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Corrupted Fish

Anita Sinclair’s original vision for her company Magnetic Scrolls cast it as Britain’s answer to Infocom, pumping out multiple finely crafted traditional text adventures each year — albeit text adventures with the commercially critical addition of attractive illustrations. As 1988 began, Magnetic Scrolls had barely begun to execute on that vision, having released just three games. But the times were changing and the text-adventure market clearly softening, and those realities were already beginning to interfere with her plans. Already by the beginning of the year, Magnetic Scrolls was underway with by far their most ambitious project to date, a radical overhauling of the traditional old parser-driven text adventure that was to gild the plain-text lily with not just pictures but clickable hot spots on said pictures, sound and music, animation, clickable iconic representations of the game’s map and the player’s inventory, a clickable compass rose, a menu of verbs, and much, much more, all tied together with an in-house-written system of windows and menus — “Magnetic Windows” — borrowing heavily from the Macintosh. Lurking almost forgotten below all the bells and whistles would be a game called Wonderland, an adaptation of Lewis Carrol.

We’ll get to Wonderland, released at last only in 1990, in due course. Today, though, I’d like to look at the twin swan songs of Anita Sinclair’s earlier vision for Magnetic Scrolls, both of which were already in the pipeline at the time the Wonderland project was begun and both of which were released in 1988.

Corruption

Corruption, the first of the pair, was the brainchild and personal pet project of Rob Steggles, designer in the broad strokes of Magnetic Scrolls’s earlier The Pawn and Guild of Thieves. Having worked with Magnetic Scrolls strictly on an occasional, ad-hoc basis heretofore, Steggles finished university after the spring semester of 1987 and called Anita Sinclair to ask for a job reference. Instead, she asked if he’d like to come work for Magnetic Scrolls full-time. Once arrived, Steggles convinced her to let him pursue a project very different from anything Magnetic Scrolls had done to date: a realistic, topical thriller set in the present day and inspired by Infocom’s early trilogy of mysteries. She agreed, and Hugh Steers, another of Magnetic Scrolls’s founders, came to work with Steggles as programmer on the project. Largely the creative vision of Steggles alone, Corruption represents a departure from the norm at Magnetic Scrolls, whose games, much more so than those of Infocom, tended to be collaborative efforts rather than works easily attributable to a single author.

Whether accidentally or on purpose, Steggles captured the zeitgeist in a bottle. This being the height of Margaret Thatcher’s remade and remodeled, hyper-capitalistic Britain, he chose to set his thriller amid the sharks of high finance inside The City of London. He had enough access to that world to give his game a certain lived-in verisimilitude, thanks to friends who worked in banks and a father who went to work every day in the heart of the financial district as an executive for British Telecom. Steggles nosed around inside buildings, chatted with traders, and pored over the Insider Trading Act to get the details right.

In December of 1987, the film Wall Street, with the immortal Gordon Gecko of “greed is good!” fame, debuted in the United States. It appeared in Britain five months later, corresponding almost exactly with the release of Corruption. Magnetic Scrolls couldn’t have planned it better if they’d tried. Today, Corruption is one of the relatively few computer games to viscerally evoke the time and place of its creation — a time and place of BMWs and Porsches, lunchtime deal-brokering at the latest trendy restaurant, synth-pop on the CD player, cocaine bumps in stolen bathroom moments.

In Corruption, you play a young City up-and-comer named Derek Rogers. You’ve just been promoted to partner in your firm for — you believe — your hard work in landing an important deal. In the course of the game, however, you learn that the whole thing is an elaborate conspiracy to frame you for the illegal insider trading for which another partner and his cronies are being investigated. The ranks of the conspirators include not only the head of the firm and many of his associates but even your own wife, who happens to be having an affair with the aforementioned head. Revolving as it does around betrayal and adultery, with drugs thrown in to boot, Corruption is certainly the most “adult” game Magnetic Scrolls would ever make. Steggles says that it was written in a conscious attempt to address an “older” audience — a bit of a reach for him, given that he himself was barely into his twenties.

Corruption acquits itself pretty well in some ways, remarkably so really given its author’s youth and inexperience. The atmosphere of cutthroat high finance comes across more often than not, and the grand conspiracy arrayed against you, improbable though it may be, is no more improbable than those found in a thousand Hollywood productions, among them Wall Street. A crucial feelie is a conversation on an included cassette, professionally produced by Magnetic Scrolls’s resident music specialist John Molloy and scripted by Michael Bywater, still a regular presence around the offices. Like much in Corruption, it’s very well done.

Drawn by Alan Hunnisett and Richard Selby rather than Geoff Quilley, Corruption's pictures look a little drab in comparison to Magnetic Scrolls's fantasy games.

Drawn by Alan Hunnisett and Richard Selby rather than Geoff Quilley, Corruption‘s pictures look a little dark and drab in comparison to Magnetic Scrolls’s fantasy games — but maybe that’s the right choice for this milieu.

Unfortunately, as a piece of game design Corruption falls down badly. Unsurprisingly given that it was inspired by the Infocom mysteries, Corruption is a try-and-try-again game, the process of solving it a process of mapping out the movements of the characters around you and learning through trial and error where to be when and what to do there to avoid their traps and crack the case. But it just doesn’t work all that well even on those polarizing terms. The Infocom mysteries, for all that they rely heavily on what would be attributed to coincidence and luck in a conventional detective novel, do hang together as coherent fictions once the winning path through the story is discovered. Corruption doesn’t. Whereas the Infocom mysteries all cast you as a detective charged with investigating a crime that has already taken place, in Corruption you start as just a happy bloke who’s gotten a big promotion. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, you have to start following your associates around, stealing keys and breaking into their offices and cars, laying traps for your dearly beloved wife, all of which does rather raise the question of who’s the real sociopath here. Some of the actions required to win the game simply make no sense whatsoever, not even in the context of you being the most suspicious, paranoid, and devious person in an office full of them. At a certain point, for instance, you get hit by a car and wind up in the hospital. A later puzzle — a puzzle your character couldn’t possibly anticipate — demands that you have something you can only find by stealing it off a doctor in the hospital. So, in addition to being a suspicious and devious jerk with a death wish, old Derek Rogers needs to also be a hopeless kleptomaniac. Or is he just a paranoid schizophrenic? I don’t know; you can diagnose him for yourself.

Corruption is one of those games that I wonder how anyone ever solves without benefit of hints or walkthroughs. In addition to all the problems of timing, some of the individual puzzles are really, really bad. The hospital sequence in particular is a notorious showstopper, its purpose for being in the game as tough to divine as the right way to come out of it. Conversations are a more constant pain; you never know when you’re supposed to tell someone about something, nor, given the parser’s limitations, quite how to say it.

In an interview, Steggles made a statement I continue to find flabbergasting every time I read it. Speaking of Corruption‘s try-and-try-again mode of play, he said, “Believe it or not, it wasn’t a deliberate choice to do it that way and I think that if someone had made that comment about it during development we’d have stopped it because it wasn’t really ‘fair’ on the player.” But really, how could he not know what sort of game he was creating, given that he was inspired by the Infocom mysteries that offered exactly this approach to play? Still, let’s take his words at face value. Not initially realizing what sort of game he was creating — and how hard that game would inevitably turn out to be — speaks to an inexperienced designer whose ideas outran his critical thinking; we can forgive that as a venial sin. But for Magnetic Scrolls not to have arranged for him to have the feedback he needed to know of his game’s failings and correct them… that sin is mortal. It speaks to yet another adventure game released without anyone having ever really tried to play it.

There are signs that some at Magnetic Scrolls knew Corruption wasn’t quite up to snuff. Anita Sinclair came very close to actively discouraging Magnetic Scrolls’s fans from buying the game: “It doesn’t follow that if you enjoyed Jinxter, or even Guild [of Thieves], you will enjoy Corruption.” Corruption, she said, would likely have “limited appeal.”

She would be able to muster much more enthusiasm for Magnetic Scrolls’s second game of 1988. And for good reason: it’s a gem, my personal favorite in their catalog.

Fish!

The game in question is called Fish!, and is the product of an unlikely collaboration involving a musician, a journalist, and a civil servant: John Molloy, Phil South, and Pete Kemp respectively. One day on a long bus ride, good friends Molloy and South were riffing on some of the absurdly difficult and unfair adventure games that were so typical of those days. The discussion proceeded to encompass satirical ideas about possible new scenarios for same. “What if you started the game as a goldfish and you had to save the world?” asked one of them at some point (neither can quite remember which). Thus was born Fish!.

Molloy, who had been doing music for Magnetic Scrolls for a couple of years by then and in addition to being a working musician wasn’t a bad programmer, was attracted to the idea of seeing how the other half lived, of designing and helping to implement a complete game of his own. As Phil South succinctly describes it, “He pitched it to Magnetic Scrolls, they went nuts.” Kemp, another good mate of Molloy’s, joined after the latter gave him a pitch he also couldn’t refuse: “A bit of fun, a bit of money, and everlasting obscurity.”

South and Kemp were soon introduced to the intimidating cast of eccentrics that was Magnetic Scrolls. South:

I remember Magnetic Scrolls being in a rather grimy and unsavoury Victorian suburb of South London and having to brave the trains late at night to get there. I remember Anita being small but scary, and possessing a wisdom far beyond her years. She terrifies the crap out of men twice her size just by looking at them. I remember Ken [Gordon] being the most laid back Scotsman I’d ever met, which puts him on track for being one of the most laid-back guys worldwide. Rob Steggles has an evil sense of humour and at the time had a real passion for Games Workshop’s BLOODBOWL board game. Michael Bywater is scary smart, hugely funny, and also possibly one of THE most grumpy men I’ve ever met.

Fish! casts you as an “inter-dimensional espionage operative” who warps Quantum Leap-style among times, bodies, locations, and dimensions on the trail of criminals. At the beginning of the game, you’re enjoying a spot of rest and relaxation as a goldfish in your own private aquarium, when you’re notified that a gang of anarchists who call themselves the Seven Deadly Fins have stolen something called a focus wheel, needed to keep a planet of fish called Aquaria hydrated. First you need to assemble the pieces of the focus wheel, which the Fins have scattered across three different worlds. Then you can warp to the city of Hydropolis, capital of Aquaria, to set it into operation before the last of the water evaporates and everyone drowns.

I find Fish!'s more colorful, surrealistic graphics to be more attractive than those of Corruption.

I find Fish!‘s more colorful, surrealistic pictures to be much more attractive than those of Corruption.

As you’ve probably gathered, Fish! isn’t a very serious game. It’s rather a surrealistic riot of fishy puns and absurdist humor in the style of Douglas Adams. The prospect of neither surrealism nor Douglas Adams-style humor excites me all that much when starting a new game because those things are usually (over)done so badly, but Fish! pulls it off with aplomb. The fishy wordplay comes fast and furious, inducing groans and smiles in equal measure: “the archway is a magnificent example of craftfishship”; “any old eel could slip in here and break into every apartment on the block”; “some dolphins rush in where angelfish fear to tread”; “the police station is fished day and night by a stalwart dogfish who is ready to solve the troutiest of crimes”; “Tuna Day’s Music Ship is cluttered with amateur musicians, most of whom are playing versions of the ancient heavy-metal hit ‘Smoke Underwater'”; “glancing toward the toilet, you see a trout emerge, adjusting his flies.”

Thanks doubtless to Molloy’s background, much of Fish! is informed by music and the life of a musician. In addition to “Smoke Underwater,” he makes time to acknowledge that timeless classic “Sole Man” by Salmon Dave, and to make fun of buskers.

You notice several students loitering with intent. One of them produces a guitar and starts singing: "Come on feel my nose. The girls grab my clothes. Go why, why why any more." Oh no, he's started busking! Luckily, the other students attack and carry him off before you hear too much.

I love one early puzzle involving a Svengali music producer and his cowed assistant Rod. I know it’s anachronistic, but somehow I always picture Simon Cowell in this scene. (Spoiler Warning!)

An important-looking beetroot-faced producer enters the room behind you. "You," he shouts charmingly, "make some coffee or you're fired." He strides out.

>rod, make coffee

"Sure thing," says Rod, rushing down the corridor. You hear the kitchen door slam, then a few seconds later it slams again as Rod comes out. "That's the way to do it," he beams as he returns, holding a steaming mug of coffee.


The producer appears and grabs the mug. He looks at you and smiles a sickly smile as Rod leaves. "Well done," he says, taking a slurp, "you'll go far in this business. You've already learned the golden rule: if in doubt, delegate." Then he stomps out, looking pleased with himself.

In marked contrast to the confused and confusing Corruption, Fish! is quite fair, at least according to its own old-school lights. The three early acts, each involving the collection of one piece of the focus wheel, are all fairly easily manageable. The final act in Hydropolis, the real meat of the game, is much more challenging, another exercise in good planning and careful timing given that you have only one day to complete a very complicated mission. So, yes, it’s another try-and-try-again scenario, and far from a trivial one; I found one puzzle in particular, another entry in the grand text-adventure tradition of mazes that aren’t quite mazes, to be so complicated that I ended up writing a program to solve it for me. But the clues you need are always there, and there’s never a need to do anything completely inexplicable like stealing vital medical equipment. Good planning and careful note-taking — and maybe a handmade Python script — will see you through. I love games like this one that challenge me for the right reasons.

