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Journey

Journey

The parser is and has always been both the text adventure’s ace in the hole and its Achilles heel. Devotees will tell you, correctly in my opinion, that it offers possibilities for interaction — even, one might say, possibilities for interactive wonder — allowed by no other interface. Detractors will tell you, also correctly, that it’s too persnickety, too difficult to use, that in its opacity and inscrutability it violates every rule of modern interface design. Devotees will reply, yet again in my opinion correctly, that if you take away the parser you take away the magic. What can compare with typing some crazy command and seeing it work? What, the detractors reply, can frustrate more than figuring out what to do, not being able to get the parser to acknowledge your efforts, turning to a walkthrough, and finding out you were simply using the wrong verb or the wrong phrasing? And so we go, round and round and round. This waltz of point and counterpoint says as much about the text adventure’s decidedly limited mass appeal as it does about why some of us love the form so darn much.

For most of the text adventure’s lifespan people have been devising various ways to try to break the cycle, to capture at least some of the magic without any of the pain. Even Infocom, whose parser was legendary in its day, had a go in their final days at doing away with the gnarly, troublesome thing altogether, via a game called Journey.

The idea that became Journey can be dated to November 6, 1987, when a proposed “new project” emerged from an internal planning meeting. By that point, attitudes about Infocom’s future prospects had broken into two schools of thought. One view, still dominant inside Infocom’s own offices but viewed with increasing skepticism in the headquarters of their corporate masters Mediagenic,1 held that the fundamental model of interaction that Infocom’s games had always utilized, that of reading text and typing commands in response, was still commercially viable in the broad strokes. What was needed was to make that model a bit more visually appealing and accessible, by adding pictures and other audiovisual pizazz to break up their walls of text and by making the parser smarter and friendlier. The other view held that Infocom needed to throw out all their old approaches — among them their parser — and tackle their new role as Mediagenic’s designated “master storytellers” with an entirely blank slate. Conservatives versus radicals, denialists versus realists — call the camps what you will, the lines were drawn.

True to the dominant internal opinion, Infocom put the majority of their resources into one last kick at the can for their parser-based games, putting three new illustrated but still parser-driven text adventures into development. They hedged their bets just a little, however, by making sure the new version 6 Z-Machine they had in development to power those games could support purely mouse-based point-and-click interaction as well the traditional keyboard-driven approach. And then they started this “new project” of theirs to see what the possibilities for non-parser-based adventuring might really be.

The meeting notes read that said new project should be “true to [the] corporate philosophy”; that it should “embody the concept of ‘interactive storytelling'”; that it should “employ a simple, intuitive user interface unlike the one used in our traditional IF games”; and that, while initially “intended for use on existing home computers,” it should be “readily adaptable to other interactive media, such as CD-I, DVI, Nintendo, etc.” Finally, the plan called for “minimal (or optional) use of text.” This last would fall by the wayside in light of Infocom’s limited resources and complete lack of experience working in anything other than text; instead they would settle for lots of pictures to accompany the text. Otherwise, though, the game Marc Blank wrote in response to this plan would hew quite closely to it.

Ironically, it was Blank who had been the mastermind behind the magnificent parser, first implemented as part of the original Zork at MIT, that had been so key to Infocom’s ascendancy during the first half of the 1980s. Now he would be working on the interface that might just become its replacement if the conservative camp should prove mistaken in their faith in the old ways. But then, Blank wasn’t much of a sentimentalist. Assuming he thought of it at all, the idea of sounding the death knell of the traditional Infocom game didn’t bother him one bit. On the contrary, this new project was a perfect fit for Blank, exactly the sort of medium-advancing technical challenge he loved. He insists today that throughout his work with Infocom game design and story were always secondary in his mind to the technology that enabled them. Thus virtually every one of the games with which he was most intimately involved, whether as the officially recognized Implementor or the self-styled “wizard behind the curtain” enabling the creativity of another, pushed Infocom’s technology forward in one way or another. That would be more true than ever of Journey, which Blank created as he had Border Zone from the West Coast, working as an independent contractor rather than an Infocom employee. Blank:

Journey was an experiment to find out whether you could play an interactive story without having to type. It was all about whether you could still have people feel they had the ability to do a lot of different things, but not force them to guess words or use a keyboard. A lot of people just don’t like that; they aren’t good at it. It’s a turn-off. For me, the idea was to just experiment with another style of evolving the story — a different interface, just to see where it would go.

