remove the knapsack and set it down, then manually insert or remove items.
The most interesting of the puzzles is a sort of ongoing code-breaking exercise. You find throughout the pyramid hieroglyphs scratched onto the walls and other places. Each symbol — drawn using various dashes, slashes, asterisks, and exclamation points — corresponds directly to an English word in a way that must have horrified Fogleman or any student of language. The feelies provide translations of a handful of these to start you off, but after that it’s up to you to piece together the meanings by collecting the full set on notepaper and trying to determine what means what using contextual clues. Disappointingly or gratifyingly, depending on your tolerance and talent for such exercises, this meta-puzzle is largely optional. The hieroglyphs do give hints as well as additional tidbits about the meanings behind the wonders you encounter, but the game is mostly straightforward enough that the hints aren’t necessary. In the one exception to this rule the translation is quite a trivial exercise. Indeed, solving Infidel is not difficult at all. Players experienced with Infocom’s adventures are likely to march through with few problems, waiting all the while for the other shoe to drop and for this thing to get hard. It never really does.
So, were that all there was to Infidel we would have a competently crafted, solidly written game, but one that stands out as oddly, painfully slight in comparison to its stablemates in the Infocom canon, and this would be quite a short article. However, Infidel turned out to be as conceptually groundbreaking as it is mechanically traditional, leaving angry players and broiling controversy in its wake.
Infidel‘s story — its real story, that is, not the mechanics of collecting water, operating navigation boxes, and opening doors — lives mostly within its feelies. In them Berlyn sought to characterize his protagonist to a degree rivaled amongst previous adventure games only by Planetfall. But while that game had you playing a harmless schlub who spent his days swabbing decks and bitching about his superior officer, Infidel casts you as someone less harmless: a frustrated American treasure hunter with an unethical streak as wide as your thirst for money and glory. Your diary tells how you were contacted by a Miss Ellingsworth, an old woman who believes her archaeologist father located something big in the Egyptian desert back in the 1920s. You choose not to report her story to your boss, a well-known, hyper-competent treasure hunter named Craige, but rather to secretly mount an expedition of your own, deceiving Miss Ellingsworth into believing that you’re working in partnership with Craige, the person she really wanted for this quest. Once in Egypt you mismanage everything about your under-capitalized expedition horribly, breaking a vital piece of equipment needed to find the pyramid and mistreating your team of guides and workers. That’s how you come to wake up alone in your tent when the game proper finally begins.
The game proper originally did little to integrate the character described in the feelies with the one you actually control in the game. It occasionally, just occasionally, adapts a scolding or hectoring tone: the opening text describes how you “stupidly” tried to make your crew work on a holy day; examining some thickets near your camp brings the response that they are “just about as yielding as you were with your helpers.” Even less frequently do you get a glimpse of your character’s personality, as when you “sneer” at the “idiots” who didn’t believe in you when you find the pyramid at last. Yet the game that Infocom’s testers received otherwise played like a greedy treasure hunt to warm the protagonist’s heart, climaxing with your penetrating to the innermost vault of the pyramid and coming out with the fame and fortune of which you had dreamed. The testers, obviously a perceptive and sensitive lot, complained about the thematic dissonance. Berlyn took their concerns to heart, and decided to revise the ending to make a major statement.
Much as I enjoy the likes of King Solomon’s Mines and The Lost World, it’s hard today to overlook the racism and cultural imperialism in classic adventure fiction. Invariably in these tales strong Christian white men end up pitted against black, brown, yellow, or red savages, winning out in the end and carrying the spoils of victory back home to a civilization that can make proper use of them. Maybe if the savages are lucky the white men then return to organize and lead their societies for them. It’s the White Man’s Burden writ large, colonialism at its ugliest: kill them and take their stuff. More trivially, the second part of this dictum is also the guiding ethic of old-school adventure games, sometimes without the killing but not always; CRPGs were generally lumped in with adventures as a variant of the same basic thing during this era. Dave Lebling and Marc Blank had already had their fun with the amorality and the absurdities of adventure games in Enchanter by inserting the stupid magpie adventurer from Zork to let us view him from a different perspective. Now Berlyn decided to treat the subject in a much more serious way, making of Infidel a sort of morality tale. He would invert expectations in a downright postmodern way, pointing out the ugly underbelly of traditional adventure stories from within a traditional adventure story, the moral vacuum of old-school adventure games from within one of the most old-school games Infocom would create post-Zork trilogy. Derrida would have been proud. Speaking to Jason Scott, Berlyn noted that Infidel was the first adventure game that “said who you were, why you were there, then slapped you across the face for it. How many times can you walk through a dungeon and steal things and take them with you and plunder for treasure and not get slapped around for it? Well, Infidel was the end of that.” No wonder lots of people got upset.