Whether because Anita Sinclair was much more personally enthusiastic about this project or because it was a true collaboration from the start, the authors of Fish! got the feedback that Steggles apparently lacked in writing Corruption. Phil South:

Sometimes during play testing it came out that the puzzle was too hard or to too easy. We adjusted the hardness by leaving clues. Sometimes the puzzle was taken out altogether. We played other people’s games and saw how they solved the hardness problem.

After Corruption was finished, Steggles joined the team to do some final polishing and editing, a role he describes as “basically acting as a sub-editor to bring the writing into the house style.” Michael Bywater once again took responsibility for most of the feelies.

Released in time for Christmas 1988, Fish! fell victim to a breakdown in the relationship between Magnetic Scrolls and their publisher Rainbird; it never enjoyed the distribution or promotion of Magnetic Scrolls’s earlier games, even as Anita Sinclair said that it stood alongside Guild of Thieves as her personal favorites in the catalog. (As a glance at my own Hall of Fame will attest, that’s an assessment with which I very much agree.) We’ll get into the breakdown with Rainbird and what it meant for Magnetic Scrolls in a future article. For now, though, suffice to say that the release of Fish! marked the end of Magnetic Scrolls’s era of greatest popularity and influence. Molloy, South, and Kemp all moved on with their lives and day jobs, leaving their days as text-adventure authors behind as a fond anecdote for their scrapbooks; none would ever work in the games industry again. Steggles departed in December after a “storming row” with Anita Sinclair over his salary and his general unhappiness with the direction of the company; he also moved on with life outside of games. Michael Bywater’s business relationship with Magnetic Scrolls ended in correspondence with the end of his romantic relationship with Anita.

In a fast-changing market, with so many of the old gang suddenly leaving, Magnetic Scrolls’s future depended more than ever on Wonderland. That project… but I said we’d save that for another day, didn’t I? In the meantime, go play Fish!. Really, how can you can not love a game that describes another featureless dead end as, “This is as far as the corridor goes. On the first date anyway.”

(Sources: Games Machine of August 1988, November 1988; Computer and Video Games of July 1988; Commodore User of June 1988; The One of July 1990; ST News of Summer 1989. Online sources include “Magnetic Scrolls Memories” by Rob Steggles on The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial and an interview with Steggles at L’avventura è l’avventura. And huge, huge thanks to Stefan Meier of The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial for digging up a dump of Peter Verdi’s apparently defunct Magnetic Scrolls Chronicles website, including original interviews with Rob Steggles, Michael Bywater, Phil South, and Pete Kemp. You’re a lifesaver, Stefan!

CorruptionFish!, and all of the other Magnetic Scrolls games are available from Stefan’s site in forms suitable for playing with the Magnetic interpreter — or you can now play them online, directly in your browser, if you like.)

 

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Zork Zero

Zork Zero

Zork Zero the idea was kicking around Infocom for quite a long time before Zork Zero the game was finally realized. Steve Meretzky first proposed making a prequel to the original Zork trilogy as far back as 1985, when he included it on a list of possible next games that he might write after finishing his personal passion project of A Mind Forever Voyaging. The Zork Zero he described at that time not only already had the name but the vast majority of the concept of the eventual finished game as well.

As the name implies, a prequel to the Zork trilogy. It would be set in the Great Underground Empire, and covering a long period of time, from the end of the reign of Dimwit Flathead in 789 through the fall of the GUE in 883, and possibly through 948 (the year of the Zork trilogy). It would almost certainly end “west of a white house.” There would be some story, probably about as much as Enchanter or Sorcerer. For the most part, though, it would be an intensely puzzle-oriented game with a huge geography.

The fact that Meretzky knew in what years Dimwit Flathead died, the Great Underground Empire fell, and Zork I began says much about his role as the unofficial keeper of Zorkian lore at Infocom. He had already filled a huge notebook with similarly nitpicky legends and lore. This endeavor was viewed by most of the other Imps, who thought of the likes of Dimwit Flathead as no more than spur-of-the-moment jokes, with bemused and gently mocking disinterest. Still, if Infocom was going to do a big, at least semi-earnest Zork game, his obsessiveness about the milieu made Meretzky the obvious candidate for the job.

But that big Zork game didn’t get made in 1985, partly because the other Imps remained very reluctant to sacrifice any real or perceived artistic credibility by trading on the old name and partly because the same list of possible next projects included a little something called Leather Goddesses of Phobos that everyone, from the Imps to the marketers to the businesspeople, absolutely loved. Brian Moriarty’s reaction was typical: “If you don’t do this, I will. But not as well as you could.”

After Meretzky completed Leather Goddesses the following year, Zork Zero turned up again on his next list of possible next projects. This time it was granted more serious consideration; Infocom’s clear and pressing need for hits by that point had done much to diminish the Imps’ artistic fickleness. At the same time, though, Brian Moriarty also was shopping a pretty good proposal for a Zork game, one that would include elements of the CRPGs that seemed to be replacing adventure games in some players’ hearts. Meanwhile Meretzky’s own list included something called Stationfall, the long-awaited sequel to one of the most beloved games in Infocom’s back catalog. While Moriarty seemed perfectly capable of pulling off a perfectly acceptable Zork, the universe of Planetfall, and particularly the lovable little robot Floyd, were obviously Meretzky’s babies and Meretzky’s alone. Given Infocom’s commercial plight, management’s choice between reviving two classic titles or just one was really no choice at all. Meretzky did Stationfall, and Moriarty did Beyond Zork — with, it should be noted, the invaluable assistance of Mereztky’s oft-mocked book of Zorkian lore.

And then it was 1987, Stationfall too was finished, and there was Zork Zero on yet another list of possible next projects. I’ll be honest in stating that plenty of the other project possibilities found on the 1987 list, some of which had been appearing on these lists as long as Zork Zero, sound much more interesting to this writer. There was, for instance, Superhero League of America, an idea for a comedic superhero game with “possible RPG elements” that would years later be dusted off by Meretzky to become the delightful Legend Entertainment release Superhero League of Hoboken. There was a serious historical epic taking place on the Titanic that begs to be described as Meretzky’s Trinity. And there was something with the working title of The Best of Stevo, a collection of interactive vignettes in the form if not the style of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Mind you, not all of the other projects were winners. A heavy-handed satire to be called The Interactive Bible, described by Meretzky as “part of my ongoing attempt to offend every person in the universe,” was eloquently and justifiably lacerated by Moriarty.

As you noted, this game is likely to offend many people, and not just frothing nutcakes either. A surprising number of reasonable people regard the Book with reverence. They are likely to regard your send-up as superficial and juvenile. They will wonder what qualifies you to poke fun at their (or anybody’s) faith. Why do you want to write this? Do you really think it will sell?

If Zork Zero wasn’t at the bottom of anyone’s list like The Interactive Bible, no one was exactly burning with passion to make it either. Few found the idea of going back to the well of Zork yet again all that interesting in creative terms, especially as Beyond Zork was itself still very much an ongoing project some weeks from release. The idea’s trump card, however, was the unique commercial appeal most still believed the Zork trademark to possess. Jon Palace’s faint praise was typical: “I’m sure this would sell very well. It’s certainly ‘safe.'” By 1987, the commercially safe route was increasingly being seen as the only viable route within Infocom, at least until they could manage to scare up a few hits. A final tally revealed that Zork Zero had scored an average of 7.2 among “next Meretzky project” voters on a scale of 1 to 10, edging out Superhero League of America by one tenth of a point, Titanic by two tenths, and The Best of Stevo by one full point; the last was very well-liked in the abstract, but its standing was damaged by the fact that, unusually for Meretzky, the exact form the vignettes would take wasn’t very well specified.

On August 7, 1987, it was decided provisionally to have Meretzky do Zork Zero next. In a demonstration of how tepid everyone’s enthusiasm remained for such a safe, unchallenging game, an addendum was included with the announcement: “I think it is fair to add that if Steve happens to have a flash of creativity in the next few days and thinks of some more ideas for his experimental story project (Best of Stevo), nearly everyone in this group would prefer that he do that product.” That flash apparently didn’t come; The Best of Stevo was never heard of again. Also forgotten in the rush to do Zork Zero was the idea, mooted in Beyond Zork, of Zork becoming a series of CRPG/text-adventure hybrids, with the player able to import the same character into each successive game. Zork Zero would instead be a simple standalone text adventure again.

While it’s doubtful whether many at Infocom ever warmed all that much to Zork Zero as a creative exercise, the cavalcade of commercial disappointments that was 1987 tempted many to see it as the latest and greatest of their Great White Hopes for a return to the bestseller charts. It was thus decided that it should become the first game to use Infocom’s new version 6 Z-Machine, usually called “YZIP” internally. Running on Macintosh II microcomputers rather than the faithful old DEC, the YZIP system would at last support proper bitmap illustrations and other graphics, along with support for mice, sound and music, far more flexible screen layouts, and yet bigger stories over even what the EZIP system (known publicly as Interactive Fiction Plus) had offered. With YZIP still in the early stages of development, Meretzky would first write Zork Zero the old way, on the DEC. Then, when YZIP was ready, the source code could be moved over and the new graphical bells and whistles added; the new version of ZIL was designed to be source-compatible with the old. In the meantime, Stu Galley was working on a ground-up rewrite of the parser, which was itself written in ZIL. At some magic moment, the three pieces would all come together, and just like that Infocom would be reborn with pictures and a friendlier parser and lots of other goodies, all attached to the legendary Zork name and written by Infocom’s most popular and recognizable author. That, anyway, was the theory.

Being at the confluence of so much that was new and different, Zork Zero became one of the more tortured projects in Infocom’s history, almost up there with the legendarily tortured Bureaucracy project. None of the problems, however, were down to Meretzky. Working quickly and efficiently as always, his progress on the core of the game proper far outstripped the technology enabling most of the ancillary bells and whistles. While Stu Galley’s new parser went in on November 1, 1987, it wasn’t until the following May 10 that a YZIP Zork Zero was compiled for the first time.

In sourcing graphics for Zork Zero, Infocom was on completely foreign territory. Following the lead of much of the computer-game industry, all of the graphics were to be created on Amigas, whose Deluxe Paint application was so much better than anything available on any other platform that plenty of artists simply refused to use anything else. Jon Palace found Jim Shook, the artist who would do most of the illustrations for Zork Zero, at a local Amiga users-group meeting. Reading some of the memos and meeting notes from this period, it’s hard to avoid the impression that — being painfully blunt here — nobody at Infocom entirely knew what they were doing when it came to graphics. As of February of 1988, they still hadn’t even figured out what resolution Shook should be working in. “We still don’t know whether images should be drawn in low-res, medium-res, interlace, or high-res mode on the Amiga in Deluxe Paint,” wrote Palace plaintively in one memo. “Joel claims Tim should know. Tim, do you know?”

Infocom wound up turning to Magnetic Scrolls, who had been putting pictures into their own text adventures for quite some time, for information on “graphics compression techniques,” a move that couldn’t have sat very well with such a proud group of programmers. The graphics would continue to be a constant time sink and headache for many months to come. Steve Meretzky told me that he remembers the development of Zork Zero primarily as “heinous endless futzing with the graphics, mostly on an Amiga, to make them work with all the different screen resolutions, number of colors, pixel aspect ratios, etc. In my memory, it feels like I spent way more time doing that than actually designing puzzles or writing ZIL code.”

Zork Zero uses graphics more often to present the look of an illuminated manuscript than for traditional illustrations.

Zork Zero uses graphics more often to present the look of an illuminated manuscript than for traditional illustrations.

And yet in comparison to games like those of Magnetic Scrolls, the finished Zork Zero really wouldn’t have a lot of graphics. Instead of an illustration for each room, the graphics take the form of decorative borders, an illuminated onscreen map, some graphical puzzles (solvable using a mouse), and only a few illustrations for illustrations’ sake. Infocom would advertise that they wanted to use graphics in “a new way” for Zork Zero — read, more thoughtfully, giving them some actual purpose rather than just using them for atmosphere. All of which is fair enough, but one suspects that money was a factor as well; memos from the period show Infocom nickel-and-diming the whole process, fretting over artist fees of a handful of thousand dollars that a healthier developer wouldn’t have thought twice about.

The financial squeeze also spelled the end of Infocom’s hopes for a full soundtrack, to have been composed by Russell Lieblich at Mediagenic, who had earlier done the sound effects for The Lurking Horror and Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels. But the music never happened; when Zork Zero finally shipped, it would be entirely silent apart from a warning beep here or an acknowledging bloop there.

Hemorrhaging personnel as they were by this point, Infocom found themselves in a mad scramble to get all the pieces that did wind up making it into Zork Zero together in time for Christmas 1988, months after they had originally hoped to ship the game. Bruce Davis grew ever more frustrated and irate at the delays; a contemporary memo calls him a “looming personality” and notes how he is forever “threatening a tantrum.” A desperate-sounding “Proclamation” went out to the rank-and-file around the same time: “The one who can fix the bugs of Zork Zero, and save the schedule from destruction, shall be rewarded with half the wealth of the Empire.” Signed: “Wurb Flathead, King of Quendor.”

