As Infocom settled into their middle and latter period, their game releases also settled into a fairly predictable pattern that tried to balance innovation with traditionalism. Steve Meretzky:
The hardcore gamers, the people who liked Zork and just wanted more like Zork from Infocom, they were always made unhappy by [games like] A Mind Forever Voyaging or Plundered Hearts or Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. Anything that we did that was moving in a different direction or in any way experimental, they would always squawk. So the company’s plan was basically to try to do some of each, to always do a game or two every year that would be the “red meat” for those original hardcore players, and then to try to innovate with some of the other games each year.
Our subject for today, Spellbreaker, was the long-awaited third game in the Enchanter trilogy as well as Infocom’s most blatant of all bits of pandering to these traditionalists, who made up a much larger percentage of the company’s fan base than Infocom’s modern reputation for relentless innovation and dedication to the literary aspects of the humble text adventure might seem to imply. An “Expert” level game, it was explicitly created by Dave Lebling as a response to the carping of the hardcore of the hardcore that Infocom’s games had been getting much too easy since the days of Zork. “You want a diamond-hard, traditional puzzlefest?” Infocom asked. “Fine, we’ll give you a diamond-hard, traditional puzzlefest!” Coming out just weeks after the radical departure that was A Mind Forever Voyaging, Spellbreaker could almost be read as an apology to the hardcore for that namby-pamby, touchy-feely effort.
That said, it should also be noted that the concerns about creeping easiness, engendered by an ever more thorough testing process and the thoroughgoing sense of fair play that was always one of Infocom’s noblest traits, were not confined to fans outside the company. Meretzky himself, the perpetrator of A Mind Forever Voyaging, has noted that he also felt concerned as time wore on that at least certain types of Infocom games were losing some of their core appeal, that the struggle and sweat of the Zork games, the compulsion to jump out of bed in the middle of the night to test out some crazy action that just might solve a heretofore intractable puzzle, was the very thing that drew many people to them. Spellbreaker would be Infocom’s attempt to rekindle the masochistic joy of Zork.
There’s always a tendency in all forms of criticism to fetishize innovation over virtually everything else; music critics, for instance, will always favor the Clash, who morphed and relentlessly experimented and soon collapsed under the sheer weight of their artistic ambitions, over their punk-era counterparts Stiff Little Fingers, who have just continued to do what they’re good at for decades. It’s an understandable and even defensible impulse, but I also have to confess that, just as I’m more likely to pull out Stiff Little Fingers’s Go For It! than any Clash album, if you asked me which game among A Mind Forever Voyaging and Spellbreaker I most enjoy just playing every five to ten years, I’d have to name Spellbreaker. Spellbreaker is as constrained a design as A Mind Forever Voyaging is boundary-shattering: constrained by its need to please the puzzle-hungry hardcore, by its need to fit in with the two previous games of the Enchanter trilogy and continue with their spell-based puzzle mechanics and Zorkian fantasy premises. But it’s also an absolutely brilliant specimen of traditionalist adventure gaming, one of the best, tightest examples of pure game design Infocom ever crafted.
As old school as its sensibilities may appear in comparison to its immediate predecessor, Spellbreaker is not devoid of theoretical or historical interest. Far from it. In its quiet way, it asserts a profoundly important idea for the craft of adventure-game design: that fairness and difficulty are two independent scales. If virtually any of Infocom’s contemporaries decided to make a self-consciously difficult game like Spellbreaker, they would have simply filled it with punishing mazes and riddles and guess-the-verb problems and inscrutable puzzles dependent on unmotivated actions. We know this because that’s exactly what they did, over and over again. (For instance, have a look at Scott Adams’s two-part alleged brain-burner Savage Island for everything not to do in an adventure game in one convenient place). Certain designers never could seem to separate fairness from difficulty in their minds. (I can’t help but think of Anita Sinclair, who pronounced on the eve of Magnetic Scrolls’s second release Guild of Thieves that this would be an “easier” game. Actually, no, it turned out to be a very hard game — just one that wasn’t blatantly, repeatedly unfair like its predecessor The Pawn.) Many fans still have trouble with the concept today; I get occasional emails in response to my coverage of notable offenders like Roberta Williams’s The Wizard and the Princess and Time Zone asking why I’m so hard on “difficult” games, forcing me to respond that, no, I’m actually only hard on unfair games. One could advance a fairly compelling argument that the failure of the adventure-game industry at large to grasp this distinction played a big part in the commercial death of the text adventure — how many veteran gamers still remember the form largely for mazes, guess-the-verb, and illogical puzzles? — as well as the longstanding commercial doldrums of graphical adventures, what with their pixel hunts and click-everywhere-and-use-everything-on-everything-else-until-something-happens model of game design.
