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Ten Great Adventure-Game Puzzles

This blog has become, among other things, an examination of good and bad game-design practices down through the years, particularly within the genre of adventure games. I’ve always tried to take the subject seriously, and have even dared to hope that some of these writings might be of practical use to someone — might help designers of the present or future make better games. But, for reasons that I hope everyone can understand, I’ve spent much more time illuminating negative than positive examples of puzzle design. The fact is, I don’t feel much compunction about spoiling bad puzzles. Spoiling the great puzzles, however, is something I’m always loath to do. I want my readers to have the thrill of tackling those for themselves.

Unfortunately, this leaves the situation rather unbalanced. If you’re a designer looking for tips from the games of the past, it certainly helps to have some positive as well as negative examples to look at. And even if you just read this blog to experience (or re-experience) these old games through the sensibility of your humble author here, you’re missing out if all you ever hear about are the puzzles that don’t work. So, when my reader and supporter Casey Muratori wrote to me to suggest an article that singles out some great puzzles for detailed explication and analysis, it sounded like a fine idea to me.

It’s not overly difficult to generalize what makes for fair or merely “good” puzzles. They should be reasonably soluble by any reasonably intelligent, careful player, without having to fall back on the tedium of brute-forcing them or the pointlessness of playing from a walkthrough. As such, the craft of making merely good or fair puzzles is largely subsumed in lists of what not to do — yes, yet more negative reinforcements! — such as Graham Nelson’s “Bill of Player’s Rights” or Ron Gilbert’s “Why Adventure Games Suck and What We Can Do About It.” It’s much more difficult, however, to explain what makes a brilliant, magical puzzle. In any creative discipline, rules will only get you so far; at some point, codification must make way for the ineffable. Still, we’ll do the best we can today, and see if we can’t tease some design lessons out of ten corking puzzles from adventure games of yore.

Needless to say, there will be spoilers galore in what follows, so if you haven’t played these games, and you think you might ever want to, you should absolutely do so before reading about them here. All ten games are found in my personal Hall of Fame and come with my highest recommendation. As that statement would indicate, I’ve restricted this list to games I’ve already written about, meaning that none of those found here were published after 1992. I’ve split the field evenly between parser-driven text adventures and point-and-click graphic adventures. If you readers enjoy and/or find this article useful, then perhaps it can become a semi-regular series going forward.

And now, with all that said, let’s accentuate the positive for once and relive some classic puzzles that have been delighting their players for decades.


1. Getting past the dragon in Adventure

By Will Crowther and Don Woods, public domain, 1977.

How it works: Deep within the bowels of Colossal Cave, “a huge green dragon bars the way!” Your objective, naturally, is to get past him to explore the area beyond. But how to get him out of the way? If you throw your axe at him, it “bounces harmlessly off the dragon’s thick scales.” If you unleash your fierce bird friend on him, who earlier cleared a similarly troublesome snake out of your way, “the little bird attacks the green dragon, and in an astounding flurry gets burnt to a cinder.” If you simply try to “attack dragon,” the game mocks you: “With what? Your bare hands?” You continue on in this way until, frustrated and thoroughly pissed off, you type, “Yes,” in response to that last rhetorical question. And guess what? It wasn’t a rhetorical question: “Congratulations! You have just vanquished a dragon with your bare hands! (Unbelievable, isn’t it?)”

Why it works: In many ways, this is the most dubious puzzle in this article. (I do know how to make an entrance, don’t I?) It seems safe to say that the vast majority of people who have “solved” it have done so by accident, which is not normally a sign of good puzzle design. Yet classic text adventures especially were largely about exploring the possibility space, seeing what responses you could elicit. The game asks you a question; why not answer it, just to see what it does?

This is an early example of a puzzle that could never have worked absent the parser — absent its approach to interactivity as a conversation between game and player. How could you possibly implement something like this using point and click? I’m afraid a dialog box with a “YES” and “NO” just wouldn’t work. In text, though, the puzzle rewards the player’s sense of whimsy — rewards the player, one might even say, for playing in the right spirit. Interactions like these are the reason some of us continue to love text adventures even in our modern era of photo-realistic graphics and surround sound.

Our puzzling design lesson: A puzzle need not be complicated to delight — need barely be a puzzle at all! — if it’s executed with wit and a certain joie de vivre.


2. Exploring the translucent maze in Enchanter

By Marc Blank and David Lebling, Infocom, 1983

How it works: As you’re exploring the castle of the mad wizard Krill, you come upon a maze of eight identical rooms in the basement. Each location is “a peculiar room, whose cream-colored walls are thin and translucent.” All of the rooms are empty, the whole area seemingly superfluous. How strange.

Elsewhere in the castle, you’ve discovered (or will discover) a few other interesting items. One is an old book containing “The Legend of the Unseen Terror”:

This legend, written in an ancient tongue, goes something like this: At one time a shapeless and formless manifestation of evil was disturbed from millennia of sleep. It was so powerful that it required the combined wisdom of the leading enchanters of that age to conquer it. The legend tells how the enchanters lured the Terror "to a recess deep within the earth" by placing there a powerful spell scroll. When it had reached the scroll, the enchanters trapped it there with a spell that encased it in the living rock. The Terror was so horrible that none would dare speak of it. A comment at the end of the narration indicates that the story is considered to be quite fanciful; no other chronicles of the age mention the Terror in any form.

And you’ve found a map, drawn in pencil. With a start, you realize that it corresponds exactly to the map you’ve drawn of the translucent maze, albeit with an additional, apparently inaccessible room located at point P:

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


Finally, you’ve found a badly worn pencil, with a point and an eraser good for just two uses each.

And so you put the pieces together. The Terror and the “powerful spell scroll” mentioned in the book are encased in the “living rock” of the maze in room P. The pencil creates and removes interconnections between the rooms. You need to get to room P to recover the scroll, which you’ll need to defeat Krill. But you can’t allow the Terror to escape and join forces with Krill. A little experimentation — which also causes you to doom the world to endless darkness a few times, but there’s always the restore command, right? — reveals that the Terror moves one room per turn, just as you do. So, your objective must be to let him out of room P, but trap him in another part of the maze before he can get to room B and freedom. You need to give him a path to freedom to get him moving out of room P, then cut it off.

There are many possible solutions. One is to go to room H, then draw a line connecting P and F. Sensing a path to freedom, the Terror will move to room F, whereupon you erase the connection you just drew. As you do that, the Terror moves to room V, but you erase the line between V and M before he can go further, trapping him once again. Now, you have just enough pencil lead left to draw a line between H and P and recover the scroll.

Why it works: Solving this puzzle comes down to working out how a system functions, then exploiting it to do your bidding. (Small wonder so many hackers have found text adventures so appealing over the years!) First comes the great mental leap of connecting these four disparate elements which you’ve found scattered about: an empty maze, a book of legends, a map, and a pencil. Then, after that great “a-ha!” moment, you get the pleasure of working out the mechanics of the Terror’s movements and finally of putting together your plan and carrying it out. Once you understand how everything works, this final exercise is hardly a brain burner, but it’s nevertheless made much more enjoyable by the environment’s dynamism. You feel encouraged to sit down with your map and work out your unique approach, and the game responds as you expect it to.  This simulational aspect, if you will, stands in marked contrast to so many static adventure-game puzzles of the “use X on Y because the designer wants you to” variety.