Even more so conceptually than technically, this new interface of his was going to be a tricky business. A bunch of hard-branching links in the form of a computerized Choose Your Own Adventure book was likely to appeal to no one. At the same time, though, to simply write a traditional text adventure in which the parser was a menu-based labyrinth of verbs and nouns would be both technically impractical — there wouldn’t be enough space on the screen for such a thing for one thing, and even the new version 6 Z-Machine didn’t support scrolling menus — and unplayable in its sheer complication. Blank would need to thread the needle, staking a middle ground between the extreme granularity of Zork and the huge irreversible plot swings that accompany almost every branch in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. To a rather remarkable degree really, he succeeded in doing just that.

Blank’s first brilliant stroke was to make Journey, if not quite a full-fledged CRPG, at least a CRPG-like experience. You the player identify most closely with a single character named Tag, who also serves as the author of the past-tense “chronicle” of the adventure that you’re helping him to create. You’re responsible for managing several of his companions in adventure as well, however, each with his own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. Most notably, the wizard Praxix can cast spells, each of which requires a certain combination of reagents which you’ll need to collect over the course of your Journey. Many problems can be solved in multiple ways, using different spells or combinations of spells, the special abilities of one character or another, and/or your own native cleverness. While the scope of possibility in Journey is undeniably limited in comparison to a traditional Infocom game, in practice it feels broader than you might expect.

Journey

To understand a little better how that might be, let’s have a closer look at the interface, as shown in the screenshot above. You’ll notice that the menu at the bottom of the screen is divided into five columns. The first contains possibilities that apply to the entire party — usually involving movement — along with access to the “Game” menu of utility commands. The second column, which isn’t actually clickable, lists each character in the party; the party can include up to five people, who can come and go according to choices and circumstances. The third, fourth, and fifth columns contain “verbs” applying only to the individual party member whose row they inhabit; these also come and go as circumstances change. Many verbs will lead to a further menu or menus of “nouns.” For example, asking Praxix the wizard to “cast” leads first to a direct-object list of available spells, and then on to an indirect-object list of possible spell targets, as shown in the screenshot below. Clicking on the name of Bergon to the far right on that screen would complete a command equivalent to typing “cast elevation on Bergon” in a traditional Infocom game. The whole system is elegant and well thought-through. Limited though it may be in contrast to a parser, it nevertheless presents a vastly larger possibility space than a Choose Your Own Adventure story, not least because it has a world model behind it that’s not all that far removed from the one found in any other Infocom game.

Journey

Journey is, as you’ve doubtless gathered by now, a high-fantasy story, a quality that, combined with the CRPG-like flavor, delighted a beleaguered marketing department still searching desperately for a counter to the huge popularity of the Ultima, Bard’s Tale, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series. Looking for a way to distinguish it from Infocom’s more traditional “graphical interactive fiction,” marketing dubbed it a “role-play chronicle” — not exactly a phrase that trips off the tongue. Blank:

I wanted to call it ‘role-playing fiction.’ They came back with role-play chronicle, and I said, “What does that mean?” They said, “Well, it’s like a chronicle,” and I said, “Yeah, it sort of is because it’s told in the past tense.” So they just sort of invented a phrase. It’s not my favorite, but it’s passable, and I don’t think Journey will stand or fall on what category you put it in. There are a lot of games that are called this type or that, but what really matters is what people think of them.

Awkward though marketing’s name may have been, there is indeed some truth behind it. One of the more interesting aspects of the game is its commitment to the idea of being a chronicle — or, if you like, a novel — that you, through Tag, are creating as you play. If you choose to make a transcript of your adventure, you can opt to have it not include your explicit command choices if you like, just the text that appears in response. The end result can read surprisingly well — a little disjointed at times, yes, but far better than would, say, Zork in this format.

There is, granted, no denying the story’s derivative nature; this is a game that absolutely oozes Tolkien, a fact that Infocom’s marketing department, far from concealing or denying, trumpeted. Journey, runs the game’s official announcement in Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, is “a classic narrative in the exciting tradition of Tolkien” that “plunges you into an uncharted world of dwarves, elves, nymphs, and wizards.” True to its inspiration, Tag, ultimately the hero of the story, is seemingly the meekest and weakest of a group of disparate companions who form a fellowship and set out on a lonely quest to save their land from an encroaching evil that threatens their civilization’s very existence. Sound familiar? Name a proper noun in The Fellowship of the Ring, and chances are it has an analogue in Journey.

Journey

For instance, in place of Tolkien’s magic rings Journey has magic stones as the key to defeating the Dread Lord, its version of Sauron. In this extract, Gandalf… I mean, the great wizard Astrix tells the party of the true nature of their quest.

"I have been following your progress with great interest," the Wizard said, stroking his stringy gray beard. "You are a very resourceful group, that is certain!"