The following text, more shocking even than the death of Floyd, is what players read in disbelief after they entered the final command and sat back to savor the finishing of another adventure game:
You lift the cover with great care, and in an instant you see all your dreams come true. The interior of the sarcophagus is lined with gold, inset with jewels, glistening in your torchlight. The riches and their dazzling beauty overwhelm you. You take a deep breath, amazed that all of this is yours. You tremble with excitement, then realize the ground beneath your feet is trembling, too.
As a knife cuts through butter, this realization cuts through your mind, makes your hands shake and cold sweat appear on your forehead. The Burial Chamber is collapsing, the walls closing in. You will never get out of this pyramid alive. You earned this treasure. But it cost you your life.
And as you sit there, gazing into the glistening wealth of the inner sarcophagus, you can't help but feel a little empty, a little foolish. If someone were on the other side of the quickly-collapsing wall, they could have dug you out. If only you'd treated the workers better. If only you'd cut Craige in on the find. If only you'd hired a reliable guide.
Well, someday, someone will discover your bones here. And then you will get your fame.
It’s an ugly, even horrifying conclusion; lest there be any doubt, understand that you have just been buried alive. It’s also breathtaking in its audacity, roughly equivalent to releasing an Indiana Jones movie in which Indy is a smirking jerk who gets everyone killed in the end. This sort of thing is not what people expect from their Tales of Adventure. Infocom rarely did anything without a great deal of deliberation, and releasing Infidel with an ending like this one was no exception. Marketing was, understandably, very concerned, but the Imps, feeling their oats more and more in the wake of all of the attention they had been receiving from the world of letters, felt strongly that it was the right “literary” decision. The game turned out to be, predictably enough, very polarizing; Berlyn says he received more love mail and more hate mail over this game than anything else he has ever done.
The most prominent of the naysayers was Computer Gaming World‘s adventure-game specialist Scorpia, who was becoming an increasingly respected voice amongst fans through her articles in the magazine, her presence on the early online service CompuServe (where she ran a discussion group dedicated to adventuring), and a hints-by-post system she ran out of a local PO Box. Scorpia was normally an unabashed lover of Infocom, dedicating a full column in CGW to most Infocom games shortly after their release. On the theory that it’s better not to say anything if you can’t say something nice, however, she never gave Infidel so much as a mention in print. But never fear, she made her displeasure known online and to Berlyn personally, to such an extent that when he was invited to an online chat with Scorpia and her group on CompuServe he sarcastically mentioned the game as her “fave rave.” Things got somewhat chippy later on:
Scorpia: Now, I did not like Infidel. I did not like the premise of the story. I did not like the main character. I did not like the ending. I felt it was a poor choice to have a character like that in an Infocom game, since after all, regardless of the main character in the story, *I* am the one who is really playing the game, really solving the puzzles. The character is merely a shell, and after going thru the game, I resent getting killed.
Berlyn: What do you want me to do? I can’t make you like something you don’t like. I can’t make you appreciate something that you don’t think is there. I will tell you this, though, you are being very narrow-minded about what you think an Infocom game is. It doesn’t HAVE to be the way you said and you don’t have to think that in *EVERY* game you play, that YOU’re the main character. A question for you: yes or no, Scorp, have you ever read a book, seen a TV program, seen a movie where the main character wasn’t someone you liked, was someone you’d rather not be?
Berlyn: Okay. Then that’s fair. If you look at these games as shells for you to occupy and nothing more, like an RPG, then you’re missing the experience, or at least part of the potential experience. If you had read the journal and the letter beforehand I would have hoped you would have understood just what was going on in the game — who you were, why you were playing that kind
of character. Adventures are so STERILE! That’s the word. And I want very much to make them an unsterile experience. It’s what I work for and it’s my goal. Otherwise, why not just read Tom Swifts and Nancy Drews and the Hardy Boys?
Oct: May I comment on the Infidel protagonist?
Scorpia: Go ahead, Oct.
Oct: As far as I know (through about 8 games that I’ve played) Infidel is the only one that creates a role (in the sense of a personality) for the protagonist-player. A worthwhile experiment, but I somewhat agree with Scorp that it wasn’t completely successful. The problem is that a game provides a simulated world for the protagonist and just as in life the player must do intelligent things to “succeed” (in the sense of surviving, making progress). If the role includes stupidity or bullheadedness, then the player will not make progress, which in the context of the game means not being able to continue playing. Further, the excellence of the Infocom games is in their world-simulation, but simulating a personality for the *player* is not really provided for in the basic design, the fundamental interaction between game and player. I feel I’ve not articulated too well, but there’s a point in there somewhere!
Berlyn: I never claimed the protagonist works in Infidel. I only claim that it had to be tried and so it was. There are a lot of personal reasons for my disgust (I hate the game, myself) over the whole Infidel project, but none of it had to do with the protagonist/ending problems the game has. Let me put it to you this way: Like anyone who produces things or provides a service — you put it out there and you take a chance. You wait for the smoke to clear and then you listen to people like yourselves talking about whether the experiment succeeded or failed and I could have told you it might have gone either way when I was writing it. There was just no way to know.