It’s worth taking note as well of the technology required to implement something like this. It demands a parser capable of understanding a construction as complicated as “draw line from H to P,” a game engine capable of re-jiggering map connections and rewriting room descriptions on the fly, and even a measure of artificial intelligence, including a path-finding algorithm, for the Terror. Nobody other than Infocom could have implemented a puzzle of this dynamic complexity in 1983. I’ve often noted that the keystone of Infocom’s design genius was their subtly advanced technology in comparison to anyone else working in their field; this puzzle provides fine proof of what I mean by that.

Our puzzling design lesson: Technology isn’t everything in game design, but it isn’t nothing either; the tools you choose to work with have a direct impact on the types of puzzles you can attempt. A corollary to this statement is that the technology which goes into design affordances is often far more subtle than that which allows whiz-bang graphics and sound.


3. Getting the babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1984

How it works: You’ve escaped planet Earth just seconds before its destruction at the hands of a Vogon Constructor Fleet. You’re now in the hold of one of the Vogon ships:

Vogon Hold
This is a squalid room filled with grubby mattresses, unwashed cups, and unidentifiable bits of smelly alien underwear. A door lies to port, and an airlock lies to starboard.

There is a satchel here.

In the corner is a glass case with a switch and a keyboard.
It looks like the glass case contains:
an atomic vector plotter

Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

That dispensing machine contains babel fish, which, when inserted into your ear, will allow you to understand the many strange alien languages you’ll soon be encountering. Rather than belabor this famously extended puzzle point by point, I’ll just provide you with a transcript of the steps you need to go through to solve it. In real life, of course, you would spend much more time bumbling and fumbling than does our ideal player here.

>examine machine
The dispenser is tall, has a button at around eye-level, and says "Babel Fish" in large letters. Anything dispensed would probably come out the slot at around knee-level. It bears a small label which reads "Another fine product of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation."

>i
You have:
no tea
a thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is
a towel
It looks like your gown contains:
pocket fluff
The Hitchhiker's Guide
an electronic Sub-Etha signaling device
a loose pile of junk mail
a toothbrush
a flathead screwdriver

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and through a small hole in the wall, just under a metal hook.

>remove gown
Okay, you're no longer wearing your gown.

>hang gown on hook
The gown is now hanging from the hook, covering a tiny hole.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, vanishing through the grating of a hitherto unnoticed drain.

>put towel on drain
The towel completely covers the drain.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot zips through the panel, and is gone.

>cover panel with satchel
Okay, the satchel is lying on its side in front of the tiny robot panel.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc. A small upper-half-of-the-room cleaning robot flies into the room, catches the babel fish (which is all the flying junk it can find), and exits.

>put mail on satchel
Okay, the loose pile of junk mail is now sitting on the satchel.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc surrounded by a cloud of junk mail. Another robot flies in and begins madly collecting the cluttered plume of mail. The babel fish continues its flight, landing with a loud "squish" in your ear.

Why it works: This is easily the most famous text-adventure puzzle of all time, one whose reputation for difficulty was so extreme in the 1980s that Infocom took to selling tee-shirts emblazoned with “I got the babel fish!” In truth, though, its reputation is rather exaggerated. There are other puzzles in Hitchhiker’s which rely heavily — perhaps a little too heavily — on the ability to think with the skewed logic of Douglas Adams. This puzzle, however, really isn’t one of them. It’s certainly convoluted and time-consuming, but it’s also both logical in a non-skewed sense and thoroughly satisfying to work out step by step. From the standpoint of the modern player, its only really objectionable aspects are the facts that you can easily arrive at it without having everything you need to solve it, and that you have a limited amount of tries — i.e., a limited number of spare babel fish — at your disposal. But if you have made sure to pick up everything that isn’t nailed down in the early part of the game, and if you use the save system wisely, there’s no reason you can’t solve this on your own and have immense fun doing so. It’s simply a matter of saving at each stage and experimenting to find out how to progress further. The fact that it can be comfortably solved in stages makes it far less infuriating than it might otherwise be. You always feel like you’re making progress — coming closer, step by step, to the ultimate solution. There’s something of a life lesson here: most big problems can be solved by first breaking them down into smaller problems and solving those one at a time.

Importantly, this puzzle is also funny, fitting in perfectly with Douglas Adams’s comedic conception of a universe not out so much to swat you dead all at once as to slowly annoy you to death with a thousand little passive-aggressive cuts.

Our puzzling design lesson: Too many adventure-game designers think that making a comedy gives them a blank check to indulge in moon logic when it comes to their puzzles. The babel fish illustrates that a puzzle can be both funny and fair.


4. Using the T-removing machine in Leather Goddesses of Phobos

By Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1986

How it works: While exploring this ribald science-fiction comedy, Infocom’s last big hit, you come upon a salesman who wants to trade you something for the “odd machine” he carries. When you finally find the item he’s looking for and take possession of the machine, he gives you only the most cryptic description of its function: “‘It’s a TEE remover,’ he explains. You ponder what it removes — tea stains, hall T-intersections — even TV star Mr. T crosses your mind, until you recall that it’s only 1936.”

Experimentation will eventually reveal that this “tee-remover” is actually a T-remover. If you put something inside it and turn it on, said something becomes itself minus all of the letter Ts in its name. You need to use the machine to solve one clever and rather hilarious puzzle, turning a jar of untangling cream into unangling cream, thereby to save poor King Mitre’s daughter from a tragic fate:

In the diseased version of the legend commonly transmitted on Earth, Mitre is called Midas. The King was granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. His greed caught up with him when he transformed even his own daughter into gold.

King Mitre's wish was, in fact, that everything he touched would turn to forty-five degree angles. No one has ever explained this strange wish; the most likely hypothesis is a sexual fetish. In any case, the tale has a similar climax, with Mitre turning his own daughter into a forty-five degree angle.

This is pretty funny in itself, but the greatest fun offered by the T-remover is in all the other places you can use it: on a tray (“It looks a little like Ray whatsisname from second grade.”); on a rabbit (“A bearded rabbi wearing a prayer shawl leaps out of the machine, recites a Torah blessing, and dashes off in search of a minyan.”); a raft (“It sinks like a stone. I guess a raf doesn’t float nearly as well as a raft.”); a pair of cotton balls (“Let’s just say that some poor male raccoon is speaking in a particularly high-pitched voice.”).

Why it works: The T-removing machine is sometimes held up as another puzzle concept that couldn’t possibly work in any other medium than text. I’m not sure if that’s literally true — later in this very list we’ll see another funny wordplay-based puzzle that does work inside a graphic adventure — but it certainly is true that no responsible producer would agree to pay for all the work required to implement all those one-off, just-for-fun responses in graphics. In text, though, they’re just a matter of an additional sentence or two.