His voice then became dark. "The question is: Have you mettle enough to make siege on the Dread Lord himself?" And then, smiling, the darkness fell from his voice, and he answered his own question, "We shall see, I suppose; we shall see."

Leading us to his hearth, he sat us in a semi-circle around the blazing fire and spoke. "There is a story I must tell, a story of Seven Stones. Created in a time lost to living memory, these Stones contained the very strength and essence of our world. Of the Seven, Four were entrusted to the races of men who could use them best: Elves, Dwarves, Nymphs, and Wizards.

"These are the Four: the Elf Stone, green as the forests of old, and the Dwarf Stone, brown as the caverns of Forn a-klamen; the Nymph Stone, blue as the deep waters of M'nera, and the Wizard Stone, red as the dark fire of Serdi.

"The four races are now sundered, and the Four have long been kept apart, but now, with the Dread Lord rearing his misshapen head in our lands, we must bring them together again. For with them, we can hope to find the Two, and then, finally, the One with whose help we can destroy all Evil.

"For it is told that having the Four, it is possible to find the Two; so, also, do the Two give witness to their master, the One that in elder days was called the Anvil!"

Yet somehow Journey is far less cringe-worthy than it ought to be. For a designer who stubbornly, almost passive-aggressively insists today that the technology “was more important than the story” to him, Blank delivered some pretty fine writing at times for Infocom. Journey is full of sturdy, unpretentious prose evoking a world that, overwhelmingly derivative though it is, really does manage to feel epic and interesting in a way too few other gaming fictions have matched in my experience. I was always interested to explore the world’s various corners, always happy and genuinely curious when the opportunity arose for Tag to learn a little more about it from one of the other characters. Coming from me, someone who generally finds the real world much more interesting than fantastical ones, that’s high praise.

Indeed, when I first began to play Journey I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the whole experience. Not expecting to think much of this oddball effort released in Infocom’s dying days, I’d put off playing it for a long, long time; Journey was the very last of the 35 canonical Infocom games that I actually played. Yet when I finally did so I found it a unique and very pleasant experience. It felt very much like what I presumed it to be attempting to be: a more easygoing, relaxed take on the adventure game, where I could feel free to just take in the scenery and enjoy the story instead of stressing too much over puzzles or worrying overmuch about logistics. The game’s own rhetoric, obviously trying to wean players of conventional interactive fiction into this new way of doing things, encourages just such a relaxed approach. “Try to play as much as possible without overusing Save,” says the manual. “There are no ‘dead ends’ in Journey; feel free to experiment and take chances. Every action you take will cause the story to move forward.” This idea of a text adventure with no dead ends encourages comparisons with the contemporary works of Lucasfilm Games in the graphic-adventure realm, who were working toward the same goal in response to the notoriously player-hostile designs of Sierra. Marc Blank’s contemporary interview comments make the comparison feel even more apt:

We’ve learned a lot about interactive storytelling, but it’s been sort of clunky and not directed. I thought it would be interesting to design a story in which you really couldn’t get stuck. The choices you have to make are more tied into the story than into the minutia of manipulating objects. That really led to the whole style of telling the story and the interface. All that came out of the desire to try something like that.

So, yes, Journey and I had a great relationship for quite a while. And then it all went off the rails.

The first sneaking suspicion that something is rotten at the core of Journey may come when it hits you with some puzzles mid-way in that suddenly demand you type in phrases at a command line. Not only a betrayal of the “no-typing” premise that Infocom had hoped would make Journey amenable to game consoles and standalone CD-ROM players, these puzzles aren’t even particularly worthy in their own right, requiring intuitive leaps that feel borderline unfair, especially in contrast to the consummate ease with which the rest of the game is played. But, alas, they’re far from the worst of Journey‘s sins.

For there inevitably comes a point when you realize that everything Infocom has been saying about their game and everything the game has been implying about itself is a lie. Far from being the more easy-going sort of text adventure that it’s purported to be, Journey is a minefield of the very dead ends it decries, a cruel betrayal of everything it supposedly stands for. It turns out that there is exactly one correct path through the dozens of significant choices you make in playing the game to completion. Make one wrong choice and it’s all over. Worse — far worse — more often than not you are given no clue about the irrecoverable blunder you’ve just made. You might play on for hours before being brought up short.

The worst offenders to all notions of fairness and fun cluster around the magic system and its reagents. Remember those puzzles I mentioned that can be solved in multiple ways? Well, that’s true enough in the short term, but in the long term failing to solve each one in the arbitrary right way — i.e., solving it by using a spell instead of your wits, or simply by using the wrong spell — leaves you high and dry later on, without the necessary reagents you need to get further. Playing Journey becomes an exercise in stepping again and again through the story you already know, clicking your way hurriedly through the same text you’ve already read ten times or more, making slight adjustments each time through so as to get past whatever dead end stymied you last time. This process is exactly as much fun as it sounds. In contrast to this exercise in aggravation, Shogun‘s summary halting with a “this scene is no longer winnable” message when you fail to do what the novel’s version of Blackthorne did suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.