Oct: I think I can better summarize the problem with roles, now. Ok?
Berlyn: Go ahead, Oct.
Oct: If you give the player a role, as in the set-up (the journal) and he/she wants to view him/herself that way, ok. The problem is that the only way that can be effectively represented is in how the other actors in the game view/respond to the player. If you try to implement it by saying “You now do this,” you’ve violated a basic premise, namely that *I* decide what I want to do (whether in a role or otherwise). “You now do this” just isn’t part of the game!
Berlyn: I agree. Some of the problems I faced in this game are what kind of a human being would even WANT to ransack a national shrine like a pyramid? And once I asked myself that question, I was sunk and there was no turning back. It wasn’t even a game I wanted to write. I got off on it by putting in all the weirdness, the ‘glyphs, the mirages, the descriptions but I’ve learned from the experience. Marc once said to me, “This is the only business where you get to experiment and people really give you feedback.” He was right. And I appreciate it.
I find this discussion fascinating because it gets to the heart of what a narrative-oriented game is and what it can be, grappling with contradictions that still obsess us today. When you boot an adventure are you effectively still yourself, reacting as you would if transported into that world? Or is an adventure really a form of improvisatory theater, in which you put yourself into the shoes of a protagonist who is not you and try to play the role and experience that person’s story in good faith? Or consider a related question: is an adventure game a way of creating your own story or simply an unusually immersive, interactive way of experiencing a story? If you come down on the former side, you will likely see the likes of Floyd’s death in Planetfall and Infidel‘s ugly ending as little more than cheap parlor tricks intended to elicit an unearned emotional response. If you come down on the latter, you will likely reply that such “cheap parlor tricks” are exactly what literature has always done. (It’s interesting to note that these two seminal moments came in the two Infocom games released to date that were the most novel-like, with the most strongly characterized protagonists.) Yet if you’re honest you must also ask yourself whether a text adventure, with its odd, granular obsession with the details of what you are carrying and eating and wearing and where your character is standing in the world at any given moment, is a medium capable of delivering a truly theatrical — or, if you like, a literary — experience. Tellingly, all of the work of setting up the shocking ending to Infidel is done in the feelies. By the time you begin the game proper your fate is sealed; all that remains are the logistical details at which text adventures excel.
Early games had been so primitive in both their technology and their writing that there was little room for such questions, but now, with Infocom advancing the state of the art so rapidly, they loomed large, both within Infocom (where lengthy, spirited discussions on the matter went on constantly) and, as we’ve just seen, among their fans. The lesson that Berlyn claims they took from the reaction to Infidel might sound dispiriting:
People really don’t want to know who they are [in a game]. This was an interesting learning process for everyone at Infocom. We weren’t really writing interactive fiction — I don’t care what you call it, I don’t care what you market it as. It’s not fiction. They’re adventure games. You want to give the player the opportunity to put themselves in an environment as if they were really there.
Here we see again that delicate balancing act between art and commerce which always marked Infocom. When they found they had gone a step too far with their literary ambitions, as with Infidel and its antihero protagonist (it sold by far the fewest copies of any of their first ten games), they generally took a step back to more traditional models.
It’s tempting to make poor Scorpia our scapegoat in this, to use her as the personification of all the hidebound traditional players who refused to pull their heads out of the Zork mentality and make the leap to approaching Infocom’s games as the new form of interactive literature they were being advertised as in the likes of The New York Times Book Review. Before we do, however, we should remember that Scorpia and people like her were paying $30 or $40 for the privilege of playing each new Infocom game. If they expected a certain sort of experience for their money, so be it; we shouldn’t begrudge people their choice in entertainment. It’s also true that Infidel could have done a better job of selling the idea. Its premise boils down to: “Greedy, charmless, incompetent asshole gets in way over his head through clumsy deceptions and generally treating the people around him like shit, and finally gets himself killed.” One might be tempted to call Infidel an interactive tragedy, but its nameless protagonist doesn’t have the slinky charm of Richard III, much less the tortured psyche of Hamlet. We’re left with just a petty little person doing petty little things, and hoisted from his own petty little petard in consequence. Such is not the stuff of great drama, even if it’s perhaps an accurate depiction of most real-life assholes and the fates that await them. If we set aside our admiration for Berlyn’s chutzpah to look at the story outside of its historical context, it doesn’t really have much to say to us about the proverbial human condition, other than “if you must be a jerk, at least be a competent jerk.” Indeed, there’s a certain nasty edge to Infidel that doesn’t seem to stem entirely from its theme. This was, we should remember, a game that Mike Berlyn didn’t really want to write, and we can feel some of his annoyance and impatience in the game itself. There’s little of the joy of creation about it. It’s just not a very lovable game. Scorpia’s distaste and unwillingness to grant Infidel the benefit of any doubt might be disappointing, but it’s understandable. One could easily see it as a sneering “up yours!” to Infocom’s loyal customers.