Spellbreaker is very tough, but it’s also downright noble in its commitment to fairness. There is, if you’ll pardon me, no bullshit here, none of the cheap tricks, designed and implemented in less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, that designers have so often used to artificially lengthen games and make players pull their hair out. You don’t even need to draw a map to play Spellbreaker — but never fear, you will likely want pen and paper to sketch and plan and diagram a long series of tantalizing puzzles that have been lovingly crafted over days and weeks. In my book, that’s the way a game like this ought to be. Spellbreaker is a veritable capsule history of adventure-game puzzles (the good ones, that is): intricate pure spatial and mathematical puzzles like those so common in the Phoenix games; clever object-application puzzles; logistical puzzles requiring long-term planning; the best and most satisfying application yet of the spell system invented for Enchanter; the latest and greatest and most intricate in an ongoing series of Infocom time-travel puzzles; even a social-interaction puzzle to keep you on your toes. And there are lots and lots of them. While it runs under the standard 128 K Z-Machine, Spellbreaker stuffs it right to its limit, and will take quite some hours to complete. There are one or two puzzles that I might wish had been a bit less difficult — most notably a certain puzzle that takes place in a lava field and hinges on a property of a certain little box that you’re unlikely to discover until you really have exhausted every possibility for experimentation — but none that I can label truly unfair if we’re willing to give the game a free pass on Graham Nelson’s prohibitions against the occasional need for knowledge of future events and knowledge gained from dying. The key thing is that you can trust Spellbreaker as you try to beat it, can trust that the solution to the puzzle on which you’re currently working can be arrived at through observation and deduction rather than being some random phrase to be typed or senseless action to perform. I can’t emphasize enough what a difference this trust — or, perhaps better said, its absence in so many other games — makes for the player’s experience.
The plot is obviously not the first priority for either player or writer of a game like this, but Spellbreaker‘s is in some ways more interesting than it ought to be. Having averted two previous disasters in Enchanter and Sorcerer, you’ve been elevated to head of the Circle of Enchanters. But now suddenly magic itself has begun to fail throughout the realm. The game opens at a conclave of Guildmasters that has been called to address the problem. Lebling was, along with Brian Moriarty and perhaps Jeff O’Neill, the best crafter of prose amongst all the Imps, and his writing is particularly good here, sparkling with subtle wit.
Sneffle of the Guild of Bakers is addressing the gathering. "Do you know what this is doing to our business? Do you know how difficult it is to make those yummy butter pastries by hand? When a simple 'gloth' spell would fold the dough 83 times it was possible to make a profit, but now 'gloth' hardly works, and when it does, it usually folds the dough too often and the butter melts, or it doesn't come out the right size, or..." He stops, apparently overwhelmed by the prospect of a world where the pastries have to be hand-made. "Can't you do anything about this? You're supposed to know all about magic!"
Hoobly of the Guild of Brewers stands, gesturing at the floury baker. "You don't know what trouble is! Lately, what comes out of the vats, like as not, is cherry flavored or worse. The last vat, I swear it, tasted as if grues had been bathing in it. It takes magic to turn weird vegetables and water into good Borphee beer. Well, without magic, there isn't going to be any beer!" This statement has a profound effect on portions of the crowd. You can hear rumblings from the back concerning Enchanters. The word "traitors" rises out of nowhere. Your fellow Enchanters are looking at one another nervously.
Then everyone except for you is abruptly turned into some variety of small amphibian, and your adventure truly begins. Ah, well, what did a committee hearing ever accomplish anyway?
You find yourself pursuing a mysterious antagonist — obviously the source of the magical disruptions — through a whole series of interlinked scenic vignettes, most no more than a few rooms in size (thus the lack of the need for mapping), which you reach by casting the Blorple spell (“explore an object’s mystic connections”) on a series of magical cubes you find. The acquisition of more of these cubes, representing as each does the next waypoint in a grand chase across time and space, turns out to be the main goal of most of the scenes you visit.
While certain aspects of Spellbreaker, like a group of wandering boulders on which you have to hitch a ride at one point, suggest that Lebling may have been reading Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels (as it happens, a subject we’ll get to very soon in another article), the most marked literary influence is Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, a great favorite of Lebling’s. Like the young wizard Ged, the protagonist of Spellbreaker realizes at the story’s climax that the shadowy being against whom he has been struggling is in fact a shadow of himself. The discovery is followed by Spellbreaker‘s ambiguously profound coda.
The shadow, now as solid as a real person, performs a back flip into the tesseract. "No!" It screams. "Stop! Fool, you've destroyed me! You've destroyed magic itself! All my lovely plans!" Now glowing as brightly as the construction it made, the figure approaches the center. It grows smaller and smaller, and just before it disappears, the hypercube vanishes with a pop, and the "magic" cube melts in your hand like an ice cube.