How incredible to think that Journey and Shogun stemmed from Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, designers of the original Zork and Infocom’s two most veteran Implementors of all. These two of all people ought to have known better. Both games’ failings feel part and parcel of the general malaise infecting everything Infocom did or tried to do after 1987. Absolutely nothing that anyone did seemed to come out right anymore.

Like those of Shogun, Journey's 100-plus pictures are the work of artist Donald Langosy.

Like those of Shogun, Journey‘s 100-plus pictures are the work of artist Donald Langosy.

As bizarre as it is to see such frankly awful game design from a company like Infocom and an Implementor like Marc Blank, the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of Journey is still stranger. “Unlike other games you may have played, there are virtually no dead ends,” the manual promises. “Any action you take will advance the story toward one of its many endings.” I suppose there’s a germ of truthfulness here if you count a dead end only as being stranded in a walking-dead situation; the nature of Journey‘s interface means that you will always get a clear message that the jig is up once you’ve run out of options to move forward, sometimes even accompanied by a helpful hint about where you might have messed up way back when. Still, the assertion seems disingenuous at best. When people talk about multiple endings and multiple paths through an interactive story, this isn’t quite what they mean. Ditto Blank’s contemporary claim that there are “dozens” of “alternative endings,” and “very few places where you get killed.” Really, what’s the practical difference between a losing ending that involves death and one that leaves Tag and his friends defeated in their quest? The Dread Lord wins either way.

Today, none of the people left at Infocom during this final unpleasant period of the company’s existence are particularly eager to talk about those painful end times or the final batch of underwhelming games they produced. Thus I’ve never seen anyone even begin to address the fraught question of just what the hell they were thinking in trying to sell this sow’s ear of a game as a silk purse. Part of the disconnect may have stemmed from the physical distance between Marc Blank and the people at Infocom who wrote the manual and did the marketing; this distance prevented Blank from being as intimately involved in every aspect of his game’s presentation as had long been the norm for the in-house team of Imps. And part of the problem may be that the rhetoric around the game was never modified after the original vision for Journey became the cut-down reality necessitated by time pressure and the space limitations of even the latest version 6 Z-Machine. (While Journey‘s text feels quite expansive in comparison to the typical parser-based Infocom game, Blank was still limited to around 70,000 words in total; the perception of loquacity is doubtless aided by the fact that, Journey‘s scope of player possibility being so much more limited, a much larger percentage of that text can be deployed in service of the main channel of the narrative rather than tributaries that many or most players will never see.) Regardless of the reasons, Journey stands as the most blatant and shameless instance of false advertising in Infocom’s history. It’s really, really hard to square marketing’s claim of “no dead ends” with a game that not only includes dead ends but will end up being defined by them in any player’s memory. Infocom was usually better than this — but then, that’s a statement one finds oneself making too often when looking at their final, troubled run of games.

True to the Tolkien model to the last, Infocom planned to make Journey the first of a trilogy of games, the latter entries of which would likely have been written by other authors. Blank proposed starting on an untitled sort of narrative war game as his own next project, “a variant of traditional FRP [fantasy-role-playing] games in which the predominant activity is combat on the battlefield level, as opposed to the hand-to-hand level.” It would use the menu-driven Journey interface to “make a complex game simple to use and learn” and to “provide a narrative force to the unfolding of the war.” But events that followed shortly after the concurrent release and complete commercial failure of Journey and Shogun in March of 1989 put the kibosh on any further use of Journey‘s interface in any context.

And that’s a shame because its interface had huge potential to bridge the gap between the micromanagement entailed by a parser and the sweeping, unsatisfyingly arbitrary plot-branching of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s only in the past decade or so that modern authors have returned to the middle ground first explored by Blank in Journey, constructing choice-based works that include a substantial degree of world modeling behind their text and a more sophisticated approach to interaction than a tangle of irrevocable hard branches. In the years since they began to do so, the quantity of choice-based works submitted to the annual Interactive Fiction Competition has come to rival or exceed those of more traditional parser-based games, and commercial developers like Inkle Studios have enjoyed some financial success with the model. While they provide a very different experience than a parser-based game, my own early engagement with Journey demonstrates how compelling games of this stripe can be on their own terms. And they’re certainly much more viable than traditional text adventures as popular propositions, being so much more accessible to the parser-loathing majority of players.