Infidel‘s sales followed an unusual pattern. Released in November of 1983 as Infocom’s tenth game and fifth and final of that year, it exploded out of the gate, selling more than 16,000 copies in the final weeks of the year. After that, however, sales dropped off quickly; it sold barely 20,000 copies in all of 1984. It was the only one of the first ten games to fail to sell more than 70,000 copies in its lifetime. In fact, it never even came close to 50,000. While not a commercial disaster, its relative under-performance is interesting. One wonders to what extent angry early buyers like Scorpia dissuaded others from buying it. Of course, the mercurial Berlyn’s declaring his dissatisfaction with his own game in an online conference likely didn’t help matters either. Marketing, who suffered long and hard at the hands of the Imps, must have been apoplectic after reading that transcript.
So, Infocom ended 1983 as they had begun it, with a thorny but fascinating Mike Berlyn game. With by far the most impressive catalog in adventure gaming and sales to match, they were riding high indeed. The next year would bring five more worthy games and the highest total sales of the company’s history, but also the first serious challengers to their position as the king of literate, sophisticated adventure gaming and the beginning in earnest of the Cornerstone project that sowed the seeds of their ultimate destruction. We’ll get to those stories down the road, but first we have some other ground to cover.
(I must once again thank Jason Scott for sharing with me additional materials from his Get Lamp project for this article.)
April 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm
It’s interesting that you should mention King Solomon’s Mines. While the book is fairly racist, it also struck me as aware of its own racism as an artifact of the time when it was written, and uncomfortable with it. Besides, it’s easy to forgive protagonists that don’t really take themselves too seriously.
In fact, I’ve been far more horrified by the fundamental, unchecked and unconscious racism in Last and First Men, a doorstopper of epic proportions written by a philosopher! and actually intended as an exploration of human nature — to which it dedicates ample space. Doubly so as it was written decades later, at a time when people really should have known better, especially the highly educated.
As for what readers expect from literature, it’s seldom what they claim to. You’d expect they want less handholding and spoonfeeding than, say, your average moviegoer. But in practice they hate being made to think, much less guess; and the relationship between reader, author and protagonist is blurry at best (as we ought to know well here in text adventure land).
In any event, I agree that the experiment had to be made. The reactions to Infidel tell as much about the audience as they tell about the game, and that’s one of the greatest things about art.
April 7, 2013 at 3:42 pm
I hesitate to condemn too much the authors of such books. What I think people sometimes fail to grasp is how embedded in the culture racist attitudes really were. It’s not like these authors were making an argument, or even asserting conventional wisdom; these attitudes were simply bedrock truths about the way the world fundamentally was, not worth questioning. Deconstruction gets a bad rap for some very good reasons, but it is useful when it lets us tease out these bedrock assumptions that the authors themselves are not even consciously aware of.
Lest we get too smug, obviously cultural evolution continues today. I have a pet theory that in 100 years people will look back on the way we raise and cruelly kill animals to feed our desires (not even our needs) with shock akin to what we feel when we read some of the most egregiously racist passages in these old adventure novels. And I say this as someone who loves meat much more than is good for me.
To another point:
While a majority — perhaps a vast majority — of readers do prefer their fiction light and easy, there’s obviously a subset of people willing to read (and write) more challenging books. I think the tragedy of text adventures/interactive fiction is that the audience as a whole never grew enough, even in the commercial golden age we’re in now here on the blog, to foster a significant number of readers ready to tackle more thematically challenging works. The question of why that didn’t happen is of course an enormous can of worms that I’ll probably have to spend a few dozen lengthy articles trying to address on the blog down the road… :)
April 7, 2013 at 4:57 pm
Your words echo something I wrote in an older blog post:
The answer is likely to be unpleasant. :)
April 7, 2013 at 9:02 pm
Just imagine how well Infidel would have sold if they’d marketed it as a “Tragedy” rather than adventure story! ;-) (But the label actually fits the classical definition, in the sense that the protagonist is undone by a fatal flaw, namely greed.)
Not quite following why Berlyn said he hated the game. Yes, some of the seminal examples of the genre are racist, but it’s not clear to me that racism is inherent; if the protagonist is white (not necessarily so), couldn’t nonwhite characters be allies rather than adversaries, and/or just as smart, loyal, brave, etc. as the protagonist? As for “ransacking,” etc., was it really essential that the protagonist be out to plunder rather than simply discover? Or did Infocom think that would have been too boring?
I played the game more than 25 years ago, so I don’t exactly recall what I thought of the ending, but I do remember thinking, about the various “if only”s, “but you didn’t give me a chance to do any of that!” As you’ve discussed elsewhere, the lack of a true choice makes the ending pretty limited as a morality tale. You can call it a tragedy, but it’s more a tragedy witnessed than participated in.
April 8, 2013 at 7:56 am
I do think it’s a stretch to call Infidel a tragedy. If we go with the definition of a tragic hero being an otherwise noble person with a single tragic flaw, the hero of Infidel is obviously disqualified because he’s just an all-around jerk, without a single redeeming feature. Greed is only the tip of the iceberg here.