Adventure designer Bob Bates likes to point out that the vast majority of what the player attempts to do will always be wrong; that’s just the nature of the endeavor. When she does one of these wrong things, the designer needs to do as much as possible to entertain her. A later generation would dub this the “juicy” approach to game design: rewarding curiosity and creativity, even if none of it contributes directly to the prosaic task of finishing the game. Steve Meretzky had a great puzzle already with the T-remover, King Mitre, and the untangling/unangling cream. He could have left it at that by coming up with excuses for why you couldn’t put other things in the T-remover. Instead he stayed faithful to his invention and implemented many alternatives alongside the “correct” use of the machine.

Our puzzling design lesson: Don’t ignore the “else” in the “if, then, else” of an adventure game. It makes your game feel like a living world rather than an arbitrary collection of logic gates to be navigated, and shows that you respect your player’s creativity.


5. Escaping the pirate Lafond in Plundered Hearts

By Amy Briggs, Infocom, 1987

How it works: Would I be engaging in too much gender stereotyping if I noted that the puzzles in the only Infocom game to be written by a woman often deal in social intelligence rather than abstract logic? This is another fairly lengthy sequence, so it’s best if I once again just show you what happens if you do everything correctly.

"Welcome, ma petite." Lafond bows you in.

Lafond's Bedroom
Lafond's bedroom shows all the outpourings of his megalomania. Royal hues of
purple and gold weigh down the hangings on the bed and the eastward window, as if trying to smother the moonbeam shining in.

Lafond is leering, lip curled.

A lace-covered table crouches beside a wing-backed chair in one corner. Sitting on the table is a green goblet, a blue goblet and a flagon.

"Have some wine." Lafond pours wine into two glasses, giving a blue one to you. "Drink this down. We have a long night ahead of us." He drains his own.

>drink wine
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

"Good girl," he says, "Let's see more cooperation of this sort."

Suddenly, the door slams open. It is Jamison, coatless, sword bared, his shirt ripped. "Thank God I am not too late. Leave, darling, before I skewer this dog to his bedposts," he cries. The scar on his cheek gleams coldly.

With a yell, Crulley and the butler jump out of the darkness behind him. Nicholas struggles, but soon lies unconscious on the floor.

"Take him to the dungeon," Lafond says, setting down his glass. "You, butler, stay nearby. I do not wish to be disturbed again.

"Now that we are rid of that intrusion, cherie, I will change into something more comfortable. Pour me more wine." He crosses to the wardrobe removing his coat and vest, turned slightly away from you.

>pour wine into green goblet
You fill the green goblet with wine.

"In private, call me Jean, or whatever endearment you choose, once I have approved it." Lafond is looking into the wardrobe.

>squeeze bottle into green goblet
You squeeze three colorless drops into the green goblet. You sense Lafond
hesitate, then continue primping.

The butler enters, laying a silver tray of cold chicken on the table. "The kitchen wench has gone, your grace. I took the liberty of fetching these
myself." He bows and leaves the room.

"Sprinkle some spices on the fowl, ma petite," Lafond says, donning a long brocade robe, his back to you. "They are hot, but delicious."

>get spices
You take a pinch of spices between your thumb and forefinger.

"Tsk. The cook has gone too far. She shall be 'leaving us' tomorrow." Lafond adjusts the lace at his neck.

>put spices on chicken
You sprinkle some spices on a wing and nibble it. The peppery heat hits you like a wave, leaving you gasping, eyes watering.

Lafond strolls to the table smiling slyly. "But you haven't finished pouring the wine." He tops off both glasses. "Which glass was mine? I seem to have forgotten." He points at the green goblet and smiles in a way that does not grant you confidence. "Is this it?"

>no
You shake your head, teeth clenched.

"Ah yes, of course." Lafond obligingly takes the blue goblet.

He inhales deeply of the bouquet of his wine, then turns to you. "You must think me very naive to fall for such a trick. I saw you pour something into one of these glasses -- although I cannot smell it." He switches goblets, setting the blue goblet into your nerveless grasp and taking up the other, smiling evilly. "Now you will drink from the cup intended for me."

>drink from blue goblet
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

"Good girl," he says. Lafond takes the leather bottle and drops it out the window. "You shall not need this. You may suffer no headaches in my employ."

He lifts his glass to drink, but stops. "Your father, for all his idiotic meddling in other people's business, is not a fool. I doubt you are, either." He calls in the butler, ordering him to empty the green goblet. The man reports no odd taste and returns to his post.

>get spices
You take a pinch of spices between your thumb and forefinger.

Lafond draws near, whispering indecencies. He caresses your lily white neck, his fingers ice-cold despite the tropic heat.

>throw spices at lafond
You blow the spices off your fingertips, directly into Lafond's face. He
sneezes, his eyes watering from the heat of the peppers. Reaching blindly for some wine, he instead upsets the table, shattering a glass. Lafond stumbles cursing out of the room, in search of relief.

>s
You run out -- into the butler's barrel chest and leering grin. You return to the bedroom, the butler following. "The governor said you were not to leave this room."

>z
Time passes...

The butler seems to be having some problems stifling a yawn.

>z
Time passes...


The butler's eyes are getting heavier.

>z
Time passes...

The butler collapses, head back, snoring loudly.

>s
You creep over the prostrate butler.

Why it works: Plundered Hearts is an unusually driven text adventure, in which the plucky heroine you play is constantly forced to improvise her way around the dangers that come at her from every direction. In that spirit, one can almost imagine a player bluffing her way through this puzzle on the first try by thinking on her feet and using her social intuition. Most probably won’t, mark you, but it’s conceivable, and that’s what makes it such a good fit with the game that hosts it. This death-defying tale doesn’t have time to slow down for complicated mechanical puzzles. This puzzle, on the other hand, fits perfectly with the kind of high-wire adventure story — adventure story in the classic sense — which this game wants to be.

Our puzzling design lesson: Do-or-die choke point should be used sparingly, but can serve a plot-heavy game well as occasional, exciting punctuations. Just make sure that they feel inseparable from the narrative unfolding around the player — not, as is the case with so many adventure-game puzzles, like the arbitrary thing the player has to do so that the game will feed her the next bit of story.


6. Getting into Weird Ed’s room in Maniac Mansion

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1987

How it works: In Ron Gilbert’s first adventure game, you control not one but three characters, a trio of teenage stereotypes who enter the creepy mansion of Dr. Fred one hot summer night. Each has a unique skill set, and each can move about the grounds independently. Far from being just a gimmick, this has a huge effect on the nature of the game’s puzzles. Instead of confining yourself to one room at a time, as in most adventure games, your thinking has to span the environment; you must coordinate the actions of characters located far apart. Couple this with real-time gameplay and an unusually responsive and dynamic environment, and the whole game starts to feel wonderfully amenable to player creativity, full of emergent possibilities.

In this example of a Maniac Mansion puzzle, you need to search the bedroom of Weird Ed, the son of the mad scientist Fred and his bonkers wife Edna. If you enter while he’s in there, he’ll march you off to the house’s dungeon. Thus you have to find a way to get rid of him. In the sequence below, we’ve placed the kid named Dave in the room adjacent to Ed’s. Meanwhile Bernard is on the house’s front porch. (This being a comedy game, we won’t question how these two are actually communicating with each other.)

Dave is poised to spring into action in the room next to Weird Ed’s.

Bernard rings the doorbell.

Ed heads off to answer the door.

Dave makes his move as soon as Ed clears the area.