Unsatisfactory though it is as a game, Journey marks Infocom’s final mad flash of innovation — a flash of innovation so forward-thinking that it would take other developers working in the field of interactive narrative a good fifteen years to catch up to it. Perhaps, then, it’s not such a terrible final legacy after all for Marc Blank in his role as Infocom’s innovator-in-chief — a role he continued to play, as Journey so amply proves, right to the end.

(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. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Plus the May 1989 issue of Questbusters, and the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989.)


  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

 

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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. (Its Big Idea was a magic system complete with multifarious spells that would — hopefully — affect the world believably no matter where, when, or on what they were cast.) 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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Enchanter

Enchanter

In his seminal book Hackers, Steven Levy compares the differing cultures of the East Coast hackers at MIT and the West Coast hackers at Stanford during the glory days of 1970s institutional computing by riffing on their literary preferences. The MIT folks, he claims, preferred “the battle-strewn imagery of shoot-’em-up science fiction,” while those at Stanford went in for “the gentle lore of elves, hobbits, and wizards.” He then goes on to describe how these preferences show up the differing cultures inside the institutions. MIT is competitive, practical, a bit traditionalist and perhaps even prudish, a microcosm of the high-strung East-Coast establishment; while Stanford, having imbibed from the remnants of the hippie dream that persisted in northern California into the 1980s, is more laid-back, more willing to dream about the social potential for computers outside the lab. Like most such clever but broad comparisons, it’s ridiculously reductive.

Yet it also may contain more than a few grains of truth. For all that they enjoyed riffing on the Zork milieu with its grues and its Flathead dynasty, amongst the early Implementors only Dave Lebling read much fantasy literature — and that was because Lebling, an omnivorous and voracious reader then as he remains now, read a lot of everything. If there was a consensus literary genre of choice amongst this group, it was science fiction. You can see this clearly by looking at the string of games Infocom released between the fall of 1982 and the summer of 1983. At this stage, with the company ramping up quickly but with a structured marketing department not yet in place to tell the Imps what kind of games they needed to make to fill in empty spaces in a matrix of genres, everyone just wrote the game he wanted to write. The result was that out of five games by five different authors three were science fiction.

Still, Infocom remained the house that Zork had built. To not continue that series, to ignore the fantasy genre that still remained (as it still does today) the preferred genre of the gaming public at large, would have been crazy. Having lived with the idea of an “original Zork trilogy” for so long, it can be surprising and even a bit counterintuitive for us to recognize that neither Infocom nor their customers saw Zork in that way when the original three games were being written and released. As far as they were concerned Zork was an open-ended series of numbered games of the sort that Ultima and Wizardry would become. Nowhere is that made clearer than in Zork III itself. Here Marc Blank, having incorporated bits of Zork I and Zork II into what stands today as the first of an eventual several brilliant Infocom time-travel puzzles, added an additional little Easter egg: a preview of the as-yet unwritten Zork IV in the form of a grisly episode in which the player gets sacrificed by an evil priest of some sort.

Thus, for all their high-brow write-ups in the New York Times Book Review and the pushes they had made into new literary genres and new styles of play, Infocom needed during 1983 to deliver another good old traditional Zork game — and one that incorporated, Mad Libs-style, Blank’s ugly sacrifice scene — even if it felt like something of a step back. Problem was, it wasn’t clear where to go next with Zork. It may not have been consciously designed as the climax of a trilogy, but Zork III did nevertheless have an air of finality about it. At its end the player had completed her existential journey by becoming the being she had spent all three games struggling against, the Dungeon Master. What could follow that?

The game that they eventually created is a testament to Infocom’s skill at balancing artistic credibility with commercial considerations. It began when Lebling, looking for a reason to get excited about a Zork IV, started thinking back to the ending of his previous Zork game, Zork II. There the player, after vanquishing her irritating nemesis the Wizard of Frobozz, could claim his magic wand and try a few spells for herself. It made a relatively tiny part of the game, and not a terribly deeply-implemented part at that, but it was just such an intrinsically cool idea; you just knew Lebling was onto something here that deserved further pursuit. Lebling, the only Implementor with any grounding in Dungeons and Dragons, now worked up an almost D&D-like magic system for Zork IV. Such adaptations from the world of tabletop RPGs were one of Lebling’s ticks as a designer; he was, you may remember, also responsible for the little-loved randomized combat in Zork I.