I’m not really sold on that conventional Anglo grade school definition of tragedy anyway. It can be forced to fit with, say, most of Shakespeare with a bit of contortions and straining, but that’s not how the Greeks saw tragedy, and not how the continental European tradition sees it. I’m more sympathetic to the view of tragedy as a correction of something out of harmony in the universe. Think of “The time is out of joint…” from Hamlet. Matter of fact, I’ve removed the line about Infocom not releasing any more interactive tragedies, because now that I think about it they did. I would say the game that uses that line — Trinity — is the one from Infocom that really does feel like an interactive tragedy to me.
As far as Beryln: the only adjective I can use is “mercurial.” That said, I haven’t heard him badmouth Infidel in a long time. When asked recently by Jason Scott, he actually named it as the single game of his he was most proud of. So who knows really. That’s why I didn’t make too much of his professed dissatisfaction with the game at the time in the article, although, since it had a prominent mention in the online chat I dearly wanted to quote, I thought I had to give it a mention.
April 8, 2013 at 3:01 pm
“Mercurial” should be on Berlyn’s tombstone, yes. But maybe the more literary efforts of latter-day games in general and parser-based IF in particular have given him a different view of Infidel in retrospect.
I’m not necessarily bound to that definition of tragedy either, at least not as restrictively as the Greeks understood it. The “noble” part would probably eliminate most of the relevant Shakespeare plays, and most readers these days probably associate the “tragedy” form with Shakespeare more than ancient Greece anyway. (And what would we call Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth if we were being strict about it?) The classical label fits Trinity even less, as the protagonist doesn’t really have a characterization there; the only thing we know is that he/she values inexpensive vacation packages.
(Your definition is intriguing, and it does fit a lot of more modern tragedies–say, Things Fall Apart, or Light in August. Though I’m not sure it would capture Othello.)
One further thought: Infidel has the most strongly characterized protagonist of any Infocom game (even if much of the characterization was only through the feelies); the only other PC that comes close, I think, is that of Plundered Hearts, many years later. Given the return to PC-as-cipher in the games following Infidel, it seems like that particular experiment was not viewed as successful among the Infocom folks (and the sales figures probably didn’t help). If so, I wonder whether they overlearned the lesson–a fully characterized protagonist doesn’t *have* to be an antihero.
April 10, 2013 at 9:27 am
Besides Arthur Dent, who was kind of there by default, there was also Perry from A Mind Forever Voyaging. Interestingly, that was another commercial disappointment which prompted a “Well, not gonna try THAT again” reaction from Infocom. And there was Shogun, but I think Dave Lebling would prefer we just forget that one. :)
April 10, 2013 at 12:05 pm
Sure, but Perry–by his very nature–doesn’t have much personality, even in the simulations, and while Arthur in the book is a pretty distinct personality, not much of that shows up in the game. You could say the same of Watson in Sherlock.
(I tend to view Shogun in the same light as, say, Battletech and Mines of Titan: Activision’s project, not Infocom’s. I know it’s parser-based, but it’s still not something that Infocom would likely have done willingly.)
April 8, 2013 at 6:04 pm
A few quick notes.
Mercurial describes Berlyn exactly – he has had a very up and down relationship with his game-making past. He obviously loves the process of creating games and making something people enjoy, but has not always enjoyed the business side of it. It’s obvious that at the later points of his life he just wants a steady source of income for himself and his wife Muffy (the tale of Michael and Muffy Berlyn is one of the greatest love stories you could tell, if someone took the time to).
He was the first interview conducted for GET LAMP, in 2006, and it was much later in the production he indicated he would prefer not to be in the movie. I asked him what specifically he was worried about, and he was worried I’d paint him as someone who treasured his time at Infocom, when his opinion was one more of having done good work there but under some pretty terrible and incompatible management. I told him I’d cut the movie so he never complimented Infocom’s management or direction, which, if you watch the movie in that context (as well as the Infocom special feature), he never, ever does. (All Infocom alumni had a final approval of final cut, which none of them used to make any changes whatsoever.)
He also indicated to me his interview was more positive than he would have liked, because he was trying to be respectful to this guy making such an effort to fly in and interview him. That said, I think he’s pretty accurate in his description of his work and the motivations.
And I agree strongly – Suspended was so far ahead of its time in terms of changing perception and awareness of what these games could do.