Dave searches Ed’s room.

But he has to hurry because Ed, after telling off Bernard, will return to his room.

Why it works: As graphics fidelity increases in an adventure game, the possibility space tends to decrease. Graphics are, after all, expensive to create, and beautiful high-resolution graphics all the more expensive. By the late 1990s, the twilight of the traditional adventure game as more than a niche interest among gamers, the graphics would be very beautiful indeed, but the interactivity would often be distressingly arbitrary, with little to no implementation of anything beyond the One True Path through the game.

Maniac Mansion, by contrast, makes a strong argument for the value of primitive graphics. This game that was originally designed for the 8-bit Commodore 64 uses its crude bobble-headed imagery in the service of the most flexible and player-responsive adventure design Lucasfilm Games would ever publish over a long and storied history in graphic adventures. Situations like the one shown above feel like just that — situations with flexible solutions — rather than set-piece puzzles. You might never have to do any of the above if you take a different approach. (You could, for instance, find a way to befriend Weird Ed instead of tricking him…) The whole environmental simulation — and a simulation really is what it feels like — is of remarkable complexity, especially considering the primitive hardware on which it was implemented.

Our puzzling design lesson: Try thinking holistically instead of in terms of set-piece roadblocks, and try thinking of your game world as a responsive simulated environment for the player to wander in instead of as a mere container for your puzzles and story. You might be surprised at what’s possible, and your players might even discover emergent solutions to their problems which you never thought of.


7. Getting the healer’s ring back in Hero’s Quest (later known as Quest for Glory I)

By Lori Ann and Corey Cole, Sierra, 1989

How it works: Hero’s Quest is another game which strains against the constrained norms in adventure-game design. Here you create and develop a character over the course of the game, CRPG-style. His statistics largely define what he can do, but your own choices define how those statistics develop. This symbiosis results in an experience which is truly yours. Virtually every puzzle in the game admits of multiple approaches, only some (or none) of which may be made possible by your character’s current abilities. The healer’s lost ring is a fine example of how this works in practice.

The bulletin board at the Guild of Adventurers tells you about the missing ring.

You go to inquire with the healer. Outside her hut is a tree, and on the tree is the nest of a sort of flying lizard.

Hmm, there’s another of these flying lizards inside.

I’ll reveal now that the ring is in the nest. But how to get at it? The answer will depend on the kind of character you’ve built up. If your “throwing” skill is sufficient, you can throw rocks at the nest to drive off the lizard and knock it off the tree. If your “magic” skill is sufficient and you’ve bought the “fetch” spell, you can cast it to bring the nest to you. Or, if your “climb” skill is sufficient, you can climb the tree. If you can’t yet manage any of this, you can continue to develop your character and come back later. Or not: the puzzle is completely optional. The healer rewards you only with six extra gold pieces and two healing potions, both of which you can earn through other means if necessary.

Why it works: This puzzle would be somewhat problematic if solving it was required to finish the game. Although several lateral nudges are provided that the ring is in the nest, it strikes me as dubious to absolutely demand that the player put all the pieces together — or, for that matter, to even demand that the player notice the nest, which is sitting there rather inconspicuously in the tree branch. Because solving the puzzle isn’t an absolute requirement, however, it becomes just another fun little thing to discover in a game that’s full of such generosity. Some players will notice the nest and become suspicious, and some won’t. Some players will find a way to see what’s in it, and some won’t. And those that do find a way will do so using disparate methods at different points in the game. Even more so than Maniac Mansion, Hero’s Quest gives you the flexibility to make your own story out of its raw materials. No two players will come away with quite the same memories.

This melding of CRPG mechanics with adventure-game elements is still an underexplored area in a genre which has tended to become less rather than more formally ambitious as it’s aged. (See also Origin’s brief-lived Worlds of Ultima series for an example of games which approach the question from the other direction — adding adventure-game elements to the CRPG rather than the other way around — with equally worthy results.) Anything adventures can do to break out of the static state-machine paradigm in favor of flexibility and dynamism is generally worth doing. It can be the difference between a dead museum exhibition and a living world.

Our puzzling design lesson: You can get away with pushing the boundaries of fairness in optional puzzles, which you can use to reward the hardcore without alienating your more casual players. (Also, go read Maniac Mansion‘s design lesson one more time.)


8. Blunting the smith’s sword in Loom

By Brian Moriarty, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

How it works: Games like Hero’s Quest succeed by being generously expansive, while others, like Loom, succeed by boiling themselves down to a bare essence. To accompany its simple storyline, which has the rarefied sparseness of allegory, Loom eliminates most of what we expect out of an adventure game. Bobbin Threadbare, the hero of the piece, can carry exactly one object with him: a “distaff,” which he can use to “spin” a variety of magical “drafts” out of notes by tapping them out on an onscreen musical staff. Gameplay revolves almost entirely around discovering new drafts and using them to solve puzzles.

The ancestor of Loom‘s drafts is the spell book the player added to in Infocom’s Enchanter series. There as well you cast spells to solve puzzles — and, in keeping with the “juicy” approach, also got to enjoy many amusing effects when you cast them in the wrong places. But, as we saw in our earlier explication of one of Enchanter‘s puzzles, you can’t always rely on your spell book in that game. In Loom, on the other hand, your distaff and your Book of Patterns — i.e., drafts — is all you have. And yet there’s a lot you can do with them, as the following will illustrate.

Bobbin eavesdrops from the gallery as Bishop Mandible discusses his plan for world domination with one of his lackeys. His chief smith is just sharpening the last of the swords that will be required. Bobbin has a pattern for “sharpen.” That’s obviously not what we want to do here, but maybe he could cast it in reverse…

Unfortunately, he can’t spin drafts as long as the smith is beating away at the sword.

Luckily, the smith pauses from time to time to show off his handwork.

Why it works: Loom‘s minimalist mechanics might seem to allow little scope for clever puzzle design. Yet, as this puzzle indicates, such isn’t the case at all. Indeed, there’s a certain interactive magic, found by no means only in adventures games, to the re-purposing of simple mechanics in clever new ways. Loom isn’t a difficult game, but it isn’t entirely trivial either. When the flash of inspiration comes that a draft might be cast backward, it’s as thrilling as the thrills that accompany any other puzzle on this list.

It’s also important to note the spirit of this puzzle, the way it’s of a piece with the mythic dignity of the game as a whole. One can’t help but be reminded of that famous passage from the Book of Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Our puzzling design lesson: Wonderful games can be and have been built around a single mechanic. If you’ve got a great one, don’t hesitate to milk it for all it’s worth. Also: puzzles can illuminate — or undermine — a game’s theme as well as any other of its aspects can.


9. Teaching the cannibals how to get a head in The Secret of Monkey Island

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

How it works: For many of us, the first Monkey Island game is the Platonic ideal of a comedic graphic adventure: consistently inventive, painstakingly fair, endlessly good-natured, and really, truly funny. Given this, I could have chosen to feature any of a dozen or more of its puzzles here. But what I’ve chosen — yes, even over the beloved insult sword-fighting — is something that still makes me smile every time I think about it today, a quarter-century after I first played this game. Just how does a young and ambitious, up-and-coming sort of cannibal get a head?