Fortunately, the magic system he now created is much more fondly remembered. You carry a spell book containing a few beginning spells. Over the course of the game you can collect more spells on scrolls, most of which you can inscribe into your spell book, thus becoming an ever more flexible and formidable magic user. Prior to casting a spell you have to “memorize” it (or load it into your head like a piece of ammunition), just like in D&D. Once cast, a given spell is gone from memory until memorized again. And there is, of course, a limitation to the number of spells you can have in your memory at once.

All told, the magic system was an absolutely brilliant addition to an otherwise standard text-adventure template. Collecting spells and using them proved to just be fun as all get-out. Removing so many puzzles from the realm of the mechanical to that of the arcane even hid many of the implementational seams that usually showed through; when stuck, the player tended to spend her time casting her spells at various objects, a more manageable set of possibilities to deal with than having her try all sorts of crazy physical manipulations. Indeed, Lebling and his co-author, the indefatigable Marc Blank, quickly realized that seeing their spells fail was almost as much fun to players as using them to solve puzzles. Lebling and Blank therefore spent a lot of effort to make sure that, say, casting Nitfol (“converse with beasts in their own tongue”) on any creature in the game got you something appropriate — and usually entertaining — back in return.

At some point fairly early in the new game’s development Lebling and Blank decided that the addition of magic made it feel so qualitatively different from what had come before that releasing it as Zork IV just didn’t feel right. Further, in these heady days when they were being touted as pioneers of a new interactive literature, they were eager to live up to their billing, to demonstrate a certain eclecticism and literary integrity rather than just continuing to crank out the Zork games. They therefore made the brave decision to rename the game Enchanter, first of a new, open-ended series of fantasy games with an emphasis on spellcraft. (As with Zork, Infocom wouldn’t definitively decide this series should be a trilogy until much later.) Having declared their artistic independence, Infocom could then temper things a bit by declaring the new series to be “in the Zork tradition” and by including plenty of callbacks within the game to make it clear that, while this may have been a new series, it took place in the same beloved fantasy world. Thus they thought they could have their cake and eat it too — and in this they were partially if (as we shall see) perhaps not entirely correct.

As Enchanter begins an evil warlock by the name of Krill has been growing in power, and now threatens to conquer the entire world. The Circle of Enchanters was not initially sure how to respond. To send one of their own number to fight Krill would be “ill-omened,” for Krill would sense the intruder’s magical aura as soon as he entered his stronghold and send his minions to destroy him. Therefore, borrowing a plot element from The Lords of the Rings that would subsequently be used by a thousand CRPGs to explain just why your party of first-level nobodies are entrusted with saving the world, they have decided to send you, a “novice Enchanter with but a few simple spells in your book,” instead. They teleport you onto a deserted road close to Krill’s stronghold, and the game begins.

Enchanter‘s structure feels very old school when contrasted with the handful of Infocom games that preceded it. Not only is it a very traditional game, lacking the radical formal experimentation of the mysteries and Suspended, but it lacks even the initial narrative thrust of Starcross and Planetfall. Both of those games opened with a dynamic scene to get the plot wheels cranking and set up the non-linear exploration of the long middle. Enchanter, however, simply plops you down in an expansive world and tells you to get started with mapping, collecting objects and spells, and solving puzzles, just like Zork I.

Some of the first puzzles you encounter, before you even get into the castle, involve collecting food and drink. Like Planetfall, Enchanter is the product of a very brief era when Infocom was suddenly enamored with the idea of requiring the player to deal with these necessities. In fact, it’s even more stringent than Planetfall in this respect, implementing eating and drinking as two separate necessities in addition to the need for sleep. Hunger and sleep timers would soon become passé at Infocom (not to mention since Infocom’s era) as pointless annoyances that add little to the games into which they’re shoehorned. Yet, as in Planetfall, they don’t bother me greatly here, and even manage to feel somehow organic to the experience. When you sleep your dreams even deliver vital clues.

Once you get inside Krill’s stronghold you find a brilliant collection of interlocking puzzles that are challenging but solvable. Even better are little touches of wit and whimsy that abound everywhere, a sign of Dave Lebling really coming into his own as an author. Although Enchanter is credited as a joint production of Blank and Lebling, it feels like there is a lot more of the loquacious, playful Lebling than the terser, more stoic Blank here. Indeed, for being yet another struggle of Good vs. Ultimate Evil Enchanter has a remarkably light tone, with only a few discordant touches — most notably the sacrifice scene previously advertised in Zork III, which seems dropped in from another game entirely for the very good reason that it was — to remind you of the stakes. Let me tell you about a few bits that particularly delight me.

On the beach just outside the castle we meet the most prominent of a few animals in the game, a turtle, “his enamelled shell shining with all the colors of the rainbow.” When we dutifully cast Nitfol on him we learn how his shell got that way:

"How do you like my shell? A wizard did that to me about 75 years ago. It's nice to find a human who talks turtle. Not many do, you know. Most people think turtles are boring, just because we talk slowly."