Like a number of Zork Zero's illustrations, this one actually conveys some important information about the state of the game.

Like a number of Zork Zero‘s illustrations, this one actually conveys some important information about the state of the game rather than being only for show.

Time constraints, the fact that the beta builds ran only on the Macintosh, and Infocom’s determination to test Zork Zero primarily using new testers unfamiliar with interactive fiction meant that it didn’t receive anywhere near the quantity or quality of outside feedback that had long been customary for their games. Many of the new testers seemed bemused if not confused by the experience, and few came anywhere close to finishing the game. I fancy that one can feel the relative lack of external feedback in the end result, as one can the loss of key voices from within Infocom like longtime producer Jon Palace and senior tester Liz Cyr-Jones.

Despite the corner-cutting, Infocom largely missed even the revised target of Christmas 1988. Only the Macintosh version shipped in time for the holiday buying season, the huge job of porting the complicated new YZIP interpreter to other platforms having barely begun by that time. Zork Zero was quite well-received by the Macintosh magazines, but that platform was far from the commercial sweet spot in gaming.

The decorative borders change as you enter difference regions -- a nice touch.

A nice touch: the decorative borders change as you enter different regions.

A sort of cognitive dissonance was a thoroughgoing theme of the Zork Zero project from beginning to end. It’s right there in marketing’s core pitch: “Zork Zero is the beginning of something old (the Zork trilogy) and something new (new format with graphics).” Unable to decide whether commercial success lay in looking forward or looking back, Infocom tried to have it both ways. Zork Zero‘s “target audience,” declared marketing, would be “primarily those who are not Infocom fans; either they have never tried interactive fiction or they have lost interest in Infocom.” The game would appeal to them thanks to “a mouse interface (enabling the player to move via compass rose), onscreen hints, a new parser (to help novices), and pretty pictures that will knock your socks off!”

Yet all the gilding around the edges couldn’t obscure the fact that Zork Zero was at heart the most old-school game Infocom had made since… well, since Zork I really. That, anyway, was the last game they had made that was so blatantly a treasure hunt and nothing more. Zork Zero‘s dynamic dozen-turn introduction lays out the reasons behind the static treasure hunt that will absorb the next several thousand turns. To thwart a 94-year-old curse that threatens to bring ruin to the Great Underground Empire, you must assemble 24 heirlooms that once belonged to 12 members of the Flathead dynasty and drop them in a cauldron. Zork Zero is, it must be emphasized, a big game, far bigger than any other that Infocom ever released, its sprawling geography of more than 200 rooms — more than 2200 if you count a certain building of 400 (nearly) identical floors —  housing scores of individual puzzles. The obvious point of comparison is not so much Infocom’s Zork trilogy as the original original Zork, the one put together by a bunch of hackers at MIT in response to the original Adventure back in the late 1970s, long before Infocom was so much as a gleam in anyone’s eye.

A Tower of Hanoi puzzle, one of the hoariest of Zork Zero's tired old chestnuts.

A Tower of Hanoi puzzle, one of the hoariest of Zork Zero‘s hoary old chestnuts.

The question — the answer to which must always to some extent be idiosyncratic to each player — is whether Zork Zero works for you on those terms. In my case, it doesn’t. The PDP-10 Zork is confusing and obscure and often deeply unfair, but it carries with it a certain joyous sense of possibility, of the discovery of a whole new creative medium, that we can enjoy vicariously with its creators. Zork Zero perhaps also echos the emotional circumstances of its creation: it just feels tired, and often cranky and mean-spirited to boot. Having agreed to make a huge game full of lots of puzzles, Meretzky dutifully provides, but the old magic is conspicuously absent.

Infocom always kept a library of puzzly resources around the office to inspire the Imps: books of paradoxes and mathematical conundrums, back issues of Games magazine, physical toys and puzzles of all descriptions. But for the first time with Zork Zero, Meretzky seems not so much inspired by these resources as simply cribbing from them. Lots of the puzzles in Zork Zero are slavish re-creations of the classics: riddles, a Tower of Hanoi puzzle, a peg game. Even the old chestnut about the river, the fox, the chicken, and the sack of grain makes an appearance. And even some of the better bits, like a pair of objects that let you teleport from the location of one to that of another, are derivative of older, better Infocom games like Starcross and Spellbreaker. One other, more hidden influence on Zork Zero‘s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to puzzle design — particularly on the occasional graphical puzzles — is likely Cliff Johnson’s puzzling classic The Fool’s Errand, which Meretzky was playing with some dedication at the very time he was designing his own latest game. The Fool’s Errand‘s puzzles, however, are both more compelling and more original than Zork Zero‘s. Meretzky’s later Hodj ‘n’ Podj would prove a far more worthy tribute.

Zork Zero is a difficult game, and too often difficult in ways that really aren’t that much fun. I’m a fan of big, complicated puzzlefests in the abstract, but Zork Zero‘s approach to the form doesn’t thrill me. After the brief introductory sequence, the game exposes almost the whole of its immense geography to you almost immediately; there’s nothing for it but to start wandering and trying to solve puzzles. The combinatorial explosion is enormous. And even when you begin to solve some of the puzzles, the process can be made weirdly unsatisfying by the treasure-hunt structure. Too much of the time, making what at first feels like a significant step forward only yields another object to throw into the cauldron for some more points. You know intellectually that you’re making progress, but it doesn’t really feel like it.

I much prefer the approach of later huge puzzlefests like Curses! and The Mulldoon Legacy, which start you in a constrained space and gradually expand in scope as you solve puzzles. By limiting their initial scope, these games ease you into their worlds and limit the sense of hopeless aimlessness that Zork Zero inspires, while a new set of rooms to explore provides a far more tangible and satisfying reward for solving a puzzle sequence than does another object chunked in the cauldron and another few points. The later games feel holistically designed, Zork Zero like something that was just added to until the author ran out of space. Even The Fool’s Errand restricts you to a handful of puzzles at the beginning, unfolding its mysteries and its grand interconnections only gradually as you burrow ever deeper. That Infocom of all people — Steve Meretzky of all people, whose Leather Goddess of Phobos and Stationfall are some of the most airtight designs in Infocom’s catalog — is suddenly embracing the design aesthetic of the 1970s is downright weird for a game that was supposed to herald a bright new future of more playable and player-friendly interactive fiction.

The in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica is a nice if somewhat underused feature. The encyclopedia could have provided nudges for some more of the more obscure puzzles and maybe even some direction as to what to be working on next. Instead that work is all shuffled off to the hint system.

The in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica is a nice but rather underused feature. The encyclopedia could have provided more nudges for some more of the more obscure puzzles and maybe even some direction as to what to be working on next. Instead that work is all shuffled off to the hint menu, the use of which feels like giving up or even cheating.

The puzzles rely on the feelies more extensively than any other Infocom game, often requiring you to make connections with seemingly tossed-off anecdotes buried deep within “The Flathead Calendar.” I generally don’t mind this sort of thing overmuch, but, like so much else in Zork Zero, it feels overdone here. These puzzles feel like they have far more to do with copy protection than the player’s enjoyment — but then much of the time Zork Zero seems very little concerned with the player’s enjoyment.

I love the headline of the single review of Zork Zero that’s to be found as of this writing on The Interactive Fiction Database: “Enough is enough!” That’s my own feeling when trying to get through this exhausting slog of a game. As if the sheer scope and aimlessness of the thing don’t frustrate enough, Meretzky actively goes out of his way to annoy you. There is, for instance, a magic wand with barely enough charges in it; waste a few charges in experimentation, and, boom, you’re locked out of victory. There’s that aforementioned building of 400 floors, all but one of them empty, which the diligent player will nevertheless feel the need to explore floor by floor, just in case there’s something else there; this is, after all, just the type of game to hide something essential on,say, floor 383. And then there’s the most annoying character in an Infocom game this side of Zork I‘s thief, a jester who teleports in every few dozen turns to do some random thing to you, like stick a clown nose over your own (you have to take it off within a certain number of turns or you’ll suffocate) or turn you into an alligator (you have to waste a few turns getting yourself turned back, then deal with picking up all of your possessions off the ground, putting those things you were wearing back on, etc.). Some of these gags are amusing the first time they happen, but they wear out their welcome quickly when they just keep wasting your time over a game that will already require thousands of moves to finish. The jester’s worst trick of all is to teleport you somewhere else in the game’s sprawling geography; you can be hopelessly trapped, locked out of victory through absolutely no fault of your own, if you’re unlucky and don’t have the right transportation handy. Hilariously, Infocom’s marketing people, looking always for an angle, hit upon selling the jester as Meretzky’s latest lovable sidekick, “every bit as enjoyable and memorable as Floyd of Planetfall fame.” Meretzky himself walked them back from that idea.

Some of the puzzles, probably even most of them, are fine enough in themselves, but there is a sprinkling of questionable ones, and all are made immeasurably more difficult by the fact that trying out a burst of inspiration can absorb 50 moves simply transiting from one side of the world to the other. Throw in a sharply limited inventory, which means you might need to make three or four round trips just to try out all the possible solutions you can think of, and things get even more fun. Graham Nelson among others has made much of the idea that the 128 K limitation of the original Z-Machine was actually a hidden benefit, forcing authors to hone their creations down to only what needed to be there and nothing that didn’t. I’ve generally been a little skeptical of that position; there are any number of good Infocom games that feel like they might have been still a little better with just a little more room to breathe. Zork Zero, however, makes as compelling a case as one can imagine for the idea that less is often more in interactive fiction, that constraints can lead to better designs.

The in-game mapping is handy from time to time, but, split into many different regions and viewable only by typing “MAP” from the main screen as it is, is not really ideal. A serious player is likely to be back to pencil and paper (or, these days, Trizbort) pretty quickly.

Which is actually not to say that Meretzky was operating totally unfettered by space constraints. While the YZIP format theoretically allowed a story size of up to 512 K not including graphics, the limitations of Infocom’s least-common-denominator platform, the Apple II, meant that the practical limit was around 340 K, a fairly modest expansion on the old 256 K EZIP and XZIP formats used for the Interactive Fiction Plus line. But still more restrictive was the limitation on the size of what Infocom called the “pre-load,” that part of the story data that could change as the player played, and that thus needed to always be in the host machine’s memory. The pre-load had to be held under about 55 K. Undoubtedly due in part to these restrictions, Zork Zero clearly sacrifices depth for breadth in comparison to many Infocom games that preceded it. The “examine” command suffers badly, some of the responses coming off like oxymorons: “totally ordinary looking writhing mass of snakes”; “totally ordinary looking herd of unicorns.” The sketchy implementation only adds to the throwback feel of the game as a whole.

The hints are certainly nice to have given the complexity and scope of the game, but they unfortunately aren’t context-sensitive. It’s all too easy to accidentally read the wrong one when trying to sort through this jumble.

Another subtle hidden enemy of Zork Zero as a design is the online hint system. Installed with the best of intentions in this as well as a few earlier Infocom games, it could easily lead to creeping laziness on the part of a game’s Implementor. “If the player really gets stuck, she can always turn to the hints,” ran the logic — thus no need to fret to quite the same extent over issues of solubility. The problem with that logic is that no one likes to turn to hints, whether found in the game itself, in a separate InvisiClues booklet, or in an online walkthrough. People play games like Zork Zero to solve them themselves, and the presence of a single bad puzzle remains ruinous to their experience as a whole even if they can look up the answer in the game itself. Infocom’s claim that “the onscreen hints help you through the rough spots without spoiling the story” doesn’t hold much water when one considers that Zork Zero doesn’t really have any story to speak of.

More puzzling is the impact — or rather lack thereof — of Stu Galley’s much-vaunted new parser. Despite being a ground-up rewrite using “an ATN algorithm with an LALR grammar and one-token look-ahead,” whatever that means, it doesn’t feel qualitatively different from those found in earlier Infocom games. The only obvious addition is the alleged ability to notice when you’re having trouble getting your commands across, and to start offering sample commands and other suggestions. A nice idea in theory, but the parser mostly seems to decide to become helpful and start pestering you with questions when you’re typing random possible answers to one of the game’s inane riddles. Like your racist uncle who decides to help you clean up after regaling you with his anecdotes over the Thanksgiving dinner table, even when Zork Zero tries to be helpful it’s annoying. Nowhere is the cognitive dissonance of Zork Zero more plainly highlighted than in the juxtaposition of this overly helpful, newbie-friendly parser with the old-school player hostility of the actual game design. “Zork hates its player,” wrote Robb Sherwin once of the game that made Infocom. After spending years evolving interactive fiction into something more positive and interesting than that old-school player hostility, Infocom incomprehensibly decided to circle back to how it all began with Zork Zero.

The most rewarding moment comes right at the end — and no, not because you’re finally done with the thing, although that’s certainly a factor too. In the end, you wind up right where it all began for Zork and for Infocom, before the famous white house, about to assume the role of the Dungeon Master, the antagonist of the original trilogy. There’s a melancholy resonance to the ending given the history not just of the Great Underground Empire but of Infocom in our own world. Released on July 14, 1989, the MS-DOS version of Zork Zero — the version that most of its few buyers would opt for — was one of the last two Infocom games to ship. So, the very end for Infocom circles back to the very beginning in many ways. Whether getting there is worth the trouble is of course another question.