Hapless hero Guybrush Threepwood needs the human head that the friendly local cannibals are carrying around with them.

Wait! He’s been carrying a certain leaflet around for quite some time now.

What’s the saying? “If you teach a man to fish…”

Why it works: One might call this the graphic-adventure equivalent of the text-adventure puzzle that opened this list. More than that, though, this puzzle is pure Ron Gilbert at his best: dumb but smart, unpretentious and unaffected, effortlessly likable. When you look through your inventory, trying to figure out where you’re going to find a head on this accursed island, and come upon that useless old leaflet you’ve been toting around all this time, you can’t help but laugh out loud.

Our puzzling design lesson: A comedic adventure game should be, to state the obvious, funny. And the comedy should live as much in the puzzles as anywhere else.


10. Tracking down the pendant in The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes

By Eric Lindstrom and R.J. Berg, Electronic Arts, 1992

How it works: This interactive mystery, one of if not the finest game ever to feature Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, is notable for its relative disinterest in the physical puzzles that are the typical adventure game’s stock in trade. Instead it has you collecting more abstract clues about means, motive, and opportunity, and piecing them together to reveal the complicated murder plot at the heart of the story.

It all begins when Holmes and Watson get called to the scene of the murder of an actress named Sarah Carroway: a dark alley just outside the Regency Theatre, where she was a star performer. Was it a mugging gone bad? Was it the work of Jack the Ripper? Or was it something else? A mysterious pendant becomes one of the keys to the case…

We first learn about Sarah Carroway’s odd pendent when we interview her understudy at the theater. It was a recent gift from Sarah’s sister, and she had always worn it since receiving it. Yet it’s missing from her body.

We find the workplace of Sarah’s sister Anna. She’s also in show biz, a singer at the Chancery Opera House. The woman who shared a box with Sarah during Anna’s performances confirms the understudy’s story about the pendant. More ominously, we learn that Anna too has disappeared.

We track down Anna’s solicitor and surrogate father-figure, a kindly old chap named Jacob Farthington. He tells us that Anna bore a child to one Lord Brumwell some years ago, but was forced to give him up to Brumwell without revealing his parentage. Now, she’s been trying to assert her rights as the boy’s mother.

More sleuthing and a little bit of sneaking leads us at last to Anna’s bedroom. There we find her diary. It states that she’s hired a detective following Sarah’s murder — not, regrettably, Sherlock Holmes — to find out what became of the pendant. It seems that it contained something unbelievably important. “A humble sheet of foolscap, depending on what’s written upon it, can be more precious than diamonds,” muses Holmes.

Yet more detecting on our part reveals that a rather dense blackguard named Blackwood pawned the pendant. Soon he confesses to Sarah’s murder: “I got overexcited. I sliced her to make her stop screaming.” He admits that he was hired to recover a letter by any means necessary by “an old gent, very high tone,” but he doesn’t know his name. (Lord Brumwell, perhaps?) It seems he killed the wrong Carroway — Anna rather than Sarah should have been his target — but blundered onto just the thing he was sent to recover anyway. But then, having no idea what the pendant contained, he pawned it to make a little extra dough out of the affair. Stupid is as stupid does…

So where is the pendant — and the proof of parentage it must have contained — now? We visit the pawn shop where Blackwood unloaded it. The owner tells us that it was bought by an “inquiry agent” named Moorehead. Wait… there’s a Moorehead & Gardner Detective Agency listed in the directory. This must be the detective Anna hired! Unfortunately, we are the second to ask about the purchaser of the pendant. The first was a bit of “rough trade” named Robert Hunt.

We’re too late. Hunt has already killed Gardner, and we find him just as he’s pushing Moorehead in front of a train. We manage to nick Hunt after the deed is done, but he refuses to say who hired him or why — not that we don’t have a pretty strong suspicion by this point.

Luckily for our case, neither Gardner nor Moorehead had the pendant on him at the time of his death. We find it at last in their safe. Inside the pendant, as we suspected, is definitive proof of the boy’s parentage. Now we must pay an urgent visit to Lord Brumwell. Is Anna still alive, or has she already met the same fate as her sister? Will Brumwell go peacefully? We’ll have to play further to find out…

Why it works: Even most allegedly “serious” interactive mysteries are weirdly bifurcated affairs. The game pretty much solves the mystery for you as you jump through a bunch of unrelated hoops in the form of arbitrary object-oriented puzzles that often aren’t all that far removed from the comedic likes of Monkey Island. Even some pretty good Sherlock Holmes games, like Infocom’s Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, wind up falling into this trap partially or entirely. Yet The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes stands out for the way it really does ask you to think like a detective, making connections across its considerable length and breadth. While you could, I suppose, brute-force your way through even the multifaceted puzzle above by visiting all of the locations and showing everything to every suspect, it’s so much more satisfying to go back through Watson’s journal, to muse over what you’ve discovered so far, and to make these connections yourself. Lost Files refuses to take the easy way out, choosing instead to take your role as the great detective seriously. For that, it can only be applauded.

Our puzzling design lesson: Graham Nelson once indelibly described an adventure game as “a narrative at war with a crossword.” I would say in response that it really need not be that way. A game need not be a story with puzzles grafted on; the two can harmonize. If you’re making an interactive mystery, in other words, don’t force your player to fiddle with sliding blocks while the plot rolls along without any other sort of input from her; let your player actually, you know, solve a mystery.


(Once again, my thanks to Casey Muratori for suggesting this article. And thank you to Mike Taylor and Alex Freeman for suggesting some of the featured puzzles.)

 
 

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Adventure-Game Rock Stars Live in Conference

On August 24, 1990, CompuServe hosted an online discussion on adventure-game design which included Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Dave Lebling, Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa. This is, needless to say, an incredible gathering of adventuring star power. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of its like in any other (virtual) place. Bob Bates, who has become a great friend of this blog in many ways, found the conference transcript buried away on some remote corner of his hard drive, and was kind enough to share it with me so that I could share it with you today.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably recognize all of the names I’ve just listed, with the likely exception only of Khalsa. But, just to anchor this thing in time a bit better, let me take a moment to describe where each of them was and what he or she was working on that August.

Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein were at Lucasfilm Games (which was soon to be renamed LucasArts). Gilbert had already created the classic Maniac Mansion a few years before, and was about to see published his most beloved creation of all, one that would have as great an impact among his fellow designers as it would among gamers in general: The Secret of Monkey Island. Falstein had created Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Lucasfilm in 1989. Their publisher had also recently released Brian Moriarty’s Loom, whose radically simplified interface, short length, and relatively easy puzzles were prompting much contemporaneous debate.

Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, and Dave Lebling had all written multiple games for the now-defunct Infocom during the previous decade. Bates had recently co-founded Legend Entertainment, where he was working on his own game Timequest and preparing to publish Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, Meretzky’s first post-Infocom game and Legend’s first game ever, in a matter of weeks. Berlyn had been kicking around the industry since leaving Infocom in 1985, creating perhaps most notably Tass Times in Tonetown for Interplay; he was just finishing up a science-fiction epic called Altered Destiny for Accolade, and would shortly thereafter embark on the Les Manley games, a pair of Leisure Suit Larry clones, for the same publisher. Lebling was at something of a loose end after the shuttering of Infocom the previous year, unsure whether he even wanted to remain in the games industry; he would eventually decide that the answer to that question was no, and would never design another game.

Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa were all working at Sierra. Williams was in the latter stages of making her latest King’s Quest, the first to use 256-color VGA graphics and a point-and-click interface, and the first to be earmarked for CD-ROM as a “talkie.” Al Lowe was, as usual, hard at work on the latest Leisure Suit Larry game, which also utilized Sierra’s newer, prettier, parser-less engine. The Coles were just finishing up Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, which would become the last Sierra game in 16-color EGA and the last with a parser.

Khalsa is the only non-designer here, and, as already noted, the only name here with which longtime readers are unlikely to be familiar. He was another of those unsung heroes to be found behind the scenes at so many developers. At Sierra, he played a role that can perhaps best be compared to that played by the similarly indispensable Jon Palace at Infocom. As the “producer” of Sierra’s adventure games, he made sure the designers had the support they needed, acted as a buffer between them and the more business-oriented people, and gently pushed his charges to make their games just a little bit better in various ways. In keeping with his unsung status, he answers only one question here.

We find all of our participants grappling with the many tensions that marked their field in 1990: the urgent need to attract new players in the face of escalating development budgets; the looming presence of CD-ROM and other disruptive new technologies just over the horizon; the fate of text in this emerging multimedia age; the frustration of not always being able to do truly innovative or meaningful work, thanks to a buying public that largely just seemed to want more of the same old fantasy and comedy. It’s intriguing to see how the individual designers respond to these issues here, just as it is to see how those responses took concrete form in the games themselves. By no means is the group of one mind; there’s a spirited back-and-forth on many questions.

I’ve cleaned up the transcript that follows for readability’s sake, editing out heaps of extraneous comments, correcting spelling and grammar, and rejiggering the flow a bit to make everything more coherent. I’ve also added a few footnotes to clarify things or to insert quick comments of my own. Mostly, though, I’ve managed resist the urge to pontificate on any of what’s said here. You all already know my opinions on many of the topics that are raised. Today, I’m going to let the designers speak for themselves. I hope you’ll find their discussion as interesting and enjoyable as I do.


 

Let’s plunge right into the questions. Before I start, I’d like to thank Eeyore, Flying Gerbil, Steve Horton, Tsunami, Hercules, Mr. Adventure, and Randy Snow for submitting questions… and I apologize for mangling their questions with my editing. And now — drum roll! — on to the first question!

Imagine ourselves five years down the road, with all the technological developments that implies: CD-ROMs, faster machines, etc. Describe what, for you, the “ideal” adventure will look like. How will it be different from current adventures?

Roberta Williams: I think that “five years down the road” is actually just a year or two away. Meaning that a year or two from now, adventure games are going to have a very slick, sophisticated, professional look, feel, and sound to them, and that that’s the way they’re going to stay for a while — standardization, if you will. I mean, how can you improve on realistic images that look like paintings or photographs? How can you improve on CD-quality voices and music? How can you improve on real movement caught with a movie camera, or drawn by a professional animator? That’s the kind of adventure game that the public is going to start seeing within a year or two. Once adventure games reach a certain level of sophistication in look and feel, standardization will set in, which will actually be a boon for all concerned, both buyers and developers alike. After that, the improvements will primarily be in the performance on a particular machine, but the look will stay essentially the same for a while.

Dave Lebling: But if those wonderful pictures and hi-fi sound are driven by a clunky parser or a mythical “parser-less interface,” is this a big improvement? I think not. We can spend $2 million or $5 million developing a prettier version of Colossal Cave. Let’s improve the story and the interface! That doesn’t have to mean text adventures, but there’s more to adventure games than pictures.

Steve Meretzky: I think that in the future the scope of games won’t be limited by hardware but by the marketplace. Unless the market for adventure games expands, it won’t be economical to create super-large environments, even though the hardware is there to support them.

Mike Berlyn: Well, I think that technology can create products which drive the market and create end users — people who need or want to experience something they could experience only on a computer. In the future, I would like to explore “plot” as a structure, something which is currently impossible due to the state of the current technology. Plot cannot be a variable until storage increases and engines get smarter. I can easily see a plot that becomes a network of possibilities.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We hope as well that the improvements will be in story and design as well as flash: richer stories, more realistic character interaction, etc. Technology, beyond a certain point which we’ve already reached, really isn’t a big deal. Creativity, and an understanding of the differences between “interactive movies” and games is! The move to professional writers and game designers in the industry is helping.

Ron Gilbert: I think that plot has nothing to do with technology. They are almost unrelated. It’s not CD-ROM or VGA that is going to make the difference, it’s learning how to tell a story. Anyone who is any good can tell a great story in 160 X 200-resolution, 4-color graphics on two disks.

Roberta Williams: It’s not that I don’t think a good plot is important! Obviously it is.

Dave Lebling: I didn’t mean to accuse you of not caring about plot. You of all people know about that! I just think the emphasis on flash is a symptom of the fact that we know how to do flash. Just give us a bigger machine or CD-ROM, and, wham, flash! What we don’t know how to do is plot. I don’t think today’s plots feel more “real” than those of five or eight years ago. Will they be better in five years? I hope so, but I’m not sure. We can’t just blindly duplicate other media without concentrating on the interactivity and control that make ours special. If we work on improving control and the illusion that what we interact with is as rich as reality, then we can do something that none of those other media can touch.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We have never really used the computer as a medium in own right.

Steve Meretzky: You haven’t used it to contact the spirit world?1

Corey and Lorin Ann Cole: There are things that can be done on a computer that can’t be done with other mediums. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be away from the computer and towards scanned images and traditional film and animation techniques.2 If this trend continues, it may be a long time before we truly discover what can be done uniquely with the computer medium. One small example: the much-chastised saved game is a wonderful time- and mind-travel technique that can be a rich tool instead of an unfortunate necessity.

Bob Bates: I agree. You can’t ask a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago to paint you a different scene. You can’t ask a singer at the Met to sing you a different song. (Well, I guess you could, but they frown on requests.) The essence of a computer game is that the player controls the action. The point is to make beautiful music and art that helps the player’s sense of involvement in the game.

I have noticed that a lot of games coming out now are in 256 colors. Does this mean that 256-color VGA is going to be the standard? Has anyone thought about 256 colors in 640 X 480 yet? And how does anyone know who has what?

Bob Bates: The market research on who has what is abominable. As for us, we are releasing our titles with hi-res EGA, which gives us really good graphics on a relatively popular standard, as well as very nice text letters instead of the big clunky ones.

Steve Meretzky: I often get big clunky letters from my Aunt Matilda.

Guruka Singh Khalsa: We’ve been doing a bit of research on who has what hardware, and an amazing number of Sierra customers have VGA cards. Looks like around 60 percent right now. As for 640 X 480 in 256 colors: there’s no hardware standard for that resolution since it’s not an official VGA mode. You won’t see games in that resolution until the engines are more powerful — got to shove them pixels around! — and until it’s an official mode. All SVGA cards use somewhat different calls.

Dave Lebling: The emerging commercial standard is a 386 with VGA and 2 to 4 megs of memory, with a 40-meg hard drive. The home standard tends to lag the commercial one by a few years. But expect this soon, with Windows as the interface.