April 8, 2013 at 9:59 pm
Knowing Infidel was coming up, I mused a bit on the “Egyptian archaeology” adventures that had preceded it (along with “Pyramid 2000” and “Pyramid of Doom,” I remembered Sands of Egypt, which seemed familiar among Color Computer users for no better reason than that it was sold at Radio Shack, and whose manual also describes an “abandoned in the desert by your irate expedition” scenario but makes more of a joke of it) and remembered what you’d already said in “Let’s Tell a Story Together” about Scorpia’s negative reaction. Before you pointed out a few examples in the game’s text, I had wondered about a split between “characterization in the manual” and the game itself, which I suppose ties into an issue of “imposing” characterization on second-person text. I then wondered about more recent works of interactive fiction, but had to confront how I don’t play as much of it as I think I “ought to”…
April 9, 2013 at 4:22 pm
Final observation: In the space of a year, Infocom released Zork III and Infidel, both of which subverted expectations by seeming to offer a treasure hunt and delivering something very different–though Infidel was somewhat more in-your-face about it, didn’t reveal what was going on until the very end, and made things even less appealing by having you play an antihero. I’d say that Zork III is much more fondly remembered than Infidel for those reasons–there may be other reasons as well–but I wonder whether marketing also had concerns about how the unusual pacing and structure of Zork III would go over.
Also, I tend to view Floyd’s death in Planetfall and the ending of Infidel very differently. The former appealed to the player’s emotions; the latter asked for a more cerebral response (why did the game end that way? should it have ended differently? should the game have treated the protagonist as the player’s avatar or as an actual character?). Certainly, to the extent there was an emotional response to the latter, it would be negative, and would be directed at the game itself, not at the story the game was telling. I don’t have a problem with killing Floyd, silly song aside, and there are quite a few problems with Infidel’s ending even granting its conceptual brilliance, but I don’t think they’re cut from the same cloth.
April 10, 2013 at 2:08 am
I never heard about any marketing concerns relating to Zork III. However, that game came out before the full Infocom machine (so to speak) was up and running. There really wasn’t a marketing department to speak of at that time.
I agree that the death of Floyd and the ending of Infidel are very different moments. I really lump them together only as two shocking moments from the same year that pushed the envelope of what an adventure game was or could be.
April 17, 2013 at 1:03 am
I’m afraid I was one of the fogeys who was annoyed by the ending, although reading this entry now (and after not having thought about Infidel in ages), I see what Berlyn was trying to do. i also have a vague memory of meeting Berlyn briefly once and complaining about the ending. This makes me cringe now, but at the time I had no idea about the hate mail or the Scorpia issue, since I didn’t hang out on gaming message boards. He politely said something along the lines of his argument quoted here and moved along.
This is a discussion that really goes to the heart of whether these games are Interactive Fiction. Like fiction, they can make you feel and think new things, but the fact that the gamer is the protagonist is a real limitation. The Infocom game I think was most successful as art was Trinity, and the protagonist is a cipher.
Hence the cliche of the adventurer starting the game by awaking with amnesia …
April 17, 2013 at 1:04 am
Oh, and $30-$40 was worth a lot more then, kids!
April 17, 2013 at 5:36 am
Around 1999, Berlyn ported one of his games, Dr. Dumont’s Wild P.A.R.T.I., to Inform, adding a bunch of stuff and selling it when he took his own stab at commercial IF (“GET LAMP” gets his thoughts on this venture). I was lucky enough to betatest the Inform game (lucky since I enjoyed the game a lot), but I thought the ending didn’t have enough “pow!” and told him so. Specifically, I wanted something that rehashed all of the characters you had met in the game.
He threw together a version that did just that, and I remember liking it a lot. Some years later, I played through the final released version, and I’m pretty sure the ending was much closer to the original ending, if not exactly the same.
To its credit, I liked it a lot better the second time I saw it (and will gladly admit that I was wrong about it), but now I wonder if Berlyn threw that other ending together, thinking, ok, this is the cheesiest crap I can think of. If he like this, this guy knows nothing!
October 6, 2013 at 4:59 am
I’m writing from the distant future (October), where I assure you racism is still very much a thing. I have to say that I find the concept of a game chastising you for decisions you haven’t made pretty distasteful. Unless Infidel has a MAKE BETTER LIFE CHOICES command, it has no business criticizing the bad choices we didn’t even choose. Maybe the game should be directly criticizing the player. Are we not monsters who led the PC to his ignominous death over and over? Enslaved him to do our bidding?
Also: “what kind of a human being would even WANT to ransack a national shrine like a pyramid” is some weak lame stuff. What kind of a human being hacked up a troll and a thief in cold blood? I didn’t lose much sleep over those either. One assumes when one is in a fictional universe that in this universe, this is the way things are done. Suspension of disbelief, you know? If you wanted us to feel bad about sacking a “national shrine”, you have to populate the game with NPCs who pester you about how very holy their national shrine is. You have to have an alternate ending where you decide not to do it! If you want to subvert the conventions of storytelling/gameplay, you have to set up the groundwork for it, not just yank the rug out in the last scene.
June 30, 2014 at 6:49 am
I’ve tried to avoid the spoiler in this article, but maybe skimmed too much of the text in order to achieve this.
Isn’t there a way in WordPress where you can visibly spoilertag those parts of the text where the game is spoilered? Maybe hide them? Make the reader click to let the spoilers appear? Make them white text? Bold the text so that you can easily find the place but are able to avoid it if you want?