As the belated date of the MS-DOS release will attest, versions of Zork Zero for the more important game-playing platforms were very slow in coming. The Amiga version didn’t ship until March of 1989, the Apple II version in June, followed finally by that MS-DOS version — the most important of all, oddly left for last. By that time Bruce Davis had lost patience, and Infocom had ceased to exist as anything other than a Mediagenic brand. The story of Zork Zero‘s failure to save Infocom thus isn’t so much the story of its commercial failure — although, make no mistake, it was a commercial failure — as the story of Infocom’s failure to just get the thing finished in time to even give it a chance of making a difference. Already an orphaned afterthought by the time it appeared on the platform that mattered most, Zork Zero likely never managed to sell even 10,000 copies in total. So much for Infocom’s “new look, new challenge, new beginning.”

We have a few more such afterthoughts to discuss before we pull the curtain at last on the story of Infocom, that most detailed and extended of all the stories I’ve told so far on this blog. Now, however, it’s time to check in with Infocom’s counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic, with the other two of the three remaining companies in the English-speaking world still trying to make a living out of text adventures in 1988. As you have probably guessed, things weren’t working out all that much better for either of them than they were for Infocom. Yet amidst the same old commercial problems, there are still some interesting and worthy games to discuss. So, we’ll start to do just that next time.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Much of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Magazine sources include Questbusters of March 1989, The Games Machine of October 1989, and the Spring 1989 issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter. Huge thanks also to Tim Anderson and Steve Meretzky for corresponding with me about some of the details of this period.

If you still want to play Zork Zero after the thrashing I’ve just given it — sorry, Steve and all Zork Zero fans! — you can purchase it from GOG.com as part of The Zork Anthology.)

 
 

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Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels

Sherlock

Bob Bates, the last person in history to author an all-text Infocom adventure game, came to that achievement by as circuitous a path as anyone in a 1980s computer-game industry that was positively brimming with unlikely game designers.

Born in suburban Maryland in 1953, the fourth of the eventual eight children of James and Frances Bates, Bob entered Georgetown University on a partial scholarship in 1971 to pursue a dual major in Philosophy and Psychology. He was interested in people in the abstract, and this seemed the perfect combination of majors to pursue that interest. He imagined himself becoming a teacher. But as it turned out, the combination served equally well to prepare the unwitting Bob for a future in game design. At Georgetown, a Philosophy degree was a Bachelor of Arts, Psychology a Bachelor of Science, meaning he found himself taking a very unusual (and demanding) mixture of  liberal-arts and hard-science courses. What better preparation can there be for the art and science of game design?

Unlike the majority of Georgetown students, Bob didn’t have a great deal of familial wealth at his disposal; it was only thanks to the scholarship that he could attend at all. Thus he was forced to take odd jobs throughout his time there just to meet the many demands of daily life that the scholarship didn’t cover. Early on in his time at university, he got a job in Georgetown’s Sports Information Department that carried with it a wonderful perk: he could attend sporting events for free. When that job ended after about a year, Bob, a big sports fan, was left trying to scheme another way to get into the events. The solution he hit upon was working as a reporter for the sports department of the university newspaper. Access restored and problem solved.

The idea of becoming a writer had never resonated with Bob prior to coming to the newspaper, but he quickly found that he not only enjoyed it but was, at least by the accounts of the newspaper’s editors and readers, quite good at it. “That’s the point at which my aspiration switched,” says Bob, “from being a teacher to being a writer.” Soon he became sports editor, then the managing editor of the newspaper as a whole as well as the pseudonymous author of a humor column. His senior year found him editor-in-chief of the university’s yearbook.

Upon graduating from Georgetown in 1975, he still needed to earn money. On a job board — a literal job board in those days — he saw a posting for a tour guide for the Washington, D.C., area. The job entailed managing every aspect of group tours that were made up  of folks from various clubs and organizations, from schoolchildren to senior citizens. Bob would be responsible for their entire experience: meeting them at the airport, making sure all went well at the hotel, shepherding them from sight to sight, answering all of their questions and dealing with all of their individual problems. Just as his experience at the newspaper had taught him to love the act of writing, Bob found that working as a tour guide uncovered another heretofore unknown pleasure and talent that would mark his future career: “explaining places and history to people, explaining what happened and where it happened.” “These places were interesting to me, and therefore I tried to make them interesting for other people,” he told me — an explanation that applies equally to his later career as an adventure-game designer, crafting games that more often than not took place in existing settings drawn from the pages of history or fiction.

For Bob the aspiring writer, the working schedule of a tour guide seemed ideal. While he would have to remain constantly on the clock and on-hand for his clients during each tour of anywhere from three to seven days, he could then often take up to two weeks off before the next. The freedom of having so many days off could give him, or so he thought, the thing that every writer most craves: the freedom to write, undisturbed by other responsibilities.

Still, the call of the real world can be as hard for a writer as it can for anyone else to resist. Bob found himself getting more and more involved in the day-to-day business of the company; soon he was working in the office instead of in the field, striking up his own network of contacts with clients. At last, feeling overworked and under-compensated for his efforts, he founded a tour company of his own, one that he built in a very short period of time into the largest of its type in Washington, D.C.

By 1983, now married and with his thirtieth birthday fast approaching, Bob felt himself to be at something of a crossroads in life. Plenty of others — probably the vast majority — would have accepted the thriving tour company and the more than comfortable lifestyle that came with it, would have put away those old dreams of writing alongside other childish things. Bob, however, couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t all he wanted from life. He sold the company to one of its employees when he was still a few weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday in order to write The Great American Novel — or, at any rate, an American novel.

The novel was to have been a work of contemporary fiction called One Nation Under God, an examination of the fraught topic, then and now, of prayer in American public schools, along with the more general mixing of politics and religion in American society — of which mixing Bob, then and now, is “extremely not in favor.” The story would involve a group of schoolchildren who came to Washington, D.C., on a tour — “that would be the write what you know part of the exercise,” notes Bob wryly — and got caught up in the issue.

But nearly two years into the writing, the novel still wasn’t even half done, and he still didn’t even have a contract to get it published. He reluctantly began to consider that, while he was certainly a writer, he might not be a novelist. “I need to find a different way to make money from this writing business,” he thought to himself. And then one day he booted up Zork, and the wheels started turning.

The edition of Zork in question ran on an old Radio Shack TRS-80 which Bob’s dad had given him to use as a replacement for the typewriter on which he’d been writing thus far. Bob had not heretofore had any experience with or interest in computers — he gave up his beloved old Selectric typewriter only very reluctantly — but he found Zork surprisingly intriguing. The more he played of it, the more he thought that this medium might give him an alternative way of becoming a writer, one with a much lower barrier to entry than trying to convince a New York literary agent to take a chance on a first-time novelist.

A lifelong fan and practitioner of barbershop harmony, Bob was singing at the time with a well-known group called the Alexandria Harmonizers. Another member, with whom Bob had been friends for some time, was a successful businessman named Dave Wilt, owner of a consulting firm. An odd remark that Dave had once made to him kept coming back to Bob now: “If you’re ever interested in starting a business, we should talk.” When Bob screwed up his courage and proposed to Dave that they start a company together to compete with Infocom, the latter’s response was both positive and immediate: “Yes! Let’s do that!”

While he had little personal interest in the field of computer gaming, Dave Wilt did have a better technical understanding of computers than Bob. Most importantly, he had access to systems and programmers, both through his own consulting firm and in the person of his brother Frederick, a professional programmer. A three-man team came together in some excess office space belonging to the Wilts: Dave Wilt as manager and all-around business guy, Frederick Wilt as programmer and all-around technical guy, and Bob as writer and designer.

They decided to call their little company Challenge, Inc. Ironically in light of Bob’s later reputation as a designer of painstakingly fair, relatively straightforward adventure games, the name was carefully chosen. “If you think an Infocom game is hard,” went their motto, “wait until you try a Challenge game!” A connoisseur of such hardcore puzzles as the cryptic crosswords popular in Britain, Bob wanted to make their text-adventure equivalent. In commercial terms, “it was exactly the wrong idea at the wrong time,” admits Bob. It was also an idea that could and very likely would have gone horribly, disastrously wrong in terms of game design. If there’s a better recipe for an unplayable, insoluble game than a first-time designer setting out to make a self-consciously difficult adventure, I certainly don’t know what it is. Thankfully, Infocom would start walking Bob back from his Challenging manifesto almost from the instant he began working with them.

The deal that brought Challenge, Infocom’s would-be competitor, into their arms came down to a combination of audacity and simple dumb luck. It was the Wilts who first suggested to Bob that, rather than trying to write their own adventuring engine from scratch, they should simply buy or license a good one from someone else. When Dave Wilt asked Bob who might have such a thing to offer, Bob replied that only one company could offer Challenge an engine good enough to compete with Infocom’s games: Infocom themselves. “Well, then, just call them up and tell them you want to license their engine,” said Dave. Bob thought it was a crazy idea. Why would Infocom license their engine to a direct competitor? “Just call them!” insisted Dave. So, Bob called them up.

He soon was on the phone with Joel Berez, recently re-installed as head of Infocom following Al Vezza’s unlamented departure. Berez’s first question had doubtless proved his last in many earlier such conversations: did Bob have access to a DEC minicomputer to run the development system? Thanks to the Wilts’ connections, however, Bob knew that they could arrange to rent time on exactly such a system. That hurdle cleared, Berez’s first offer was to license the engine in perpetuity for a one-time fee of $1 million, an obvious attempt, depending on how the cards fell, to either drive off an unserious negotiator or to raise some quick cash for a desperately cash-strapped Infocom. With nowhere near that kind of capital to hand, Bob countered with a proposal to license the engine on a pay-as-you-go basis for $100,000 per game. Berez said the proposal was “interesting,” said he’d be back in touch soon.

Shortly thereafter, Berez called to drop a bombshell: Infocom had just been bought by Activision, so any potential deal was no longer entirely in his hands. Jim Levy, president of Activision, would be passing through Dulles Airport next Friday. Could Bob meet with him personally there? “I can do that,” said Bob.

Levy came into the meeting in full-on tough-negotiator mode. “Why should we license our engine to you?” he asked. “You’ve never written a game. What makes you think you can do this?” But Bob had also come prepared. He pulled out a list of all of the games that Infocom had published. With no access to any inside information whatsoever, he had marked on the list the games he thought had sold the most and those he thought had sold the least, along with the reasons he believed that to be the case for each. Then he outlined a plan for Challenge’s games that he believed could place them among the bestsellers.

Bob’s plan set a strong precedent for his long career to come in game development, in which he would spend a lot of his time adapting existing literary properties to interactive mediums. Under the banner of Challenge, Inc., he wanted to make text-adventure adaptations of literary properties possessed of two critical criteria: a) that they feature iconic characters well-known to just about every person in the United States if not the world; and b) that they be out of copyright, thus eliminating the need to pay for licenses that Challenge was in no position to afford. He already had the subjects of his first three games picked out: Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, and Robin Hood, in that order — all characters that Bob himself had grown up with and continued to find fascinating. All were, as Bob puts it, “interesting people in interesting places doing interesting things.” How could a budding game designer go wrong?

Levy was noncommittal throughout the meeting, but on Monday Bob got another call from Joel Berez: “Let’s forget this licensing deal. Why don’t you write games for Infocom?” Both Activision and Infocom loved Bob’s plan for making adventurous literary adaptations, even coming up with a brand name for a whole new subset of Infocom interactive fiction: “Immortal Legends.” The idea would only grow more appealing to the powers that were following Jim Levy’s ouster as head of Activision in January of 1987; his successor, Bruce Davis, brought with him a positive mania for licenses and adaptations.

We should take a moment here to make sure we fully appreciate the series of fortuitous circumstances that brought Bob Bates to write games for Infocom. Given their undisputed position of leadership in the realm of text adventures, Bob’s inquiry could hardly have been the first of its nature that Infocom had received. Yet Infocom had for years absolutely rejected the idea of working with outside developers. What made them suddenly more receptive was the desperate financial position they found themselves in following the Cornerstone debacle, a position that made it foolhardy to reject any possible life preserver, even one cast out by a rank unknown quantity like Bob Bates. Then there was the happenstance that gave Bob and the Wilts access to a DECsystem-20, a now aging piece of kit that had been cancelled by DEC a couple of years before and was becoming more and more uncommon. And finally there came the Activision purchase, and with it immediate pressure on Infocom from their new parent to produce many more games than they had ever produced before. All of these factors added up to a yes for Challenge after so many others had received only a resounding no.

In telling the many remarkable stories that I do on this blog, I’m often given cause to think about the humbling role that sheer luck, alongside talent and motivation and all the other things we more commonly celebrate, really does play in life. In light of his unique story, I couldn’t help but ask Bob about the same subject. I found his response enlightening.