You find yourself back in Belwit Square, all the Guildmasters and even Belboz crowding around you. "A new age begins today," says Belboz after hearing your story. "The age of magic is ended, as it must, for as magic can confer absolute power, so it can also produce absolute evil. We may defeat this evil when it appears, but if wizardry builds it anew, we can never ultimately win. The new world will be strange, but in time it will serve us better."
Your score is 600 of a possible 600, in 835 moves. This puts you in the class of Scientist.
As with so much of Brian Moriarty’s best work, Spellbreaker‘s ending makes more mythic than literal sense. It seems our efforts have only led to the end of the Age of Magic and the beginning of the Age of Science. You can read this in many ways — personal and public, negative and positive. You can cast it as the proverbial setting aside of childish things (while hopefully still leaving space for the occasional computer game), marching into a future of adulthood and responsibility with clear eyes. You can cast it in a melancholy light, as the loss of, well, magic in a modern world where everything is already explored and mapped and monitored. Or you can, as I prefer, cast it as the dawning of a better age free of the prejudices and superstitious dependencies of the past. Any way you cast it, to my mind this textual Rorschach test is one of the strongest endings in the Infocom canon; the contrast of “Scientist” with your penultimate title of “Archmage” is bracing and surprising in all the right ways.
That, then, is Spellbreaker, and a thoroughly admirable effort it is. But I couldn’t conclude this article without also describing the great Spellbreaker vs. Mage feud of 1985, an internal struggle so pitched that it still prompts sheepish half-grins and slight discomfort amongst the principal antagonists, Mike Dornbrook and Dave Lebling, today.
Almost from the point he first accepted the assignment to finish out the Enchanter trilogy, Lebling had planned to call his game Mage. It not only gave the names in the trilogy a nice consonance, what with all being synonyms for a wizard or magic user, but also implied a progression of increasing magical potency. When Dornbrook’s marketing people did some impromptu person-on-the-street questioning, however, they discovered a dismaying fact: most people had never heard the word “mage” and had no idea how to pronounce it. Most opted for either something that rhymed with “badge” or a vaguely French pronunciation, like the second syllable in “garage.” The package designers were also concerned that the name was just too short and bland-looking, that it wouldn’t “pop” like it needed to on a store shelf. So Dornbrook went back to Lebling to tell him that the name just wasn’t going to work; they’d have to come up with another.
This in itself wasn’t all that unusual; games like Wishbringer, which had the perfect name almost from the beginning and kept it until release, were more the exception than the rule at Infocom. Most of the time the Imp responsible realized that his title was less than ideal and was willing to accept alternatives. That, however, was not the case this time. Lebling got his back up, determined that his game would be Mage and only Mage. Dornbrook got his up in response, and a lengthy struggle ensued. The other Imps and the other marketers fell in behind their respective standard bearers, leaving poor Jon Palace caught in the middle trying to broker some sort of compromise for a situation which didn’t really seem to allow for one; after all, in the end the game would either be called Mage or it wouldn’t.
From the perspective of today, the most interesting thing about this whole situation is the fact that so many people didn’t know the word “mage” in the first place. It really serves to highlight how much fantasy (nerd?) culture has penetrated the mainstream in this post-Peter Jackson, post-Harry Potter, post-World of Warcraft world in which we live. In 1985 Lebling’s strongest argument against marketing’s findings, one which strikes me as entirely reasonable, was that Dornbrook and company had simply been polling the wrong people. While the average person on the street may not have known the word “mage,” those likely to be interested in the third game of a fantasy trilogy explicitly pitched toward Infocom’s most hardcore fans almost certainly did. As for the aforementioned person on the street, she wasn’t likely to buy the game no matter what it was called.
As usual with such spats inside any relationship, there was actually a lot going on here beyond the ostensible bone of contention. Dornbrook had been frustrated for years already by what he saw as the Imps’ refusal to properly leverage the most valuable marketing tool at their disposal, the name Zork itself. Back in the company’s earliest days, when he had founded the Zork Users Group, he had simply assumed that Infocom would stamp the Zork brand on everything that would hold still for long enough.
It [the game that became Deadline] would have been Zork: The Mystery, etc. I thought that made sense at the time. We had this incredibly strong brand name. To me they were just going to be Zorks. We were going to own a word like “aspirin.” The name for a text adventure was going to be a Zork, and we were going to own that. But a decision was made while I was in business school and not contributing to the decision-making that we didn’t want to go down that path.
Dornbrook’s frustrations were made worse by 1983’s Enchanter, which everyone had assumed would be Zork IV until very shortly before its release, when Lebling and his coauthor Marc Blank suddenly announced that they didn’t want to be “typecast” by forever doing Zorks. Dornbrook tried fruitlessly to explain that, while it might not make sense that people would buy a game if it was called Zork but not if it was called Enchanter, that was just the way that branding worked. Observing how each game in the new trilogy sold fewer copies than the Zork games had and, even more dismayingly, fewer copies than its immediate predecessor, Dornbrook was soon convinced that the company had sacrificed tens or even hundreds of thousands of sales to the Imps’ effete artistic sensibilities.