Does anyone have any plans to develop strictly for or take advantage of the Windows environment?

Dave Lebling: Windows is on the leading edge of the commercial-adoption wave. The newest Windows is the first one that’s really usable to write serious software. There are about 1 million copies of Windows out there. No one is going to put big bucks into it yet. But in a few years, yes, because porting will be easier, and there is a GUI already built, virtual memory, etc., etc. But not now.

With the coming parser-less interfaces and digitized sound, it seems as if text may eventually disappear completely from adventures. Once, of course, adventures were all text. What was gained and what was lost by this shift? Are adventures still a more “literate” form of computer game?

Bob Bates: Well, of course text has become a dirty word of sorts in the business. But I think the problem has always been the barrier the keyboard presents as an input device for those who can’t type. Plus the problems an inadequate or uncaring game designer can create for the player when he doesn’t consider alternate inputs as solutions to puzzles. I think there will always be words coming across the screen from the game. We hope we have solved this with our new interface, but it’s hard for people to judge that since our first game won’t be out for another month…

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Text will not disappear. Nor should it. We will see text games, parser-less games, and non-text games. And who cares about being “literate”; fun is what matters! I like words. Lori likes words. But words are no longer enough if one also likes to eat — and we do. We also like graphics and music and those other fun things too, so it’s not too big a loss.

Roberta Williams: It’s true that in books stories can be more developed, involving, and interesting than in movies. I believe that there is still room for interactive books. Hopefully there is a company out there who will forget about all the “video” stuff and just concentrate on good interactive stories in text, and, as such, will have more developed stories than the graphic adventure games. But as we progress adventure games in general are going to become more like interactive movies. The movie industry is a larger and more lucrative business than the book industry. For the most part, the adventure-game business will go along with that trend. Currently adventure games are the most literate of computer games, but that may change as more and more text will be lost in the coming years, to be replaced by speech, sound effects, and animation. But I do predict that some company out there will see a huge opportunity in bringing back well-written, high-quality interactive books. It will be for a smaller audience, but still well worth the effort.

Dave Lebling: I think you’re too  optimistic about “some company” putting out text products. We are moving from interactive books to interactive movies. I’m not optimistic about the commercial survival of text except in very small doses.3 Unlike in science fiction, you don’t have to follow a trend until it goes asymptotic. Text won’t go away, but its role will be reduced in commercial adventures. Graphics and sound are here to stay.

Al Lowe: With the coming of talkies, it seems as if all those wonderful dialog cards disappeared! You know, the ones that make silent movies so literate? It’s a visual medium! No one asks for silent movies; most Americans won’t even watch a black-and-white movie. Yes, text-only games are more “literate.” So?

Mike Berlyn: As far as the future of text is concerned, my money is on it sticking around. But I’m not sure it’s at all necessary in these kinds of games. The adventure I’m just finishing up has a little bit of text that reiterates what is obvious on the screen, and manages to add to the player’s inputs in other ways to a create fuller experience. But I still don’t think it’s necessary. I’ve done two completely text-less designs, though neither made it to the market.

Bob Bates: I don’t think it’s the loss of text as output that creates a problem for the designer; I think it’s text as input. It’s hard to design tough puzzles that can be solved just by pointing and clicking at things. And if there are no puzzles — tough puzzles — you’re just watching a movie on a very small screen. The days of the text-only adventure are over. Graphics are here to stay, and that’s not a bad thing, as long as they supplement the story instead of trying to replace it.

We’ve seen fantasy adventures, science-fiction adventures, mystery adventures, humorous adventures. Are there any new settings or themes for adventures? Is there any subject or theme that you’ve always wanted to put in an adventure but never had the chance?

Al Lowe: I’ve had ideas for a Wall Street setting for a game, but somehow I can’t get out of this Larry rut. I’d also like to do a very serious game — something without one cheap laugh, just to see if I could. Probably couldn’t, though. A serious romance would be good too.

Roberta Williams: There should be as many settings or themes for adventure games as there are for fictionalized books and movies. After all, an adventure game is really just an interactive story with puzzles and exploration woven into it. There are many themes that I personally would like to do, and hopefully will someday: an historical or series of historical adventure games; a horror game; an archaeological game of some sort; possibly a western. In between King’s Quests, of course.

Noah Falstein: I’ve always wanted to do a time-travel game with the following features: no manual save or load, it’s built automatically into the story line as a function of your time-travel device; the opportunity to play through a sequence with yourself in a later — and then earlier — time; and the ability to go back and change your changes, ad infinitum. Of course, the reason I’m mentioning all this is that I — and others here — have fried our brains trying to figure out how this could be accomplished. We’d rather see someone else do it right. Or die trying.

Ad infinitum? Won’t that take a lot of memory?

Noah Falstein: Recursion!

Dave Lebling: Gosh, my fantasy is your fantasy! I’ve always wanted to do a game based on Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories — you know, “tomorrow we go back and nuke ancient Rome!” Funny thing is, I’ve always run up against the same problem you ran up against.

Mike Berlyn: My fantasy is to finish a game that my wife Muffy and I were working on for the — sniff! — dead Infocom. It was a reality-based game that had a main character going through multiple/parallel lives, meeting people he’d met before but who were different this time through. In that way, the relationships would be different, the plot would be different, and their lives would interact differently.

Steve Meretzky: In my fantasy, I answer the door and Goldie Hawn is standing there wearing… oh, we’re talking adventure games now, aren’t we? A lot of the genres I was going to mention have already been mentioned. But one is historical interactive nonfiction. I know that Stu Galley has always wanted to do a game in which you play Paul Revere in April of 1775. And before I die I’m going to do a Titanic game.4 Also, in my ongoing effort to offend every man, woman, and child in the universe, someday I’d like to write an Interactive Bible, which would be an irreverent comedy, of course. Also, I’d like to see a collection of “short story” adventure games for all those ideas which aren’t big enough to be a whole game.5

Bible Quest: So You Want to Be a God?. I like it, I like it.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Ah, but someone will sue over the trademark…6

Bob Bates: The problem of course is marketing. The kinds of games we want to write aren’t always the kinds of games that will sell. This presents something of a quandary for those of us who like to eat.

This question was submitted by Tsunami, and I’ll let him ask in his own words: “Virtually every game I have played on my computer is at least partially tongue-in-cheek. What I am interested in is games with mature themes, or at least a more mature approach to their subjects. Games that, like good movies or plays, really scare a player, really make them feel a tragedy, or even make them angry. What are each of you doing to try to push games to this next level of human interaction?”

Steve Meretzky: Well, I think I already did that with A Mind Forever Voyaging, and it did worse commercially speaking than any other game I’ve ever done. As Bob just said, we have to eat. I’d much rather write a Mind Forever Voyaging than a Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but unless I become independently wealthy, or unless some rich benefactor wants to underwrite such projects, or unless the marketplace changes a lot, I don’t think I’ll be doing a game like A Mind Forever Voyaging in the near future. Sigh.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Computers are so stupid that even the smartest game tends to do silly things. So, it’s easier to write a silly game. And the development process on a humorous game tends to be more fun. Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire is fundamentally a very serious game in terms of story line, but we kept lots of silly stuff in to break up the tension. I call it the “roller-coaster effect.” We want the player to get extremely intense about the game at points, but then have a chance to catch his or her breath with comic relief and plain fun.