In the course of my subsequent career, I ended up rubbing shoulders with lots of very, very well-known authors. Sitting with them informally at dinners and various events and listening to their stories, every single one of them would talk about “that stroke of luck” or “those strokes of luck” that plucked them from the pool of equally talented — or better talented — writers. Their manuscript landed on an editor’s desk at a certain day at a certain time. Or they bumped into somebody, or there was a chance encounter, etc. Every successful writer that I know will tell you that luck played a huge part in their success.

And I am no different. I have been extremely fortunate… but you know, that word “fortunate” doesn’t convey the same sense that “luck” does. I’ve been LUCKY.

With Infocom’s ZIL development system duly installed on the time-shared DEC to which Challenge had access — this marks the only instance of the ZIL system ever making it out of Massachusetts — Bob needed programmers to help him write his games, for Frederick Wilt just didn’t have enough time to do the job himself. Through the once timeless expedient of looking in the Yellow Pages, he found a little contract-programming company called Paragon Systems. They sent over a senior and a junior programmer, named respectively Mark Poesch and Duane Beck. Both would wind up programming in ZIL for Challenge effectively full-time.

Most of the expanded Challenge traveled up to Cambridge for an introduction to ZIL and the general Infocom way of game development. There they fell into the able hands of Stu Galley, the soft-spoken Imp so respected and so quietly relied upon by all of his colleagues. Stu, as Bob puts it, “took us under his wing,” a bemused Bob watching over his shoulder while he patiently walked the more technical types from Challenge through the ins and outs of ZIL.

Infocom continued to give Bob and his colleagues much support throughout the development of the game that would become known as Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels. It was for instance Infocom themselves who suggested that Sherlock become the second Infocom text adventure (after The Lurking Horror) to include sound effects, and who then arranged to have Russell Lieblich at Activision record and digitize them. Present only on the Amiga and Macintosh versions of the game, the sounds, ranging from Sherlock’s violin playing to the clip-clop of a hansom cab, are admittedly little more than inessential novelities even in comparison to those of The Lurking Horror.

More essential was the support Infocom gave Bob and company in the more traditional aspects of the art and science of crafting quality adventure games. As I’ve occasionally noted before, the triumph of Infocom was not so much the triumph of individual design genius, although there were certainly flashes of that from time to time, as it was a systemic triumph. Well before the arrival of Challenge, Infocom had developed a sort of text-adventure assembly line that came complete with quality control that was the envy of the industry. Important as it was to all the games, Infocom’s dedication to the process was especially invaluable to first-time Imps like Bob. The disembodied genius of the process guided them gently away from the typical amateur mistakes found in the games of virtually all of Infocom’s peers — such as Bob’s early fixation on making a game that was gleefully, cruelly hard — and gave them the feedback they needed at every step to craft solid adventures. Sherlock was certainly an unusual game in some respects for Infocom, being the first to be written by outsiders, but in the most important ways it was treated just the same as all the others — not least the many rounds of testing and player feedback it went through. Even today, when quality control is taken much more seriously by game makers in general than it was in Infocom’s day, Infocom’s committed, passionate network of inside and outside testers stands out. Bob:

There’s something that distinguished Infocom from most other game companies that I’ve worked with — and I’ve since worked with a lot. The idea of the role of the tester in today’s game-development world is that a tester is somebody who finds bugs. Testing is in fact often outsourced. What people are looking for are situations where the game doesn’t work.

But testing at Infocom was a far more collaborative process between tester and designer, in terms of things that should be in the game and perhaps weren’t: “I tried to do this and it should have worked”; “This way of phrasing an input should work, but it didn’t.” GET THE ROCK should work just as well as PICK UP THE ROCK or TAKE THE ROCK or ACQUIRE THE ROCK or whatever. That applied not just to syntax, but to things like “It seems like this should be possible” or “You know, if you’ve got the player in this situation, they may well try to do X or Y.” We would look at transcripts at Infocom from testers. And we’d solicit qualitative comments as well as mechanical comments. If the machine crashed somewhere or kicked out an error message, of course I’m interested in that, but the Infocom testers would also offer qualitative input about the design of the game. That was special, and is not often the case today. I think that’s something that contributed greatly to the quality of Infocom’s games.

Bob remembers the relationship with everyone at Infocom, which he visited frequently throughout the development of Sherlock and the Challenge game that would follow it, as “really good — we liked each other, we liked talking with each other, I enjoyed visiting their offices and wanted to feel like a part of their culture. They accepted me as one of their own.” The lessons in professionalism and craft that Bob learned from Infocom would follow him through the rest of an impressive and varied career in making games. Bob:

They had the same persnicketiness to get things right that I had. For example, in Sherlock there was a puzzle that involved the tides in the Thames; the Thames goes up quite a bit, like six or seven feet in its tidal variation. In the Times newspaper included with the game, for which they got permission from the London Times to include excerpts from that day, we put in tide tables, and I remember huge arguments over whether they should be the actual tide tables from that day or whether we could bend them to suit the player — to have it work out so the player could solve this puzzle at a time that was convenient for the player, as opposed to when it was convenient for nature. Right now I don’t recall the resolution to that. I don’t remember who won.

My own amateurish investigations would seem to indicate that the tide tables were altered by several hours, although I’m far from completely confident in my findings. But the really important thing, of course, is that such a “persnickety” debate happened at all — a measure of all parties’ willingness to think deeply about the game they were making.

Like many of Bob Bates’s games, Sherlock isn’t one that lends itself overmuch to high-flown analysis, and this can in turn lead some critics to underestimate it. As in a surprising number of ludic Sherlock Holmes adaptations, you the player are cast in the role of the faithful Dr. Watson rather than the great detective himself — perhaps a wise choice given that Sherlock is so often little more than a walking, talking deus ex machina in the original stories, his intellectual leaps more leaps of pure fancy on Arthur Conan Doyle’s part than identifiable leaps of deduction. Sherlock effectively reverses the roles of Watson and Sherlock, rendering the latter little more than a sidekick and occasional source of clues and nudges in the game that bears his name.

It seems that Professor Moriarty has struck again, stealing nothing less than the Crown Jewels of England this time. He’s hidden them somewhere in London, leaving his old nemesis Sherlock a series of clues as to their location in the form of verse. To complete this highly unlikely edifice of artificial plotting, Sherlock decides to turn the investigation over to you, Watson, because Moriarty “will have tried to anticipate the sequence of my actions, and I’m sure he has laid his trap accordingly. But if you were to guide the course of our investigations, he will certainly be thrown off the scent. Therefore, let us take surprise onto our side and rely on your instincts as the man of action I know you to be — despite your frequent modest assertions to the contrary.” The real purpose of it all, of course, is to send you off on a merry scavenger hunt through Victorian London. This is not a game that rewards thinking too much about its plot.

The more compelling aspect of Sherlock is its attention to the details of its setting. It marks the third and final Infocom game, after Trinity and The Lurking Horror, to base its geography on a real place. Bob worked hard to evoke what he calls “the wonderful Victorian era, with the gas lamps and the horse-drawn carriages and the fog,” and succeeded admirably. The newspaper included with the game is a particularly nice touch, both in its own right as one of the more impressive feelies to appear in a late-period Infocom game and as a nice little throwback/homage to the earlier tabletop classic Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.

At the same time that it evokes the Victorian era, however, Sherlock gives a view of London that will be immediately recognizable to any tourist who has ever, as another Infocom game once put it, enjoyed a “$599 London Getaway Package” and “soaked up as much of that authentic English ambiance as you can.” There’s a certain “What I did on my London vacation” quality to Sherlock that’s actually a strength rather than a weakness. Appropriately for a former tour guide who was himself a semi-regular London tourist, Bob made sure to fill his version of Victorian London with the big sights his audience would recognize: Big Ben, Madame Tussaud’s, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, all right where they ought to be on the map. (The game includes a taxi service to shuttle you around among the sights.) Bob lavished particular love on Westminster Abbey, taking pains to duplicate its layout as closely as space constraints allowed from a huge, glossy book he’d purchased in the Abbey’s gift shop on one of his own visits to London.

This map of the real Westminster Abbey matches up very well with...

This map of the real Westminster Abbey matches up very well with…

...the one found in Sherlock.

…the one found in Sherlock.

The time limit in Sherlock — you have just 48 hours to recover the Jewels — may raise some eyebrows, but it’s quite generous as such things go, allowing you more than enough time to poke into everything and savor all of the sights. You’re much more likely to find yourself waiting around for certain things that happen at certain times than trying to optimize every move. If there is a design flaw in the game, then it must be, as Bob himself admits, the very beginning: you need to solve one of the most difficult puzzles in the game right off to get properly started. Because it isn’t initially clear where or what this puzzle is, you’re likely to spend quite some time wandering around at loose ends, unsure what the game expects from you. As soon as you cross that initial hurdle, however, Sherlock settles down into a nicely woven ribbon of clues, not too trivial but also not too horribly taxing, leading to an exciting climax that’s actually worthy of the word.

Sherlock was released in January of 1988, becoming the last of an unprecedented spurt of nine Infocom games in twelve months and, as I mentioned in introducing this article, the last all-text Infocom adventure game ever. It also marked Infocom’s last release for the Commodore 64, the third and last of the “LZIP” line of slightly larger-than-usual games (like its predecessors, Sherlock uses some of the extra space for an in-game hint system), and the end of the line for the original Z-Machine that had been conceived by Marc Blank and Joel Berez back in 1979; Infocom’s new version 6 graphical Z-Machine would retain the name and much of the design philosophy, but would for the first time be the result of a complete ground-up rewrite. Finally, Sherlock was the 31st and final Infocom adventure game to be developed on a DEC, even if the particular DEC in question this time didn’t happen to be Infocom’s own legendary “fleet of red refrigerators.”

Whatever the virtues of the built-in name recognition that came with releasing a Sherlock Holmes adventure, this Sherlock Holmes adventure didn’t do notably well, as will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following my ongoing series of Infocom articles and with it the sales travails of this late period in their history. Released at a time of chaotic transition within Infocom, just after the company had made the decision to abandon the text-only games that had heretofore been their sole claim to fame, Sherlock became yet one more member of Infocom’s 20,000 Club, managing to sell a little over 21,000 copies in all. Bob and his colleagues at Challenge were not happy. They had spent far more time and money creating the game than anticipated, what with all the heavy lifting of getting ZIL up and running in their new environment and learning to use it properly, and the financial return was hardly commensurate. In the end, though, they decided to stay the course, to make the King Arthur game they had always planned to do next using the new development system that Infocom was creating, which would at long last add the ability to include pictures in the games. Surely that would boost sales. Wouldn’t it?

The melancholia that comes attached to Sherlock, the epoch-ending final all-text adventure game from Infocom, is, as is usual for epoch-ending events, easier to feel in retrospect than it was at the time. Bob, being somewhat removed from the Infocom core, didn’t even realize at the time that there were no more all-text games in the offing. Not that it would have mattered if he had; he preferred to think about the new engine with which Infocom was tempting him. With everyone so inclined to look forward rather than behind, the passing away of the commercial text-only adventure game into history was barely remarked.

Looked at today, however, Sherlock certainly wasn’t a bad note to go out on. Being built on the sturdy foundation of everything Infocom had learned about making text adventures to date, it’s not notably, obviously innovative, but, impressively given that it is a first-timer’s game, it evinces heaps of simple good craftsmanship. We may celebrate the occasional titles like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity that aspire to the mantle of Literature, but the vast majority of Infocom’s works are, just like this one, sturdily constructed games first and foremost. Explore an interesting place, solve some satisfying puzzles — the core appeals of a good text adventure are eternal. And, hey, this one has the added bonus that it might just make you want to visit the real London. If you do, you’ll already have a notion where things are, thanks to Bob Bates, lifelong tour guide to worlds real and virtual.

(Sources: Most of the detail in this article is drawn from an interview with Bob Bates, who was kind enough to submit to more than two hours of my nit-picky questions.)

 
 

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Border Zone

Border Zone

Unlike many early peers such as Sierra, who began publishing at least as many third-party titles as titles they developed themselves in the wake of their first success, Infocom throughout their independent existence prided themselves on keeping everything in-house. Every game they released was written right there in their Cambridge offices by their own dedicated little band of Implementors. But Activision’s pressure to release many more games every year in the wake of their acquisition of Infocom finally changed that in late 1986. Infocom desperately needed more Imps to meet Activision’s craving, but weren’t in a position to pay for any more full-time employees. While they could continue to promote eager testers and programmers from other parts of the company, always their most fecund source of new blood for the Imp pool, there was an obvious point of diminishing returns at play there as well: every tester they promoted to Imp meant one less person to test all of those new games that were now coming down the pipe. After promoting Amy Briggs, who was destined to go down in history as the last person ever to become a full-time Imp at Infocom, it was time to beat some other bushes. Like so many companies before and since who couldn’t afford real employees, Infocom filled the labor gap with contractors willing to work remotely for an initial advance against royalties. After all, modems — even expensive, state-of-the-art ones like the two they now hung off their venerable old PDP-10 — were a lot cheaper than employees.