I felt that marketing needed to be a little more respected, and if we had a strong feeling about something they [the Imps] shouldn’t just… I mean, the game developers, I got along very well and respected them, but there was a bit of, um… they were a little too full of themselves. A little too self-important. A little too, at times, megalomaniacal. Okay, that’s too strong a word… but it was frustrating sometimes from just a business standpoint. They kind of positioned themselves as, “We’re above all that! We’re artists!” Sometimes it seemed a little too precious.
As the 1980s wore on, Dornbrook couldn’t help but compare Infocom to competitors like Origin Systems and Sierra, who unabashedly milked their flagship brands — Ultima and King’s Quest respectively — for all they were worth via an open-ended series of numbered sequels, and, not coincidentally he believed, by mid-decade and beyond were selling far more games than Infocom. Dornbrook now saw a convenient opportunity to force through a mid-course correction of sorts. He thought about how Enchanter still had the internal inventory code of “Z4” at Infocom, Sorcerer and Lebling’s new game “Z5” and “Z6” respectively.
There was a time later on when I came back and seriously suggested, when there was the big fight over Mage vs. Spellbreaker, why don’t we just call it Zork VI? “You can’t do that! What about Zork IV and V?” I said, “Won’t that create a whole bunch of great questions? Maybe it will help sell Enchanter and Sorcerer if they finally realize, oh, those were Zork IV and V.” I never won that argument.
So Dornbrook still didn’t get his Zork; Lebling, who admits he was “terribly exercised” over the whole situation, wasn’t going to allow him that satisfaction, although he does concede it to have been an interesting idea worth considering today. But Lebling didn’t get his Mage either. The game shipped as another suggestion of Dornbrook’s people, Spellbreaker — not a half-bad name in my book, for what it’s worth. Lebling, however, wasn’t pleased at all, and indulged in an uncharacteristic final bit of sour-grapesmanship by sneaking a new routine into the final version that caused it to call itself Mage in the title line about one time out of every hundred.
The worrisome downward sales trend that Dornbrook had spotted wasn’t halted by Spellbreaker. Like its predecessor A Mind Forever Voyaging, it sold only about 30,000 copies, making these latest games the two least successful Infocom had so far released. There were obvious reasons for the low sales of each attributable to it specifically rather than Infocom’s position in the market as a whole — A Mind Forever Voyaging was highly experimental and required a fairly powerful computer to run, while Spellbreaker was unlikely to appeal to anyone who wasn’t already a hardcore Infocom fan who had already played Enchanter and Sorcerer — but, well, let’s just say that Dornbrook and everyone else had good reason to be worried.
But such external concerns needn’t distract us from playing and enjoying Spellbreaker today. It’s certainly not the place to start with Infocom, but when you’re ready for it it will be there waiting for you. It really is a masterful piece of game design, and even offers some lovely writing as well. It just might be Dave Lebling’s finest hour — and considering that Lebling also co-wrote Enchanter (and considering how much this critic loves that game as well) that’s really saying something.
(Most of the information here is, again, drawn from Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interview archives. The insight about A Wizard of Earthsea‘s influence on Spellbreaker I owe to an eight-year-old email exchange with Graham Nelson — to whom I also owe thanks just for getting me to read that book.)
May 16, 2014 at 5:56 pm
If you haven’t read all the way to the end of the Earthsea trilogy, do so. You will find a lot of resonances with Spellbreaker in the third book–and while the second doesn’t share any notable similarities, it’s the best of the three, in my view.
May 16, 2014 at 6:59 pm
Thanks! Been on my to-read list for a long time. Maybe this will bump them up a notch or two in priority.
May 16, 2014 at 6:02 pm
Also, on the gold box puzzle, I agree that this was under-clued. It would have been somewhat fairer if
(spoilers, I guess)
the game had somehow hinted at a connection between the box and the unusable exit. One way to do this might have been, if you’re holding the box when you’re “inside” the cube (and thus you still can’t use the exit), to say that you can’t force your way through the exit but vary the message somehow. Maybe say the exit “flashes gold” if you try to go through it.
June 2, 2014 at 10:26 pm
The reason I always thought the outcropping puzzle was unfair was that you had to drop the box to solve it. Now the only reasons to drop an item in an IF game are (a) if it’s useless – but the box is useful – and (b) if you’re carrying too much – but you can carry everything in the zipper. I got through Enchanter, Sorcerer and most of Spellbreaker without hints, but that puzzle sent me to the Invisiclues.
May 16, 2014 at 6:24 pm
Yes, I came up with the same fix for the unusable exit.