Our new friend turns out to be a droll but helpful old fellow whom I find just about as charming as Planetfall‘s Floyd in yet vastly less space:

"Are you a magician? Are you going to do something about that annoying Warlock, then?"

The turtle is the centerpiece of a puzzle that is superficially similar to the one that required us to order a robot about in Zork II, the first Infocom game that allowed us to talk and give orders to others. This time it’s much more fun, however, because, well, it’s our turtle friend who’s helping us rather than a personality-deprived robot. We just need to speed him up before we get started, which we can accomplish with a touch of magic. When his task is finished:

The turtle drops a brittle scroll at your feet. "Not bad, huh?"

I’ve always loved this little guy, as has Lebling; he lists him as one of his favorite creations. The turtle and a few other creatures, all accessible to us thanks to the Nitfol spell, bring life to Enchanter, pulling it a million miles from the windy solitude of Zork III.

But the most remembered character of all in Enchanter is actually you — not the you who is playing the game now, but the you who dutifully marched through the three Zork games to get here. In one area of the castle we find a “Hall of Mirrors,” behind which lies a dim underground labyrinth. In it we occasionally catch a glimpse of “a bedraggled adventurer, carrying a brass lantern and an elvish sword, which is glowing dimly.” He is, of course, our old avatar from Zork. We can use our magic to summon him to the castle.

All at once, the bedraggled adventurer appears before you, brightly glowing sword in hand. His jaw has dropped and his eyes are bulging. His eyes dart this way and that, as if looking for a way to escape.

The game then proceeds to mercilessly but affectionately lampoon this rather dim fellow, along with the old-school design tropes he represents. By far his biggest interest is in collecting valuable objects to put in the trophy case he presumably has back in his white house:

The adventurer offers to relieve you of some of your possessions.

The adventurer asks what you would be needing treasures for.

The adventurer, not overly tactful, asks what you're holding.

In effect we’re seeing the adventurer as the troll, the thief, and their buddies in Zork I must have seen him (us?). He wanders about snarfing every object that isn’t nailed down, fiddling constantly with a weird map (“a convoluted collection of lines, arrows, and boxes”), and serving as an extended in-joke to anyone who spent any time with the Zork games.

The adventurer tries to make some small talk, but only mumbles. He'll have to speak up if he expects you to hear him.

The adventurer waves his sword menacingly in your direction.

The adventurer stares at his possessions as if expecting a revelation.

The adventurer seems to have dropped out of existence. In a voice that seems to recede into the void, you hear his final word: "Restore...." You muse about how a mere adventurer might come to possess a spell of such power.

The adventurer smiles at you like an idiot.

The adventurer asks for directions to Flood Control Dam #3.

The adventurer stops and stares at the portraits. "I've met him!" he gasps, pointing at the Wizard of Frobozz. He doesn't appear eager to meet him again, though. "And there's old Flathead! What a sight!" He glances at the other portraits briefly and then re-checks his map.

The adventurer waves at you and asks "Hello, Sailor?" Strange, you've never even been to sea.

In the spirit of shoe-on-the-other-foot, he also proves annoying in the way many of the non-player characters within the Zork games were, scattering objects hither and yon so you never know just where anything is.

At the risk of ruining a great joke by making of it grist for some theoretical mill, it’s remarkable that Infocom is already playing with the clichés and expectations of the adventure-game form so early, just six years after Adventure itself. This sort of knowing self-referentiality is a very modern phenomenon, one that appeared only after decades or centuries in other art forms. It’s the sort of thing I want to point to when I say that Infocom was more knowing, more sophisticated — just a little bit smarter — about what they were doing than their peers. And yet Infocom is doing it from within what is ultimately a very old-school design of its own, a perfect example of their talent for giving the people what they want, but doing it with a grace and style that eluded most of their competitors.

Enchanter would make an ideal case study in gated puzzle design. Its wide-open map conceals several intricate chains of puzzle dependencies that give the game a structure that Zork, with its mostly unrelated puzzles strewn randomly about its geography, lacked. The adventurer, annoying as he can be, is also a critical link in one of these chains. He gives us our key for solving the “maze.”