June 30, 2014 at 7:24 am
In some cases I do hide spoilers, if it’s just a single puzzle solution, a riddle answer, etc. But the whole thrust of this article hinges on the ending of Infidel; there wouldn’t be much there that *wasn’t* hidden. It’s not like I didn’t warn you… ;)
July 11, 2015 at 1:24 am
I can see the frustration a lot of people felt with the ending. What I always thought would have made a vast improvement in the way it came across would be if there was an option to head back to civilisation from the first location – possibly after asking for confirmation. It would end the game immediately, with a paragraph about how you stagger back into Cairo, thirsty, exhausted, your career in ruins and in a great deal of trouble. Giving the player that option from the start, even though it would seem like a bad game over, would later turn out to be the best way of playing, facing up to your terrible decisions rather than continuing to ignore them and plunge blindly onwards.
July 11, 2015 at 9:30 am
That’s actually kind of brilliant. Wish I had thought of it!
September 10, 2015 at 3:29 pm
Or, after the description of the walls closing in: you wake up, drenched with sweat, in your tent. You lie on your cot for a while, lost in thought. Then you heave yourself to your feet and set off for Cairo, composing an apologetic letter to Craige on the way.
A cop-out? Kind of. (This device always comes across as a cop-out in films.) But it at least offers a modicum of character development.
August 11, 2015 at 6:56 pm
Years later Curses! would offer a similar possibility, but turn it into a jokey ending (and yet, it is still the most sensible thing to do, I feel, when presented with those cruel, cruel puzzles. Bugger the whole thing, I’ll buy me a map in Paris).
if Infidel had done it, it would have been even more of a statement, and even more ground-breaking. Ain’t hindsight grand.
BTW, I’ve read about an alternate way to “end” the game… you don’t actually end it. You collect all the treasures except the sarcophagus, then make your way back to the tent, and quit. Bam. No actual reward, other than possibly the smug satisfaction of having avoided that deathtrap…
..which is in keeping with the character of the PC, come to think of it. Cute.
September 10, 2015 at 3:23 pm
Haven’t you burned some bridges by the time you get to the sarcophagus, though? Like, at least one floor has collapsed behind you (and your handy beam is no longer available).
June 7, 2019 at 4:05 am
Actually, the beam is still available, but if you remove it from its current position, you end up burning a bridge back to the Burial Chamber permanently, as the block it’s preventing from falling will end up sealing the area off.
November 29, 2015 at 11:22 pm
and possibly missing your fingers (you can feed them to the rats in the pit). Don’t ask why I thought to try it.
November 30, 2015 at 3:57 am
…I basically want to immediately run off and try this.
January 1, 2021 at 3:02 am
On the off chance that you see this reply… what specific command should I be using? The game doesn’t recognize the nouns “rat” or “rats”, nor will it let me drop or throw my fingers or hands; oddly, it tells me “You don’t have that” if I try “fingers”. (So it seems, at least in the version I’m playing, that the weird implementation of body parts that is in some Infocom games allowing you to throw bits of yourself and get responses like “the pair of hands sails away” is not at work in Infidel.) I can drop normal objects into the pit, but the response is not very interesting – it just says I hear the object hit the bottom.
December 20, 2020 at 8:44 pm
way of over his head -> way over his head
December 21, 2020 at 8:54 am
December 21, 2020 at 8:37 pm
Been 35 or so years since I played and I remember thinking it was a very good came.
Basically there are good puzzles to solve, and you get to the end, and the character you are playing gets his comeuppance. Don’t see why that would be, in any way, a reflection on me. Thought it was interesting and a little gutsy.
I guess some people need the protagonist in the game they are playing to end up with riches and/or fame. People can be weird.
December 27, 2020 at 4:30 pm
The answer to this question may be obvious (I haven’t played the game or seen any of the “feelies”) – but do we actually know that the protagonist of Infidel is white?
December 28, 2020 at 2:48 am
It’s clear from the feelies (mostly diary entries) that the protagonist is some kind of “ugly American”, but I don’t think there is unequivocal evidence of their being white. The strongest line I could find was “I guess it’s true what they say about us all being brothers under the skin”, suggesting that the protagonist has a different skin color than “the locals” whom they keep othering, although that still affords several possibilities. Even less conclusively, their boss (?) Craige is described as fitting the image of the “great white hunter”.
I cannot say with 100% certainty that there are no references to pale skin or even to sunburn within the game text (not that darker skin tones cannot suffer sunburn), but I feel like there probably aren’t. To make the point about the desert, they turned to other descriptors, like squinting against the sun. You can’t even “examine me” (the response to the command is humorous). Overall I suspect the Imps went to their usual pains to be very noncommittal about the physical characteristics of the player character.
That said, the whole scenario does rather evoke white colonialism and “British Empire” attitudes about Egypt or other “exotic” cultures — for example, the limestone cube and map are provided by a woman from Cambridge, MA (itself probably just one of those Infocom self-references, but there is that kind of old-white-family-with-money whiff there) who inherited it from her ca. 1915-1920 archaeologist father.