This change represented, I shouldn’t neglect to emphasize, an enormous attitudinal shift for Infocom. They had never before paid anyone whatsoever on a royalty basis; all of the Imps had always worked for a flat salary. In retrospect we can see this instant as marking the beginning of a sea change in what Infocom really was, from a true creative collective making games together to a mere label under which Activision released any game that was even vaguely adventure-like or story-oriented. It would take a few years for that change to reach its full fruition, but the process started here.

Having elected — or been forced — to make this change in their way of doing business, the natural next question for Infocom was who these new contractors should be. One signee was an enterprising Californian named Bob Bates, founder of a tiny would-be adventure developer he called Challenge, Inc.; I’ll be telling his story in a future article. For other contractors, Infocom turned to some old friends, former Imps who had left the fold. With time and resources at a premium, that made a lot of sense: they already knew ZIL, knew how the Infocom development process worked and what would be expected of them as writers and designers.

Infocom thus reached out to Mike Berlyn, who had left the company back in early 1985 to found a design studio of his own, Brainwave Creations, with his wife Muffy. Having already shipped their first adventure game, Interplay’s text/graphic hybrid Tass Times in Tonetown — and through Activision as publisher at that — they were now sniffing around for a home for the new dimension-bending comedic caper they had on the boil. Much as Berlyn’s mercurial nature could make him difficult to work with at times, everyone at Infocom had always liked him personally. If they must work with outside contractors, he certainly seemed like one of the least objectionable choices. They got as far as signing an initial development deal before things fell apart for reasons that to my knowledge have never been fully explained.

Infocom’s other attempt to get the old band back together again would prove more fruitful even as it could also seem, at least on the surface, a much more surprising move. Marc Blank, you see, hadn’t just quit Infocom a year before. After months of squabbling with Al Vezza’s board over Cornerstone and pretty much every other decision they were making, he had been summarily fired.

Blank moved on to, of all places, Infocom’s erstwhile suitors Simon & Schuster, where he became “Vice President of Computer Software Development,” his responsibilities to include “artificial intelligence, expert systems, sorting out new technologies like optical and disk storage.” The brash young Blank, however, soon found he didn’t fit all that well within the conservative old halls of Simon & Schuster. He left what he calls today a “terrible” job within a few months.

Blank’s next stop would prove more extended. He moved to California to work with a company called American Interactive Media, a new corporation with roots in the music industry who were now so closely associated with the Dutch consumer-electronics giant Philips as to blur the line between independent contractor and subsidiary. Philips had initiated a project to bring the brand new technology of CD-ROM to consumers via a set-top box for the living room, and American Interactive was to create games and other content to run on it. In the long run, this would prove another frustrating experience for Blank; Philips’s gadget wouldn’t finally be released until 1991, an astonishing seven years after the project had been started, and for all sorts of reasons would never take off commercially. For the time being, however, it felt fantastic. A guy who loved nothing better than to take a Big New Idea and give it practical form, Blank felt like he was taking interactivity to the logical next step after Infocom, working not with plain old text but with a whole rich universe of multimedia potential at his fingertips.

While he was about inventing the future for Philips, though, he wasn’t above doing some more work for his Infocom friends from the past. And Infocom was very eager to work with him again. The people he had pissed off enough to get himself fired were largely gone from the newly slimmed-down, games-only edition of the company. Truth be told, most of the people still there had agreed with every sullen argument and veiled jab he had ever delivered to Al Vezza and his cronies. They called, Blank said yes, and Border Zone was born.

It would prove a classic Marc Blank project. Never a gamer, he claims that to this day he’s never played a single Infocom game, other than those he wrote himself, to completion. Nor does he have much intrinsic interest in writing or game design as disciplines unto themselves. During his time with Infocom and even before, when working on the original MIT Zork, he preferred to see himself as the wizard behind the curtain, crafting the magic behind the magic, so to speak, that enabled people like Dave Lebling and Steve Meretzky to do their thing. It was Marc Blank who tinkered endlessly with the parser in that original Zork, taking it from a clone of Adventure‘s primitive two-word jobber to one that wouldn’t be fully equaled by anyone else for well over a decade. It was Blank who came up with vehicles you could ride in and characters you could talk to. It was Blank who sat down with Joel Berez and figured out just how Zork could be chopped up and delivered onto microcomputers via a cross-platform virtual machine, an event that marks the beginning of the real story of Infocom as a maker of computer games. And for his pièce de résistance, it was Blank who radically upended people’s very ideas of what an adventure game could be with his interactive murder mystery Deadline, not in the name of art or literature but simply because he found doing so such a fascinating technical exercise.

When Blank wrote and designed a game, he did so essentially as a demonstration of the one or more Big New Ideas it contained, with the thinking that, new technology now to hand, better writers and designers than him could make something really cool with it. Selling his own skills in those departments short though he may have been, Blank manifested no innate need to create in the sense of crafting a single unified work and stamping his name on it as its author. He was perfectly happy to just help others with the interesting technical questions raised by their own would-be creations, as when he built the system for Mike Berlyn’s Suspended that let you play by issuing commands not to a single avatar but to six different robots, each with its own unique outlook and capabilities. Tellingly, Blank authored — or rather co-authored, with Dave Lebling — his last game during his tenure as an Infocom employee, Enchanter, more than two years before he left. Once other Imps were readily available to implement games, he was content to let them while he did other interesting things.

If Blank was suddenly eager now, three years after Enchanter had been published, to write a game again, it could only mean that he had another very compelling Big Idea which he wanted to put through its paces. This time it was real time.

On the surface, it was far from a new idea. As far back as 1982’s The Hobbit, games from other companies had incorporated a timer such that, if you sat too long at a command prompt without doing anything, the program would process a turn as if you had entered a “wait” command, presumably in the name of keeping you on your toes and adding a dollop of urgency to the experience. In addition to The Hobbit and its descendants, Synapse Software’s BTZ engine (“Better than Zork,” although it really wasn’t) had also used this mechanic — a somewhat odd choice for a line which otherwise strained to promote itself as even more cerebral and “literary” than Infocom, but there you go. On the whole it had proved little more than an annoyance, here and everywhere else it had turned up. The actual games it sat atop did nothing of real interest with it. They weren’t actually real-time games at all, rather turn-based games with a chess timer grafted on.

Blank’s idea, which he worked with Infocom’s systems programmers to build into the new version 5 Z-Machine, was to do something much more sophisticated and thoughtful with real time. He had always been deeply interested in creating more dynamic, realistic environments, in pushing back the boundaries of Infocom’s games as simulations. Consider what made him find Deadline so exciting back in 1982:

You’re in this world where all these things are going on. People are doing things. They stop here, talk to someone, go here. Some things would change depending on what you did, but you could sit in one place and watch people come and go. I loved that the world was alive. Instead of exploring a dead world, you’re in a dynamic world with other things going on that you can impact, and what people then do will change, and that will then resonate out, etc. I had no idea how to do that. I had to make it up as I went along. That to me was the fun part.

Now, in Border Zone, the world would live and change, often completely outside of your view, even as you read, thought, and typed your commands. Blank would remove the artificiality of the turn-based structure and create a truly living world behind the words that you read on the screen. You might be in a train compartment trying frantically to hide some key piece of evidence to avoid arrest. As you do so, a guard is following his own schedule, moving from compartment to compartment in the train, getting ever closer, all unbeknownst to you until he bursts into your cabin. If you do manage to get everything sorted in your  compartment before the guard turns up, you’re left to wait — literally to wait, sitting there watching the seconds tick by on the clock on your real-world wall, knowing some sort of security check must be coming, wondering if you hid everything well enough. Nothing quite like this had ever been done before. It absolutely teemed with complications, ran contrary to some of the most bedrock assumptions in Infocom’s development system. It would be a massive technical challenge to get working correctly. But then, massive technical challenges were what Blank lived for.

As usual for Blank, the fictional premise, plot, and puzzles were chosen after the Big Idea, in answer to the question of what sort of fiction would demonstrate said Idea to best effect. Thankfully, and again as usual for Blank, what he came up with proved far more compelling than one might expect from a designer so eager to declare himself so uninterested in game design. He settled on spy fiction. Stu Galley had actually already tried to craft a spy thriller for some six months between implementing Seastalker and Moonmist, but had finally given up on it as just too complex to bring off with Infocom’s technology at that time. Now, though, Blank thought he might have cracked the code. Spy fiction should make an excellent fit for a game of nail-biting real-time tension. And it certainly didn’t hurt that it was enjoying considerable commercial success at the time: countless readers of writers like John Le Carré, Robert Ludlum, and Fredrick Forsyth were enjoying a final spot of classic Cold War intriguing in a world that was soon to change in ways that absolutely no one could ever have predicted.

There’s a bit of the typical Infocom in-jokery, now getting more tired than not, in “Frobnia,” the name of the fictional Eastern Bloc country where much of the action of Border Zone takes place. The principal feelie, a tourist brochure and phrase book for Frobnia, also plays for laughs of the “in America you break law, in Soviet Russia law breaks you!” stripe, complete with poorly translated English, and that’s okay because it’s actually pretty sharp and funny stuff. But otherwise Blank plays it straight, and in the process does a good job evoking classic spy thrillers like Day of the Jackal. Border Zone is, like Nord and Bert, a segmented game, telling a single story in three parts from three points of view; breaking it up like this helped to keep the complexities of this real-time, player-responsive world from becoming overwhelming. While Blank didn’t lift much if any text or code directly from Galley’s previous stab at the spy genre, a game that was to be called Checkpoint, the plot of Border Zone‘s opening sequence in particular bears a marked similarity to Galley’s outline: “You, an innocent train traveler in a foreign country, get mixed up with spies and have to be as clever as they are to survive.” In the first part, then, you play the role of an ordinary American businessman who’s entrusted with some vital documents by an American agent on a train that’s about to cross the border from Frobnia into the ostensibly neutral but Western-leaning (and equally fictional) nation of Litzenburg. In the second, you play the American agent himself, who, having palmed the documents on the businessman, must still escape his KGB pursuers. And in the third, you play a KGB agent with secrets of his own on the scene of the attempted assassination of the American ambassador to Litzenburg — an assassination pointed to by the documents. It all feels appropriately morally murky, and is about as intricately plotted as you can reasonably expect from a work with a fraction of the word count of the novels that inspired it.

Still, and as Blank would no doubt agree, the most interesting aspect of Border Zone is what it does technically and conceptually within its fictional premise. Going yet one step beyond those early mysteries, this is the most complex and responsive world simulation Infocom would ever manage, and, like Plundered Hearts, one of their relatively few games that comes close to delivering on their marketing’s promise of interactive fiction as being “like waking up inside a story.” Most interactive fiction, then and now, is fixated on things, on rooms and their contents, to a degree that can feel downright strange to the uninitiated. Border Zone steps away from that fixation to focus not on what things are in the world but on what’s happening there. The old rooms-and-connections model of geography is still there below the surface, but it’s radically de-emphasized. Many rooms have no set-piece descriptions at all to separate them from the story that’s happening to you and all around you, giving the text a sense of urgent flow. Consider, for example, this extract from the second part, from which you could remove the command prompts to end up with something that would read pretty well as an avant-garde second-person novel (a little Italo Calvino, anyone?).

You are standing at the back door of the hut, which can be circled to the northwest and the southwest. On all other sides lies the forest. A small window in the door gives a view into the house.

>n
You walk around to the north side of the hut.

Two men, presumably from the automobile parked at the end of the roadway south of the clearing, are in quiet conversation with a man, presumably the owner of the hut, who stands leaning against the closed front door. They seem to be lecturing him about something, for he speaks little and nods often.

You watch as the lone guard returns to the group. He appears relieved that he has nothing to report.

The dogs are no closer, but now they seem to be off to the south.

>n
A branch falls from a nearby tree, startling you briefly. You turn back and press on through the forest.


>n
You can hear a pack of dogs off to the south.

You continue through the forest, until you come to the edge of a wide clearing to the north - this is the border zone. From atop three guard towers standing in a line from east to west, searchlights play across the zone, brightly illuminating everything in their path. On either side of the towers are tall
fences, running parallel to the border, making a direct assault all but impossible.

>n
You run across the open field at a good clip, though you are hampered by slick- surfaced shoes. You're past the halfway point, but wait! The light from the rightmost tower is heading right at you! You freeze, and consider turning back, but it's too late. The searchlight is upon you now, and before you can react, the night is filled with the sound of wailing sirens.

****  You have been arrested  ****

It’s not that geography isn’t important, but the scale is shifted. As you duck from hiding place to hiding place trying to avoid a searchlight’s beam, the details of each piece of snowy tundra where you crouch aren’t so important, but where you are in the bigger picture — specifically, in relation to that questing beam — certainly is. Map-making is, as one would hope, completely deprecated. Where necessary, the feelies provide maps that are good enough to orient you to your environment, and the game itself also strains, within the limitations of its text-only presentation, to give a visual overview of the situation in the status line when you’re doing things like dodging guards and searchlight beams.

But what’s most important of all is the other people in the world, especially the ones with machine guns trying to hunt you down. The “puzzles” in this game aren’t really puzzles at all, but rather grounded, realistic situations that you need to come to understand and manipulate to your advantage. Suffice to say that there are no riddles or sliding blocks in this one, folks.