A certain fascination with pseudo-mazes is another of Lebling’s design ticks, one which he also passed to Steve Meretzky. He claims to have lost interest in the standard approach to mazes even before his friends at MIT added a couple of monstrously cruel examples of the form to the original PDP-10 Zork. What he delighted in instead was to give us areas that seem to be mazes, but which have some trick — other than the tried-and-true dropping of objects and plotting connections, that is — to solving them. His first pseudo-maze, the baseball puzzle in Zork II, misfired horribly. His second attempt in Starcross was much more reasonable, a labyrinth that could be solved only by convincing someone else to guide you. His third attempt is here in Enchanter in the form of the “Translucent Rooms,” and it’s even more clever. I’m going to spoil here its concept, although not the mechanics of its solution, as an illustration of the marvelous and varied puzzle design inside Enchanter.

So, with the adventurer’s aid we come upon a map which we quickly realize shows the Translucent Rooms.

The map consists of a drawing with nine points, each represented by a strange character, with interconnecting thin pencil lines. Using your native alphabet, it looks like this:

B       J
!      / \
!     /   \
!    /     \
!   K       V
!          / \
!         /   \
!        /     \
R-------M       F
 \     /        
  \   /        
   \ /        
    H       P

 

We also find a magic pencil, using which we can draw in new connections between rooms and also erase them. When we do so, the connections appear not only on the (paper) map but also within the real-life maze. The catch, however — there’s always a catch — is that we have enough lead left to draw just two lines, and enough eraser left to erase just two. That shouldn’t be any problem, right? As you’ve probably guessed, the currently inaccessible room at P contains the item — a powerful spell we can use to banish Krill to “another plane of existence” — that is the point of this whole exercise. Unfortunately, it also contains a powerful entity of eternal Evil who makes old Krill look like a pussycat in comparison. We glean from a book found elsewhere in the game that he was banished there many centuries ago by our magic-using ancestors to save the world (evidently this world of ours tends to need a lot of saving). As soon as we give the entity an escape route to the exit, room B on the map, he’ll start moving toward it. When he’s in a room with us, meanwhile, we’re too terrified to do anything at all. So, the puzzle is to lure the entity out of room P, but to shut off his escape route before he gets all the way out while ourselves getting into room P and then out of the maze — all without using more than two pencil strokes and two erases.

Even in 1983, when adventure-game engines from other companies were beginning to make technological strides, Infocom was the only company who could have made such an intricate, dynamic puzzle with the associated necessity for a parser capable of understanding the likes of “draw line from H to P.” I’ve made this point before, but it’s worth stating again that Infocom’s parser was not just a wonderful luxury; it enabled better puzzles, better game design. This puzzle is a good example of the sort found throughout the game, being fair, challenging but not exasperating, and built with some intricate programming that, like the all the best intricate programming, is likely to go completely unremarked by the player; it just works.

Lest I be accused of overpraising, let me also note here that Enchanter is a product of 1983, and does show some signs of its age. In addition to hunger, thirst, and sleep timers (the first of which gives a hard limit to the time you can spend in the game, since there is only so much food to eat), there is an inventory limit. And there’s a fair amount of learning by death. Whatever you do, don’t get the bright (ha!) idea of casting the Frotz spell on yourself so as to have a constant source of light; since there is no way extinguish this spell and since one puzzle is dependent on darkness, you’ll lock yourself out of victory thereby. Worse, you’ll probably have no idea why you can’t proceed, and when you finally break down and turn to the hints will throw the game against the (metaphorical) wall and hate it forever. The big climax is another offender in this department, although one less likely to force you to replay large swathes of the game. You have only seconds to defeat Krill and the minions he throws at you, and no idea which spells you need to have memorized to do so without dying a few times to gather that information. But other than its past-lives issues in this and a few other places, Enchanter plays very fair. Just remember, as a wise man once said, to save early and often.

It’s probably safe to say that Infocom’s decision to make Enchanter its own thing had commercial consequences. It sold reasonably well, but lagged behind the older Zork games. Released in September of 1983, it sold just over 19,000 copies before the end of that year, followed by a little over 31,000 copies the following year. Enchanter did prove to have longer legs than many older Infocom titles in the company’s later years. All told, it sold over 75,000 copies as a standalone game or as a part of the Enchanter Trilogy bundle. Today it stands as one of the more fondly remembered of Infocom’s games, with more than its fair share of appearances on favorites lists, and has served as the template for some well-regarded games of more modern vintage. Its individual spells, meanwhile, have taken on a life of their own within modern IF circles, being used as the names of interpreters and various other programs and bits of technology — not to mention the name of the domain on which you’re reading this. As my choice of domains may indicate, Enchanter is in my personal top five or so of Infocom games, the first I’ve come to on this blog about which I can say that. Unlike my other favorites, which tend to push the envelope of what a text adventure can be in one way or another, Enchanter stands for me almost as a platonic ideal of an old-school, traditional adventure game, executed with thoroughgoing charm and craftsmanship. I love it dearly.

 

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