While Spellbreaker is my favorite Infocom game on the puzzle axis, I do have to ding it a few points for including the cube-weighing puzzle. That was an old chestnut in the 80s and Infocom’s version didn’t add anything. It didn’t even feel consistent with the rest of the game’s magic, exactly.
(Contrast the rock-riding puzzle: that’s an example of a well-known *class* of puzzle, but it was distinctive, smoothly integrated, and added some fun dialogue.)
May 16, 2014 at 7:05 pm
I don’t have a big problem with the cube-“weighing” puzzle, although I have heard others make similar complaints before. I thought making you measure their magic potency instead of weight was a clever twist, and — similar to your impression of the rock-riding puzzle, I guess — the urgency of the time limit and all really added something for me. (Even saving is disabled inside the vault!) I’m always almost fist pumping after solving it.
I think Infocom went back to this well yet again in Zork Zero, by which time it *was* starting to feel a bit lazy, but I might be misremembering.
The rock-riding puzzle, for what it’s worth, is virtually a clone of a similar puzzle in Kingdom of Hamil, but, true to the Phoenix games’ reputation, there it’s much more cruel — deadly in fact if you screw up. I doubt this is a case of direct lifting (I don’t think anyone at Infocom was aware of the Phoenix games at the time) as both designers just having a similar library of old-chestnut puzzle books.
May 16, 2014 at 7:59 pm
No coin-weighing in Zork Zero, but they did use virtually every other puzzle in the canon, including the measuring-out-liquids-with-two-odd-sized-containers one–maybe you’re thinking of that.
May 16, 2014 at 10:21 pm
I could have railed against the design cowardice of Zork Zero, but I figured I’d wait until the blog post about it. Which will undoubtedly cover it all in detail even before the comments start. :)
February 28, 2017 at 6:24 pm
In Roberta Williams’ defense, there is a particular archetype of adventure player who imagines the mechanics of learn-by-death and guess-the-verb as a meta-puzzle worthy of solving. They are not interested in developing stories, character arcs, or logical purity (at least not as the overall goal), just the challenge of trying to get into the programmer’s clever (or devious) head.
You and I may call those puzzles “unfair” or “abusive,” but to some they are merely “hard” and clever in the same way that decoding a secret message, translating an ancient script, or reverse-engineering a framework from object-code is to others. I believe they consider themselves “hardcore adventurers” because of this, with an obviously specialized meaning of “hardcore.”
This is Roberta Williams’ target audience. You can view than as unsophisticated boors that have yet to be enlightened by the master works of Infocom or other “real” adventures; but perhaps a more honest and fair assessment is that of people with a distinct predilection to inscrutable puzzle mechanics, who consciously chose their preferred source of games out of their own personal experiences, rather than out of ignorance. They may very well have played Infocom games and decided against them out of their own will. Who are we to judge?
Don’t get me wrong, I am also of the opinion that some of those technics were not inspired due to their inherent interesting or clever qualities, but due to inexperience and primitive tools, a product of a still gestating new genre. However, I can acknowledge that they can be considered and end into themselves by some, as alien as that conclusion may seem to me.
February 28, 2017 at 6:25 pm
Whoops! The above was in reply to a comment from Jimmy below, talking about Sierra gamers. Sorry!
May 16, 2014 at 7:56 pm
Same view of the cube-weighing puzzle. It would have been better if (a) it didn’t pretty much require knowledge of the canonical puzzle–without that, you could spend forever wondering what you’re supposed to be doing with this pile of cubes, and (b) if it hadn’t illogically upped the ante by having the right cube glow either more or less than the others when you cast the magic-detection spell. Why should the only magic object glow *less* than the non-magic objects?
Also agree that this didn’t exactly fit the game–it didn’t feel organic. Most of the puzzles felt like they could have arisen out of circumstance; this one just felt like a soup-can “the villain chooses needlessly complicated ways of thwarting you” puzzle. (I guess the compass-rose puzzle isn’t particularly organic either.)
May 16, 2014 at 7:07 pm
I loved Spellbreaker, but hated its copy protection. By the time I finally got past some of the most difficult (for me) puzzles in the game (The chess puzzle and the vault), I ended up being defeated by the copy protection, which kicks in if you answer Belboz’s question incorrectly. Belboz happened to ask me about the one card in the feelies that I’d lost, so I was out of luck without knowing it for most of the game. I never finished the game, nor had the desire to replay it, after that.
May 16, 2014 at 10:07 pm
A few years ago I replayed all of the King’s Quest games and wrote up reviews. They were, on the whole, not positive. That was when I discovered that there are even fanboys and fangirls for 20 year old games, people who argued “it’s not for you“, or who insisted that I hold them to lesser standard because that’s how games were, ignoring that far less cruel Enchanter predated the entire King’s Quest series.