All that said, there’s an unavoidable irony about Border Zone: although this approach was inspired by the desire to make a scenario that would be a good match for the real-time component, just about everything it does could have been done just as easily — and, I would argue, just as successfully — using a conventional turn-based approach. In short, I’m not sure how much real time really adds to the experience. As with so many technically esoteric or ambitious touches in games, the real time in Border Zone feels ultimately more interesting for the programmer than it is for the player. Certainly there remain quite a number of unsolved problems. Border Zone‘s visual presentation, for example, leaves a lot to be desired. For all the new capabilities of the version 5 Z-Machine, its display is still limited to two “windows”: a static top window, generally used for the status line and other persistent information like Beyond Zork‘s room description and automap, and a scrolling bottom window for the main body of a game’s text. The ideal setup for Border Zone would have the command prompt in a static window of its own below the scrolling text — notably, this is the layout used by Synapse for their pseudo-real-time games — but this was apparently one step too far for Infocom’s programmers. Instead the command prompt is still in-lined with the rest of the text, meaning that when things happen around you outside of your direct prompting your command is rudely interrupted to tell you about it; then the partially completed command is printed again and you can finish what you were trying to do. It works, but it’s pretty ugly, not to mention disconcerting until you get used to it.

Border Zone doesn't quite know how to make the command prompt work together with real time in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Border Zone doesn’t quite know how to make the command prompt work together with real time in an aesthetically pleasing way.

While that could be fixed easily enough with more advanced screen-layout capabilities, other problems with Border Zone feel more intractable. Given the careful reading that interactive fiction requires, you’re likely to be chronically short on time the first time through a scenario, then twiddling your thumbs waiting for things to happen on subsequent tries. And, believe me, you will be playing through each of these segments much more than once. Much like Beyond Zork, Border Zone promises one type of experience only to deliver another. The heavy emphasis on simulation and dynamism would seem to imply that this is an emergent experience, one where you can have a different experience every time out. Actually, though, that’s not the case, largely because, for all the world’s complexity, there’s no randomness to it at all. Everyone will follow the same patterns every time — complex patterns, yes, but patterns nevertheless — unless you interfere with them, which in turn will only set them on another deterministic course. This leads to a mode of play that isn’t as different from the interactive mysteries Blank earlier pioneered as many a player might wish.

In other words, this is another try-and-try-again game. Essentially you start playing by doing what seems the natural thing for a character in your circumstances, until you die or get captured or otherwise fail. Then you analyze the situation, come up with an idea as to how you might avoid the negative outcome, and try again. Rinse and repeat. Border Zone isn’t as punishing as the mysteries can be because each of its segments is so compressed, limited to no more than ten or fifteen minutes of real — i.e., wall-clock — time. It’s here, however, where the real time component can also become actively annoying. When you know the series of steps you need to follow to get to a certain point, you want to be able to “wait” in the game for each decision, not be forced to literally sit around waiting in real life. (It is possible to “wait for” a specific number of seconds, but that can be tough to plan out, not to mention deadly if you get it wrong.) And when you come to one of the junctures that require really precise timing, where you need to hit the enter key to submit your command at just the precisely right instant, it can be extremely frustrating when you, as another superspy would say, “miss it by that much” and have to start again.

Each sequence in Border Zone feels like a single bravura action sequence from a good James Bond flick, which is, one senses, exactly the effect intended. What with all the learning by death, playing can feel oddly like choreographing the delicate ballet that is such a sequence, trying again and again until you get all the drama and thrills just right. One notable side effect of the extreme time compression is that Border Zone, even with all three of its sections taken together, is one very short adventure game. Its rather expansive 175 K story file, which would seem to promise a much longer experience, is padded partially by an in-game InvisiClues-style hint system and partially by the complexities of the real-time system itself, but most of all by the overhead involved in implementing a world of depth rather than breadth. Everything was a trade-off in game development in Infocom’s day. In this case, Blank has dramatically increased your scope of possibility and the number of moving parts in the world around you at the expense of game length. Most of the things you might think to try in Border Zone work logically and have logical consequences in the context of the world and its other actors, even if most of them must inevitably be the wrong things, things that ultimately lead to failure. And yet, even duly accounting for the many replays that will be necessary to finish each sequence, it’s very difficult to spend more than three or four hours on Border Zone. That was a major problem for a commercial computer game selling for $30 or more. It’s not hard to understand why gamers would be put off by the entertainment-per-dollar ratio at play here, not hard to understand why publishers usually opted for longer if sketchier experiences over an intricately tooled Swiss watch of a game like this one.

How much its extreme brevity had to do with Border Zone‘s poor sales reception is, given everything else that was going so wrong for Infocom at the time, hard to say. Certainly they tried hard to make it accessible to as many customers as possible. Despite running under the new version 5 rather than the version 4 Z-Machine of Nord and Bert, it became the second in Infocom’s “LZIP” line of larger-than-usual games that were nevertheless shoehorned into the Commodore 64. Still, sales were bad enough to give Border Zone the title of worst-selling all-text Infocom game in history: less than 12,000 units. Thus it wound down Infocom’s demoralizing 1987 just as it had begun, by setting a sales record of the wrong type. It doubtless didn’t help Border Zone‘s cause that it was released in the immediate wake of the much higher profile and more enthusiastically promoted Beyond Zork.

One of Infocom’s least remarked and, one suspects, least played games today, Border Zone deserves better than that fate. I’m not sold on the case it makes for real-time interactive fiction, and little surprised that that avenue has gone all but completely unexplored through all of the years of non-commercial experimentation that has followed Infocom’s demise. But Border Zone is much more than just a failed technical experiment. Even if real time were taken out of the picture entirely, it would stand as an experience able to get the pulse pounding and the juices flowing, something that textual interactive fiction isn’t exactly known for. It’s also a very solvable game, and one where every challenge truly is part and parcel of the story you’re living. That, again, is something not a whole lot of interactive fiction, vintage or modern, can lay claim to. I highly recommend that you give it a play, and experience yet one more utterly unique Infocom game for yourself.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Also useful was the April 1986 Questbusters.

Border Zone and most of the other Infocom games are available for purchase as part of an iOS app.)

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Nord and Bert

Nord and Bert

Fair Warning: a handful of puzzle spoilers are sprinkled through this article.

For the most part, Infocom weathered Activision’s demand that they suddenly double their output of games almost unbelievably well. While I fancy I can see evidence of their sudden prolificacy in a parser that could have been a little bit smarter here or a puzzle that could have used just a little more thought there, I certainly can’t say that any of the games I’ve written about so far were spoiled by the new pressure. The one glaring exception to that rule, the only title that truly does seem like a tragic victim of its circumstances, is the one I’m writing about today, Jeff O’Neill’s Nord and Berd Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. Its failure to become the game it might have been is only made more disheartening by the fact that it was the most boldly experimental game concept Infocom had dared since Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, the perfect antidote to the sense of been-there/done-that ennui that was beginning to afflict some of Infocom’s other designs along with the Imps themselves. What could have represented a badly needed new direction would prove, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, a detour to nowhere.

We can see the seed of Nord and Bert in another Meretzky game, Leather Goddesses of Phobos. That game’s most brilliant puzzle of all from a crowded field of contenders, still justly remembered and loved today, is a “T-removing machine” that can turn rabbits into rabbis and trays into “little Ray whatsisname from second grade.” This sort of interaction, all about the words themselves that carried all the freight in an all-text Infocom game, could never be entirely replicated in one of ICOM’s point-and-click adventures, in a Sierra animated adventure game, nor even in one of Magnetic Scroll’s text adventures with pretty pictures. For an Infocom that was feeling increasingly embattled by all of the above and more, that had a definite appeal: “Let’s see you try to do this with your fancy graphics!”

After writing Ballyhoo and duly putting in some time as Sisyphus pushing the rock that was the Bureaucracy project up that hill, Jeff O’Neill decided to take Meretzky’s idea to the next level, to make an entire game that was all about the words out of which it was formed. He approached his game of wordplay in what he calls a “backwards” fashion, beginning with the puzzles rather than any set fictional genre or concept, spending days with his nose buried in references books of clichés and homonym pairs and poring over a wide variety of word puzzles from the likes of Games Magazine. To keep things somewhat manageable for the player, he decided to make his new game a series of “short stories” rather than a single extended experience, a first for Infocom. This way each of the segments could focus on one type of wordplay. The fictions for each segment became whatever was most convenient for the type of puzzles O’Neill wanted to present there. Only quite late in the process did he come up with an overarching story to bind the segments together, of the “mixed-up Town of Punster” that’s beset with a confusion of wordplay. You must “cleanse the land of every wrongful, wordful deed” by completing the seven mini-games and a master game combining all of the types of puzzles from the earlier parts. This finale you can naturally only access after completing everything else.

While the master game’s existence does give a nod toward the traditional idea of the holistic, completeable adventure game, most of Nord and Bert departs radically from what people had long since come to expect of a text adventure. In addition to the unusual segmented structure, which led Infocom to dub the game “Interactive Short Stories” rather than “Interactive Fiction” on the box, many other tried-and-true attributes are missing in action. Mapping, for instance, is gone entirely. Infocom in general had been growing steadily less interested in this part of the text-adventure paradigm for years before Nord and Bert, first having excised the mazes and confusing nonreciprocal room connections that mark Zork, and of late having taken to including maps of one sort or another showing their games’ geographies right in the packages as often as not. Nord and Bert, however, takes it yet one step further, eliminating compass directions entirely in favor of a list of accessible rooms in the status line. Thanks to the segmented structure that holds each section to no more than a handful of rooms, you can simply “go to” the room of your choice. Actually, you usually don’t even have to do that much: just typing the name of a room, all by itself, is usually sufficient to send you there.

Indeed, Nord and Bert displays itself to best advantage when it barely feels like an imperative-driven text adventure at all, but rather an exercise in pure wordplay not quite like anything that had come to a computer before. Simply typing the name of an object will cause you to examine it — no “examine” or even “x” verb required — and many of the textual transformations that form the meat of its puzzles require simply typing the correct word or phrase rather than carrying out an in-world action per se. It all amounted to a very conscious bid to, as O’Neill puts it, “attract new fans as well as making the old ones happy. I tried to fulfill this goal by taking the tedium out of the game (mapping, etc.) and making the game more approachable for people.”

Like all Infocom games, Nord and Bert feels like a game for smart people, but it feels aimed toward a different sort of smart person than had been the norm heretofore, and not just because of the absence of dungeons and dragons or rockets and rayguns. A perfect world, at least by the lights of Infocom and Jeff O’Neill, would have seen it replacing the New York Times crossword puzzle on the breakfast tables of urbane sophisticates looking for something to toy with over their Sunday morning coffee. To keep it from becoming too frustrating for this more casual audience, O’Neill tried to build into the game both an extra layer of forgiveness and a tempting challenge to return to on the next Sunday by making it possible to “solve” most sections without actually figuring out all of the puzzles. Scoring is handled as a simple accounting of puzzles available and puzzles solved, and you can always jump back into a section you’ve completed to try to get those last pesky points. Likewise, you can always get out of one section to try another if you need a change of pace; the game remembers your progress in each section for you when you decide to jump back in. And if you absolutely can’t figure something out, Nord and Bert includes a built-in hint system that doles out clues bit by bit, InvisiClues-style, until finally giving the whole solution. This marks yet another first for Infocom in a game that’s fairly stuffed with them.

O’Neill’s prose feels as arch and playfully sophisticated — if sometimes just a bit too self-consciously so — as a classic New Yorker piece: “In this time when phraseology is practiced with mischief as the sole black art, when the currency is debased with the ceaseless random coinage of words, when verbicide is statistically the common household tragedy — now is the time when such a doer of good words is most welcome.” Looking for a visual counterpart to his style for the box art and the feelies, O’Neill happened upon a book of cartoons called The Day Gravity Was Turned Off in Topeka by one Kevin Pope, a journeyman commercial artist for greeting-card companies and the like who was trying to make it as a newspaper cartoonist via a syndicated panel called Inside Out. His work was perhaps just a little too redolent of Gary Larson’s The Far Side to stand out in its own right, but then The Far Side was also hugely popular among exactly the sorts of people at whom Nord and Bert was aimed — and a Kevin Pope didn’t carry the same price tag as a Gary Larson. A deal was quickly worked out, with Infocom pledging both royalties and a prominent plug for his newspaper cartoon and book in return for a dozen or so original cartoon panels to accompany the game. Each plays with words in one way or another, but otherwise they have little to do with the game they accompany. Nord and Bert is one of the few Infocom games that can be played perfectly happily without ever even glancing at the feelies, yet another nod in the direction of being a more casual sort of experience. Despite this, the best of the cartoons not only appears on the box cover but also gives the game its name — a name which, once again, has nothing to do with the contents of the disk.

Two more of the Kevin Pope cartoons included with Nord and Bert.

Two more of the Kevin Pope cartoons that were included with Nord and Bert.

