Trinity Postscript: Selling Tragedy

26 Feb

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

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

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

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

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


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


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13 Responses to Trinity Postscript: Selling Tragedy

  1. Brian Moriarty

    February 27, 2015 at 5:28 am

    “Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time.” (Lennon)

    [Unused quote bomb]

    • Lisa H.

      February 27, 2015 at 7:49 am

      Ah, LOL. I like.

    • Nate Cull

      March 2, 2015 at 8:54 pm


      Trinity’s quote bombs had a huge influence on a lot of ’90s IF, as I recall. Thank you for inventing those!

      (Though AMFV also had section quotes, but not I think with that particular statusbar-abuse).

  2. pressurizer

    March 1, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Today, the notion of using a text-adventure of all things to show off the capabilities of your shiny new computer sounds pretty weird. You had to be a computer-buff to realize how impressive it was.
    On a different note, I really admire what Trinity and its developers set out to do. I’m not a fan of text-adventures (and wasn’t back in the day), but your series of articles makes me itch to try it out.

  3. Dehumanizer

    March 2, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Hello. About Trinity and the C128, you might want to add that it’s not just a question of the game (and the other IF Plus games, AMFV, Bureaucracy and Beyond Zork) supporting the C128 natively; it’s also that those games didn’t even have a C64 version (because IF Plus required 80 columns and 128 KB of RAM). So I guess it felt even “better” for C128 owners. :)

  4. Cliffy

    October 23, 2017 at 8:28 pm

    I wonder if Trinity would have sold even more units if it ran on a C64 (noting that this is an impossible wish – it wouldn’t have been the game that it was under those hardware constraints). I can assure you I stood many times in my local Waldensoft holding this box in my hands and wishing I could run it. (I have since purchased and played it multiple times in various Infocom collections.)

  5. tedder

    December 24, 2017 at 1:56 am

    “serendipity having nothing to do with any its literary qualities.”

    Missing “of”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 24, 2017 at 7:55 am


  6. Allan Holland

    April 26, 2020 at 2:07 am

    At the end of all this incandescently beautiful writing, and compounded with the thoughtful articles on AMFV, I cant help but wonder how Jimmy’s perspective may have changed on both these seminal works of fiction, interactive or otherwise, given the current global dystopian currents buffeting us all. These articles were written before the nightmare American election of 2016. And way before the pandemic.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 26, 2020 at 8:50 am

      The Civilization articles included some of my thoughts on Trump and all the rest circa 2018. I don’t know that my opinions are all that altered in the broad strokes. Commenter Brian, responding to the fifth article in that series, wins the award for the most prescient comment ever made on this blog: “We may (hopefully) be entering a post-war era, but watch out for the next pandemic.”

      I think the subject of the pandemic is, first and foremost, an almost inconceivably complicated one. No one has all of the right answers, or even perhaps all of the right questions. We’re all flying blind, conducting a massive worldwide experiment on how best to respond to such an event. When the dust has finally settled, we’ll be able to look at all of the different measures which different countries chose to implement and their efficacy, and then, if we’re wise, we’ll be able to do better next time.

      Likewise, the jury is very much out on what it will all come to mean in the context of history. I’ve heard some smart people say that it will lead to more isolationism and nationalism in the face of such an insidious “foreign menace,” but I’ve heard equally smart people say that it will lead to a renewal of international cooperation by providing an indelible demonstration that all of us here on Spaceship Earth are ultimately in this thing together. I hope the latter, but we shall see. The optimist in me notes that the phenomenon of most of the globe voluntarily shutting down and jeopardizing its economic future just in order to save the most vulnerable among us would be unimaginable at any other point in history. It does give me hope that these times of ours are not as “dystopian” are they’re sometimes made out to be.

      I’ll venture only one bold prediction: when the books about this period come to be written, Donald Trump will be deemed to have written his own political obituary in the spring of 2020. But I do worry what the next six months will bring, as he becomes simultaneously more terrified by that specific reality and more divorced from reality in general.

      Bearing more directly on the subject of Trinity: more than ever, I see Russia as the greatest international tragedy of our time, with Gorbachev as its tragic hero. I don’t believe that all countries can or should have exactly the same form of government, but it is abundantly clear to me that Russia’s government continues to fail its people profoundly. Corruption is a cancer that, once it well and truly sets in and becomes a government’s accepted way of conducting itself, is horribly difficult to end. There’s a lesson there for the United States of 2020, which is flirting with just such a diagnosis in its own body politic.

      • Allan Holland

        May 5, 2020 at 9:39 pm

        What a thoughtful and poignant response. Hope you and your family stay safe. Thank you for your insight.

  7. Peter Orvetti

    April 16, 2022 at 9:54 pm

    Has anyone ever discovered what Moriarty’s “Timesink” was meant to be about?


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