May 17, 2014 at 7:28 am
Yeah, it’s always shocking to me the sheer amount of abuse hardcore Sierra fans accept and even seem to relish. Roberta Williams’s occasional tin-eared comments about how gamers were more intelligent back in her day don’t help the situation. I’m not sure I can equate a willingness to be egregiously mistreated over and over again with intelligence…
February 28, 2017 at 6:30 pm
I posted a response in the wrong thread above. I just wanted my post to be taken in It’s proper context, as a response to this one.
S. John Ross
May 16, 2014 at 10:59 pm
On the matter of conflating difficulty and fairness … I think it’s just as common to see conflation of “innovation” with “novelty” when it comes to that fetishizing of innovation you mention. That’s tangential here, of course … but always just around the corner from so many game-design topics, I find.
May 17, 2014 at 6:52 am
That’s a very good point, actually, and germane to some of Infocom’s less successful later “innovations” just for the sake of it, like the real-time play in Border Zone.
May 16, 2014 at 11:10 pm
Observing how each game in the new trilogy sold fewer copies than the Zork games had and, even more dismayingly, fewer copies than its immediate successor,
I’m guessing you mean “predecessor” here?
May 17, 2014 at 6:50 am
May 17, 2014 at 12:19 am
When I saw the “Extremely Challenging” stamp for Spellbreaker in the Infocom catalog I would flip through and daydream about, my innocent impression was that the difficulty was just a matter of a ferocious time limit before your magic powers vanished altogether. (Later, in a “I wonder if this could be implemented even though I don’t know how” mood, I pondered a game where you can solve the puzzles in any order, but the solution needed for any puzzle gets harder to find the longer you put it off…) As I recall, that was one wrinkle not in the game. I’ve got to admit, though, that by the time I got to Spellbreaker among The Lost Treasures of Infocom, my scruples against turning to the hint book had vanished altogether, so I more just focused on the journey and the story…
I’m afraid my own reaction to knowing about Dave Lebling’s dismay over “Spellbreaker” being selected by marketing is similar to my reaction to knowing about Charles M. Schulz’s over “Peanuts” being selected by the syndicate: I feel sorry for him, but as that wasn’t the first title I was familiar with… The allusion to the conclusions of Brian Moriarty’s work did get my attention, but I know it’ll be a while yet before we’re next talking about that.
May 17, 2014 at 3:26 am
Most of the puzzles aren’t that difficult, in my view–it’s only the last 20% of the game or so when things get really hair-pullingly hard. (I’m thinking of the outcropping puzzle, the outer vault, the sand room puzzle, and the endgame.) The outcropping puzzle isn’t as well clued as it could be and the vault puzzle only works if you intuit what canonical puzzle was on the author’s mind, but the sand room is as good as it gets: it plays fair, it’s organic to the game, and there’s a real “aha!” feel when you figure out what’s going on. (It’s all the better because–spoiler, I guess–it requires you to take a really counterintuitive step by giving up your spellbook. And that, of course, prefigures the solution to the endgame puzzle. The elegance of those two puzzles is something to behold.)
One other bit about Spellbreaker that I’m very fond of is the way the failure of magic gradually disappears (for you, anyway) as you accumulate cubes; each cube makes one type or another of spell more likely to work properly. And when you get the last cube–wow, all this power! It makes the ending initially counterintuitive but ultimately logical: all this power concentrated in one person isn’t such a hot idea.
May 17, 2014 at 5:06 am
“the compulsion to jump out of bed in the middle of the night to test out some crazy action that just might solve a heretofore intractable puzzle.”
That’s what hooked me on IF! It’s why I still play today.
May 17, 2014 at 1:04 pm
This is off topic, but since you brought it up. I like The Clash and never really got into SLF. I think a lot of The Clash’s material still holds up very well 30 years later, particularly London Calling and the somewhat underrated second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope.
May 17, 2014 at 5:44 pm
All the Clash’s material (well, up till Jones left) still holds up for me — OK, not all the dub on Sandinista. (Bankrobber Dub, though, yes.) Even the crazy art-damaged parts of Combat Rock.
Kind of seems like SLF/The Clash might have a bit of the Terry Pratchett/Douglas Adams or Ross Macdonald/Raymond Chandler dynamic I’ve talked about here before — one is more innovative and iconic, the other has a lot more staying power.
May 18, 2014 at 9:32 am
I actually like the Clash’s later material (pre-Cut the Crap, of course; nobody likes that album) best, mostly because I never found them all that convincing as a really great straightforward rock band. Stiff Little Fingers, who could spark up some great guitar interplay especially live by the time of Go For It!, I enjoy much more on those terms. The Clash album I’m most likely to play these days, more so than any of the proper albums, is actually Super Black Market Clash; I really like all of the dub- and dance-inflected stuff in its second half especially. And Combat Rock is indeed very good; I’m an especial fan of “Straight to Hell.”