Nord and Bert must have sounded pretty great in principle, both a bold new gameplay concept for a company that was growing tired of making the same old same old and a game that seemed like it could have the potential to reach a whole new type of player if Infocom could — and this was admittedly the trickiest part — find a way to reach her. Even in practice, when we fire up the actual game, things start out fine. The first section, the “Shopping Bizarre,” is the strongest in the game, a fresh delight to play after lots of adventures revolving around keys, maps, and fiddly in-world interactions. Its puzzles are all about finding homonyms, words that sound alike but are spelled differently, like a chocolate moose and chocolate mousseNord and Bert continues to acquit itself quite well in the next few sections. The second, “Play Jacks,” is themed around words and phrases that include a “jack”: “jack of all trades,” “jackhammer,” “Jacuzzi,” etc. Next comes “Buy the Farm,” another very strong section that deals in folksy clichés. And then we have “Eat Your Words,” which is all about English idioms like its title. But after that, alas, everything starts to go wrong. Having managed despite a few wobbles to keep its balance in a death-defying highwire act worthy of O’Neill’s earlier Ballyhoo for about half its length, when Nord and Bert finally falls it falls hard.

To understand why and how that should happen, we first have to acknowledge what a dangerous tightrope Nord and Bert really is walking right from the beginning. If you characterized the entire game as little more than a series of guess the verbs, nouns, and phrases, I might be able to accuse you of being ungenerous but I really couldn’t say that you were wrong. As such, it cuts against almost everything that Infocom had been striving for years now to make their games be. The parser, which Infocom had envisioned becoming eventually so smart and flexible that it would fade into the background entirely, a seamless conduit between player and world, is the entire focus of the play here. And instead of spurning the need for outside knowledge, instead of including everything you need to know to solve it within itself and its feelies as other Infocom games strove to do, Nord and Bert‘s success as a game is completely dependent on its player’s knowledge of clichés, turns of phrase, and quirks of American English. Certainly just about anyone who didn’t grow up with English as her first language will have a horrible time here. I tried to play Nord and Bert recently with my wife, who speaks excellent English but nevertheless has it as her third language. We gave up pretty quickly. Most of it was just baffling to her; it’s not much fun to watch your playing partner grin and giggle with each new intuitive flash as you wonder what the hell he’s on about. I would venture to guess that even some native speakers not from the United States could have some trouble with the folksy Americanisms in sections like “Buy the Farm.” When Nord and Bert does finally fall off that tightrope even for a wordplay-loving native-speaking American like me, it’s almost more surprising that we made it this far together than it is shocking that the game finally went too far.

Still, the section where the big fall happens, “Act the Part,” is a mess by any standard. It seems that already by this point O’Neill was beginning to run out of workable wordplay ideas. The connection of “Act the Part” to the ostensible premise of the game as a whole is, at best, tenuous. You find yourself on the set of a banal sitcom, needing to determine the best action to advance a script that’s unknown to you. It devolves into a literal guessing game of trying to figure out what arbitrary action the game wants next, and a well-nigh impossible one at that. I’d be surprised if anyone in the history of Nord and Bert has ever actually connected a knife and “a bottle in front of me” to arrive at giving your deadbeat brother-in-law Bob a lobotomy without recourse to the hints. This is just bad, horrifically unfair design no matter how much we strain to make concessions for the sheer originality of the game as a whole. Just to add insult to injury (to use a phrase of which Nord and Bert would be proud), you have to solve every single inscrutable puzzle in this section to receive credit for completing the section as a whole.

The next section, “The Manor of Speaking” is also all but insoluble, and also bound by no identifiable connecting tissue of a consistent type of wordplay to give you some traction in divining its mysteries. A sample howler: you’re expected to spook a portrait of Karl Marx, whom the game tell you in the hints — but, naturally, nowhere else — “fears insurgencies,” by sticking a ticking alarm clock in a box and dropping it in front of him. Adventure games just don’t get any more “guess what the author is thinking” than that. The penultimate section, called “Shake a Tower,” recovers somewhat from those lowlights by at least once again building its interactions around an identifiable wordy theme, in this case Spoonerisms, word pairs with transposed sounds: for example, “gritty pearl” and “pretty girl.” But, with no contextual clues to tell you what you’re aiming to accomplish or what the game might expect, the scope of possibility remains far too wide. In short, all of these latter puzzles are just too hard, and not in a good way — a problem that persists into a master-game finale that throws everything that has come before into one unholy blender.

When playing Nord and Bert, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that at some point Infocom just gave up on it in light of all the other games on their plate, that they just did what they could with it and shoved it out the door as it was. An ironic source of temptation to do just that was likely those built-in hints, always a dangerous two-edged sword from the standpoint of good design. Players could never actually get stuck on the worst puzzles, could never have all that much to complain about, since the solutions were always waiting right there in the game itself, right? Well, no. Players still want to solve games for themselves. It’s not much fun, and kind of emasculating to boot, to play a game from its hint menu.

As if there wasn’t already enough novelty about Nord and Bert, it also represented something new for Infocom from a technical standpoint, a compromise between the venerable original 128 K Z-Machine, which ran on just about every computer under the sun but whose limitations now seemed to bite harder with every successive game, and the 256 K Interactive Fiction Plus Z-Machine, which offered a hell of a lot more breathing room along with more screen-formatting flexibility but could only run on computers with the magic combination of 128 K of memory and an 80-column screen, two requirements that excluded it from the slowly fading but still industry-dominating Commodore 64. Internally, Infocom referred to games for the 128 K Z-Machine as “ZIPs” (for “Z-Machine Interpreter Program,” not to be confused with the compression format) and those for the 256 K as “EZIPs” (“Extended ZIPs”). Nord and Bert debuted a new category, the “LZIP” (presumably “Large ZIP”) that slotted into a sweet spot right in between. While built around the revised Interactive Fiction Plus Z-Machine, the LZIP format could adapt itself to 40-column screens and, as long as its total size was restricted to under 180 K, could be shoehorned into a Commodore 64 on a double-sided disk. That extra 50 K or so of space may not sound like much today, but it was precious for Imps used to a hard limit of 128 K, enabling features like Nord and Bert‘s built-in hints. [1]The formats are generally referred to today by the version numbering found in the story files themselves. Versions 1 and 2 were early versions of the 128 K Z-Machine used for the original releases of Zork I and II respectively. Version 3 is the finalized, stable version of the 128 K Z-Machine on which those early games were re-released, and which thereafter ran the bulk of Infocom’s games for most of the company’s existence. Version 4 is the first 256 K Z-Machine, used for the Interactive Fiction Plus (“EZIP”) games A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, and Bureaucracy, and now for the line of “LZIP” games like Nord and Bert. Yes, this is all quite confusing. No, if you’re not deeply interested in Infocom’s technology as opposed to their art, it’s not ultimately all that important. And yes, it’s going to get still more complicated before we’re done with their story. LZIP was just one of a plethora of new technological variations all suddenly all in the pipeline at the same time, from The Lurking Horror‘s sound support on the Amiga to a whole new major revision of the Z-Machine for Beyond Zork. Much as Infocom and Activision judged all this feverish innovation necessary to have any hope of remaining competitive, it certainly wasn’t making their testing process any easier, especially when taken in combination with the brutal release schedule.

All of this confused activity may have had something to do not only with Nord and Bert‘s fundamental design failings but also with some fit-and-finish issues that are very unusual to see in an Infocom game. In one or two places, for instance, correct responses are met first with a “[That sentence isn’t one I recognize.],” followed immediately by some text telling you that you have in fact solved a puzzle. Yes, it’s all made slightly more understandable by the radical overhauling the standard parser had to undergo for this game, but, nevertheless, the absence of exactly these sorts of glitches and parserial non sequiturs was one of the things that usually distinguished Infocom from even worthy competitors like Magnetic Scrolls. It’s hard to imagine these sorts of problems sneaking into a released Infocom game of an earlier, less hectic year. But then again, the very fact that such a strange experiment as Nord and Bert got a release at all is likely down to the simple reality that Infocom suddenly had so many slots to fill. With Activision craving so much pasta, might as well throw some crazy-colored penne at the wall as well as the usual spaghetti to see if it stuck.

Predictably enough, it didn’t, at least not that well. It turned out that plenty of traditional text adventurers just wanted their spaghetti, had no interest in the alternative Nord and Bert offered them. After the game’s release, William Carte, a reviewer for the very traditionalist Questbusters magazine (they had already found the likes of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Alter Ego far too avant garde for their tastes), became one of many to speak for this constituency. He misses mapping, saying “half the fun” is “finding secret doors and locations.” As for the puzzles that are there:

If you have a great vocabulary (or enjoy reading Webster’s Dictionary) and like limericks and wordplay, you may enjoy Nord and Bert. (As someone else phrased it, this game is for “word nerds.”) True adventure gamers will probably be disappointed.

With people who enjoyed Nord and Bert thus duly put in their place as untrue adventure gamers in this review and others like it, the game was going to face even more of an uphill commercial climb than other Infocom games of this late era. And as for the dream of reaching a new sort of brainy yet more casual player… well, you can probably guess about how well that went. Thanks to some fairly gushing articles in places like The New York Times Book Review and The Boston Globe Magazine, Infocom had actually begun to make some modest inroads into the less stereotypically nerdy end of the smart-people demographic during their peak years of 1983 and 1984. Sadly, however, free exposure like that hadn’t been their lot in life for some time now. These days they lacked the resources to mount an outreach effort of the necessary scale to reach such folks — or of any scale at all, really — and Activision, having now pivoted so completely to the traditional videogame market of teenage boys, neither understood nor cared about O’Neill’s broader vision for the game. Pushed out with little fanfare in September of 1987 in tandem with Plundered Hearts — the two already represented Infocom’s fifth and sixth games of the year, with yet three more being prepped for release within the next few months —  Nord and Bert if anything did somewhat better than its esoteric style and all but nonexistent promotion might have prompted one to expect, managing to sell about 17,000 copies, slightly more than its release partner and about 5000 more than the title that still remained Infocom’s worst-selling ever, Hollywood Hijinx. Still, the folks making that New York Times crossword had little cause for concern.

Nord and Bert, Jeff O’Neill’s second game, would also prove to be his last. He left Infocom shortly after its release, part of a slow exodus that began as relations with Activision continued to worsen and the future looked more and more bleak. His career at Infocom stands as the most disappointing of all of the Imps, the story of a fine writer and boldly innovative if inexperienced designer who began two wonderfully promising games in Ballyhoo and Nord and Bert only to have them fall apart — and both largely due to pressures outside his control. Given O’Neill’s inexperience, both just needed that extra bit of tender loving care that Infocom wasn’t quite in a position to give them. It’s not surprising, then, that he remains by far the most embittered of all the former Imps, the only one who declined to be interviewed for the Get Lamp documentary and, indeed, the only one to have maintained a nearly complete silence since Infocom folded.

Understandable as his bitterness is, at least one thing ought to lessen its sting.  Both of his games, commercial disappoints though they may have been in their day, have like A Mind Forever Voyaging proved hugely influential on the art of interactive fiction in the longer term. Just as Ballyhoo pioneered a new, less frustrating form of plotting that tailors the story to the player’s progress rather than making the player conform to the game’s chronology, Nord and Bert introduced to the world the delicious possibilities for interactive wordplay, for text adventures that revel in the very textuality that sets them apart from their graphical cousins. A persistent sub-genre has been the result, one that includes gems like Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and Emily Short’s more recent and even more delightful Counterfeit Monkey. Thanks to more time in the gestation, many more years of collective design wisdom on which to draw, and an audience of players that’s much more accepting of alternate approaches to interactive fiction than were many of Infocom’s fans, these games and a handful of other contenders like them largely avoided Nord and Bert‘s worst pratfalls to become acknowledged classics as well as some of my own all-time favorites. (Much as it may mark me as a less than true adventurer, I do love me some wordplay, so much so that it’s occasionally led me to be way too forgiving of even Nord and Bert‘s shortcomings in the past.) But then, this is much of the reason that Infocom’s catalog as a whole remains so vital and interesting after all these years. Even their failures cast a long shadow over everything that would follow them.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me, even though those archives sadly don’t include an interview with Jeff O’Neill himself. The one place I’ve found where O’Neill does talk at all about his work on Nord and Bert is some remarks included with Ross Ceccola’s review of the game in the March 1988 Commodore Magazine. William Carte’s review appears in the November 1987 Questbusters.

Nord and Bert sadly isn’t included in the Lost Treasures of Infocom iOS app, so you’ll have to track down a copy elsewhere if you want to play it; I’m sure most of you won’t have any trouble figuring out where to look. While its failings keep it out of my Hall of Fame, its first half is strong enough to be well worth playing for more than historical interest.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The formats are generally referred to today by the version numbering found in the story files themselves. Versions 1 and 2 were early versions of the 128 K Z-Machine used for the original releases of Zork I and II respectively. Version 3 is the finalized, stable version of the 128 K Z-Machine on which those early games were re-released, and which thereafter ran the bulk of Infocom’s games for most of the company’s existence. Version 4 is the first 256 K Z-Machine, used for the Interactive Fiction Plus (“EZIP”) games A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, and Bureaucracy, and now for the line of “LZIP” games like Nord and Bert. Yes, this is all quite confusing. No, if you’re not deeply interested in Infocom’s technology as opposed to their art, it’s not ultimately all that important. And yes, it’s going to get still more complicated before we’re done with their story.
 
 

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