February 24, 2021 at 10:10 am
Try swimming in the Nile and you’ll see how accessible they are.
March 10, 2021 at 8:23 pm
Any player will surely have died many times before reaching the ending so why is the sudden final death “for real” and the previous deaths “don’t count”? This means the failure and success states of the game are the same; you die. What’s the narrative difference between dying of thirst a few turns in and going to the effort of solving all the puzzles only to end up the same way?
As for the idea the player’s character has a pre-defined (and vicious) personality I think it’s sorely undercut by there being no exercise of this personality *in the game* because there are no other characters. It’s as if the ending is saying it hopes you remember reading the “feelies” however many days or weeks ago (games are played at the player’s pace) because now it’s finally paying off after all that other stuff.
I’m not convinced by the racial punishment angle this article suggests as the laments of the doomed character amount to regretting recklessness and selfishness, not the whole venture itself. If he could do it again he’d still dig up the pyramid; he’d just be taking orders from Craig and be more reasonable with the workers.
November 2, 2021 at 6:10 am
Having never played Infidel (or even much heard of it, as it sounds like Infocom buried it in the catalog rather quickly), that is my question.
I would have assumed this was a false (losing) ending, just because I hadn’t solved some subtle puzzle or wasn’t carrying some critical missed piece of inventory or etc. I might have tried replaying from some saves, but eventually concluded “well, I finished that game but not *really*”. I would never ever have sat around contemplating “well, that’s what I get for being a greedy imperialist tomb raider”. Just that I hadn’t “really won”.
The actual premise of this game seems to be that players have some great unwerving faith in “Game Designers” (or “Infocom Game Designers”), to the extent that we can trust them to subvert the medium to make banal trailing-edge social commentary about 19th century aristrocratic boobs. With the only reward being mentally jumping around and shaking our pom-poms when they inevitably die in karma earthquakes.
Back in reality, Lord British and etc were making games where if you walked into the wrong square, you fell in lava and died.
Jacen aka Jaina
August 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm
Every time I think of this game, I wonder if it would be better or worse for having a way to avoid dying at the end. What if by translating the hardest hieroglyphics correctly it warned of the death trap? Allowing the character / the player to escape with a little bit of loot and a lot of knowledge.
Judging by the other comments, something about this game definitely seems to inspire a lot of what ifs… Which an alternate ending might not provide. And I’m sure I’ll ponder it once more next time I think about this game, which is not something I can say about many games, so that is in itself an achievement.
February 17, 2022 at 11:16 pm
I can’t speak for the great Scorpia, but perhaps the issue is that no crucial decisions are made by the player. At the start of the game, the player character has already made the stupid decisions that have sealed his fate, and the player’s job is just to shepherd him to his inevitable doom. Protagonists don’t have to be likable, but the player comes into the story in the third act as a sidekick!
Google Existential Anguish
July 9, 2022 at 8:16 pm
The player should be entertained. That’s the bottom line. Game authors should never attempt to make any “clever” twist or gotcha or, god forbid, statement – unless it’s one that will presumably entertain the player and give him that sweet dopamine hit that he paid good money for.
It’s so simple, yet you see modern day devs like Neil “Last of Us 2” Druckmann falling in the exact same trap. Almost 40 years and countless billions of dollars later the industry still hasn’t figured it out. You must entertain the player, it’s not optional.
In this case the game’s author is effectively chastising the player for wanting to play a Raiders of the Lost King Solomon’s Mummy type game at all. But if he genuinely believed that want is immoral, why is he a) making, b) advertising and c) selling a game in that genre? Finger-wagging does not wash away your sins or make you likable. It just makes your game flop.
July 19, 2022 at 5:49 pm
Having just played it I didn’t particularly mind the ending, it seemed fitting that in the end greed always has a price too steep to pay. People getting their come uppance for greed is a story as old as time. But it felt like a cheap trick on the part of the writers and reading that Berlyn despised his own game almost makes you feel like he’s taking revenge on the players for enjoying a spot of Tomb Raiding. I mean Lara Croft is hardly an angel either is she, but we enjoy it.
Anyway wouldn’t it have been more transgressive if you’d actually been playing as hero Craige who as someone else mentioned fits the white hunter trope and had it all go wrong for Mr Super Competent? Or what if your character had been one of the Egyptian workers decide to strike out on his own, would Infocom feel so high on their horse about killing the character then?
IF suffered in part because a certain set around it have pretensions of it being a higher form of art than it is really capable of being. It has to be a good game first, and good piece of art as a close second, a constraint a book doesn’t have.
ps One thing I hate in Infocom games is all that cheesy self referential stuff, like when you read the inspection sticker on the trunk and it goes on about the imps who made this reality, way to blow the suspension of disbelief before the player even got going. Breaking the fourth wall is only cute in a comedy game like Monkey Island.