May 17, 2014 at 2:34 pm
Have there been any “difficult but fair” graphical adventures within the last ten years? All the well-respected ones I’ve tried have tended to the very easy.
May 18, 2014 at 9:25 am
I’m far from the best person to ask, but I think the Rhem games, of which I believe there have been some in the past ten years, would qualify.
But yes, the general trend (again, from this mostly bystander’s impression) has been away from the Myst-type puzzle-heavy games and more toward casual, story-focused games. Which is fine in my book. I think it’s ultimately very hard to avoid unfairness in making a difficult graphic adventure, even more so than a text adventure, especially with the ultra-streamlined interfaces that are the norm now; the scope of possibility for such an interface just doesn’t allow for a lot of intricate but fair puzzles beyond the typical sliding-blocks and so on that we’ve all seen a million times by now. I mostly play these games, when I do, for the story and atmosphere more than the puzzles. My wife and I are actually having a really good time right now with the new Tex Murphy game, but the only things that are remotely difficult about it are the hidden-object “puzzles”: i.e., find 9 baseball cards hidden in nooks and crannies inside this house. That sort of thing ceased being interesting for me at least twenty years ago, so we just play in casual mode with the cursor that sparkles over hotspots.
November 10, 2014 at 9:44 am
Thanks for the SLF recommendation, they rock!
March 2, 2016 at 5:07 pm
Micro Live 29th November 1985
A look behind the scenes at Infocom, with an interview with Dave Lebling about his game Spellbreaker
March 3, 2016 at 6:23 am
Wow! What a treasure. I hadn’t seen this before. Thanks!
April 13, 2016 at 7:22 am
One of my favorite highlights of the game was using the burin to name the cubes whatever I wanted to name them. I thought I was being pretty cleaver in my entries. Imagine my surprise in the endgame when the game starts naming MY cubes and gathering them together for a nefarious deed. Good times!
February 28, 2017 at 5:47 pm
>> “Lebling was along with Brian Moriarty and perhaps Jeff O’Neall the best crafter of prose…”
I thin that sentence would be easier to read with a couple of commas:
“Lebling was, along with Brian Moriarty and perhaps Jeff O’Neall, the best crafter of prose…”
What do to think?
March 2, 2017 at 3:15 pm
March 3, 2017 at 9:00 am
“Jeff O’Neall” -> “Jeff O’Neill”?
“Archimage” -> “Archmage”?
March 3, 2017 at 11:46 am
April 12, 2017 at 6:05 am
Surprised to read so much negativity about the Vault puzzle, and only praise about the Sand Room. The Sand Room was for me easily the worst in the game.
[I wasn’t familiar with the “canonical” weight puzzle referenced but thought the idea for solving the Vault was pretty intuitive once you used the detect magic spell.]
The Sand Room though… It was obvious you were going into the past, sure, but I don’t think I would’ve ever divined that my dying had anything to do with the rooms not being reset to a previous state. Not only was it not hinted at in the “death” descriptions, but so much weirdness is happening irrespective of your actions [like the increasing failure of magic, considering this scene comes directly after the Plain (where magic is basically useless) and Dark (your magic light is a liquid now) Rooms, where everything you’ve learned about the world just no longer seems to apply] that I assumed the shadow figure had done something I just hadn’t discovered yet.
Add to this the fact you only had to reset HALF the things to their later state (you could apparently just ignore the broken furniture and torn wall hangings in one room, and the all-consuming flood in the other), made for me a puzzle that seemed hurriedly-implemented as the authors reached the endgame.
No where close to the elegant brilliance of Sorcerer’s time travel puzzle, or even that from Zork III, for that matter.
March 25, 2019 at 9:40 pm
I am responding nearly five years after this post went up and two years after the last comment, but I can’t help but want to talk for a moment about this game.
There is a tremendous amount to like. It packed a very tight punch with few unnecessary rooms in the entire game. Even rooms you think are unnecessary come back later. It is very good! But I can’t quite put it in the top shelf with the best games.
My biggest problem with this game is that I never had immersion. The world doesn’t feel real. The best Infocom games use the medium to give me a sense of place and of scale. Zork III, Planetfall, and Wishbringer all have beautiful and evocative worlds. Here, we have a teleporter mechanic which doesn’t connect the locations in any coherent way until the midpoint and even then the connections are partial and don’t really pay off. So you can fly from the avalanche mountain to the guard’s tower on the magic carpet. Great! But you can’t fly back. As a result, I never really became attached to where I was exploring.
The volcano puzzle with the box is frequently cited as unfair and I agree. If the box would have responded in some way at the beginning of the game when you removed the water cube (for example, having the dolphins disappear as soon as the cube was removed), we would have gotten the point that it had something to do with the cubes. As it was, it just seemed a cute storage container when we already had the zipper. And its use as a teleporter was never hinted at in any way. I had assumed the extra exits would come into play later, potentially linking cubes to each other or something similar.
If there was much to solve in the “Sand” puzzles, I did it by accident. I reset each room to how I found it and other than getting killed by the guards and the water a few times, I still have no idea what happens if you get it wrong. (What if you don’t put your spellbook in the cabinet? Or forget the flimsy scroll? Beats me.)
I agree that the puzzles are excellent. I agree that the game is excellent. It’s just missing something that makes me feel like I was having a real adventure rather than playing a disconnected series of mostly linear vignettes.
March 25, 2019 at 10:08 pm
I still have no idea what happens if you get it wrong. (What if you don’t put your spellbook in the cabinet? Or forget the flimsy scroll? Beats me.)
Possibly you get killed by a time paradox, like in the coal mine puzzle in Sorcerer?
March 25, 2019 at 10:44 pm
You make an excellent point, Joe. Judged by the quality of the puzzles, I think Spellbreaker is a pretty strong contender for the title of Best Infocom Game, which is saying something. But something about it never quite worked for me, and you’ve helpfully put your finger on what it was. It doesn’t feel like I’m in a place, only in a puzzle. For me, the very best of the Infocom games is Zork II, for precisely the reason that there was such a strong sense of place and atmosphere — which I admit is odd, given what an awful lot of thematic territory the map covers. Still, its sense of interconnectedness (especially once you stop the carousel) makes it feel like a real place, albeit a strange one, and that matters enormously to me. Sequences like following the princess after she awakes make sense this all the more solid.
February 3, 2020 at 2:19 am
Does anyone know who did the cover art for Spellbreaker? Bonus question: what ever happened to the original art?
Phil Strahl a.k.a. pixel Prophecy
July 9, 2020 at 7:04 pm
Found a wonderful look behind the scenes at Infocom at the development of Spellbreaker:
https://clp.bbcrewind.co.uk/5faadf2f1ba2710d5d17fb3c6d4fba7b (Links to the BBC Micro Live episode #8 in Season 2)
September 13, 2020 at 6:02 pm
Oh wow. That’s pretty neat, esp the glimpse of the Imp lunch with Meretzky and Galley and Moriarty and Anderson (and presumably the others facing away from the camera). I’m curious who the tester is (she looks a little like Briggs, but I don’t think it is? Is this the mysterious Liz Cyr-Jones?)
Also, Lebling is looking at the TELL-WALL code before the tester arrives! My whole suspension of disbelief is ruined!
September 13, 2020 at 6:05 pm
The tester is Amy Briggs.
March 15, 2022 at 11:36 am
That link doesn’t seem to be working right now, but I think I found the same video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIg6Cs3qcRs&list=PLySrmhTDWAFqjKhuMdQ7iFI-Tuya7RWDM
September 8, 2022 at 7:02 pm
I got stuck at the puzzle requiring the player to touch the compass rose to the sigil in the octagon room. Could not proceed without getting past that puzzle. Had 360 out of 600 points when I consulted the Invisiclues. Thought it was a cheap and arbitrary random action that I never would have gotten alone.
January 1, 2023 at 10:54 pm
Just finished Spellbreaker … I’m sure I played it in the 1980s but didn’t remember much beyond some parts near the beginning so I doubt I ever finished it or if I did, used invisiclues to the extent that I do not remember these puzzles now. (spoilers below)
I too think the golden box puzzle would be better with another clue. Maybe Belboz could mention something about the box if you ask him about the cubes while carrying the box? Or have the box vibrate when you attempt to exit a cube room through a blocked exit.
The cube weighing puzzle didn’t bother me because I was familiar with this kind of puzzle. I did find it somewhat annoying because of the verbosity of the commands required for its solution but I’m not sure what could be done about that.
I found touching the compass rose to the walls of the octagon rooms to be just barely unfair. At least there unlike with the gold box puzzle you are primed to know there is some connection between the compass and runes on the walls so you will end up trying random things.
I found the time puzzle to be straight-forward: someone says upthread that there was no indication why you die when not matching the rooms to the correct state before blorple-ing out but this isn’t true. The text of that death says something about you feel like your memories are being ripped out or something like that. It’s also kind of obvious that the key is going to be necessary in the game and it can only be used if you do not rezrov the cabinet door. So this is another clue. You have a key that must be important and you know what it is for, but you can easily get into the cabinet without the key so the key is therefore for not breaking the lock and being able to relock it.
Anyway what I haven’t seen other people mention, is (1) I found the end game to be kind of unfair. The final action of putting a random non-magical object in the tesseract in particular, is there a reason to do that beyond trial-and-error?
(2) I would like to know if the name of the spell “Liskon” is reference to famous computer scientist and MIT professor Barbara Liskov. “Liskov” sounds like “Lisk-off”. But I am not sure what years she was at the Institute. She was definitely there in the early 1990s.