Bob Bates: My games are usually fairly “mature,” but when 90 percent of what a player tries to do in a game is wrong, you have to keep him interested when he is not solving a puzzle. The easiest way to do this is with humor; you don’t want him mad at you, after all. But I agree that we all should strive to create emotions in the player like what we all felt when Floyd died in Planetfall.

Roberta Williams: I agree with the sentiment that most adventure games, at least up to now, have been not quite “serious” in their approach to the subject matter at hand. I think the reason for that, for the most part, is that professional writers or storytellers have not had their hands in the design of a game. It’s been mostly programmers who have been behind them. I’m not a professional writer either, but I’m trying to improve myself in that area. With The Colonel’s Bequest, I did attempt a new theme, a murder mystery, and tried to make it more mature in its subject matter — more “plot” oriented. I attempted to put in classic “scare” tactics and suspense. I tried to put in different levels of emotion, from repulsion to sadness to hilarity. Whether I accomplished those goals is up to the player experiencing the game. At least I tried!

Noah Falstein: I venture to predict that we all intend to push games this way, or want to but can’t afford it — or can’t convince a publisher to afford it. But I’ll toot the Lucasfilm horn a bit; imagine the Star Wars fanfare here. One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.7

Mike Berlyn: I disagree with the idea that hiring professional storytellers from other media will solve our problems for us. Creating emotions is the goal here, if I understood the question. It isn’t whether we write humor or horror, it’s how well we do it. This poses a serious problem. Interactivity is the opposite of the thing that most… well, all storytellers, regardless of medium, require to create emotion. Emotion is created by manipulation. And it is impossible to manipulate emotions when you don’t know where the player has been and you don’t know where the player is going. In linear fiction, where you know what the “player” has just experienced; you can deliberately and continuously set them up. This is the essence of drama, humor, horror, etc. Doing this in games requires a whole different approach. Utilizing an experienced linear writer only tends to make games less game-ish, less interactive, and more linear. In a linear game like Loom, you’re not providing an interactive story or an adventure game. All you’re doing is making the player work to see a movie.

Dave Lebling: Well, emotion also comes from identification with the character in the story. You can’t easily identify in a serious way with a character who looks like a 16 X 16-pixel sprite.8 If he or she is silly-looking, he or she isn’t much more silly-looking than if he’s serious-looking: for example, Larry Laffer versus Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So, you are at a disadvantage being serious in graphical games. Better graphics will improve that eventually. But even so, I think Bob hit the point perfectly: the player does a lot of silly things, even if there is no parser — running into rocks in the graphic games, for example — and you can’t stay serious. The other thing is that, in my experience, serious games don’t sell. Infocom’s more serious games sold poorly. Few others have tried, and most of those have sold poorly too.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: A really good game — or story — elicits emotions rather than creating them. A good design opens up the player’s imagination instead of forcing them along a path. A frustrated player is too busy being angry at the computer to experience the wonder and mystery of his or her character and the game’s world. By having fair puzzles and “open” stories, we allow players to emote and imagine.

Okay, now we turn from software to hardware. One of the most striking developments over the last few years has been the growing use of MS-DOS machines for game development. This has led some Amiga and Mac owners to complain that there aren’t any good adventures out for their machines, or that the games that are out for those platforms don’t make good use of their full graphics and sound capabilities. How can this problem be solved?

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Well, I just about went broke trying to develop Atari ST software a few years ago. This was what made it possible to pull up roots and come to Sierra to do games. But I think the real value of all the alternative platforms has been to force IBM and the clone-makers to play catch-up. Myself, I’m waiting for ubiquitous CD-ROM and telecom. I’d really like to be doing multiplayer games in a few years. In the meantime, the cold hard reality is that IBM clones is where the money is — and money is a good thing.

Roberta Williams: Ha! We at Sierra, probably the most guilty of developing our games on MS-DOS machines, are trying to rectify that problem. This past year, we have put teams of programmers on the more important non-MS-DOS platforms to implement our new game-development system in the best way possible for those machines. Emphasis is on the unique capabilities of each machine, and to truly be of high quality on each of them. Our new Amiga games have been shipping for several months now, and have been favorably received — and our Mac games are nearly ready.

Dave Lebling: Get an installed base of 10 million Macs or Amigas and you’ll see plenty of games for them. Probably even fewer are needed, since programmers have the hots for those platforms. But in reality what you need is companies like Sierra that can leverage their development system to move to different platforms. As Windows and 386-based machines become the IBM standard, the differences among the platforms become less significant, and using an object-oriented development system lets you port relatively easily, just like in the old days. Graphics will still be a problem, as the transforms from one machine to another will still be a pain.

Al Lowe: Money talks. When Mac games outsell MS-DOS games, you’ll see Mac-designed games ported to PCs. When Amiga games are hot, etc. In other words, as long as MS-DOS sales are 80 percent or more of the market, who can afford to do otherwise?

Mike Berlyn: I think we all want our games on as many systems as possible, but in reality the publishers are the ones who make the decisions.

When you design a game, do you decide how hard it’s going to be first, or does the difficulty level just evolve?

Ron Gilbert: I know that I have a general idea of how hard I want the game to be. Almost every game I have done has ended up being a little longer and harder than I would have liked.

Noah Falstein: I agree. I’ve often put in puzzles that I thought were easy, only to find in play-testing that the public disagreed. But since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I firmly believe that one good way to go is to put in multiple solutions to any puzzles that are showstoppers, and to make the remaining ones pretty easy. I think that’s the best for the players.

Dave Lebling: I think alternate solution are a red herring because you can’t make them radically different in difficulty or the easier one will always be found first.

Noah Falstein: But if you provide incentives to replay the game, you can make both beginners happy, who will find the easy alternative, and experienced gamers happy, who will want to find every solution…

Dave Lebling: Yes, but what percentage of people replay any game? What percentage even finish?

Steve Meretzky: Games that are intended for beginners — e.g., Wishbringer — are designed to be really easy, and games intended for veterans — e.g., Spellbreaker — are designed to be ball-busters. But since of course you end up getting both types for any game, my own theory is to start out with easy puzzles, have some medium-tough puzzles in the mid-game, and then wrap it up with the real whoppers. (Don’t ask me what the Babel-fish puzzle was doing right near the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Roberta Williams: Usually the decision of how difficult the game is going to be is made about the time that the design actually begins. And that decision is based on who the main player of the game is going to be. In other words, if it’s an adventure game for children, then obviously the game will be easier. If it’s for families, the game will be harder than for children, but easier than a game strictly for adults. If it’s a game with adults in mind, then the difficulty level lies with the designer as he or she weaves the various puzzles into the plot of the story. I think even then, though, the decision of how difficult it’s going to be is made around the start of the design. Speaking personally, I usually have a good sense of which puzzles are going to be more difficult and which ones are easier to solve. There have been a few times when I miscalculated a puzzle. For instance, in King’s Quest II I thought the bridle-and-snake puzzle was fairly straightforward, but no, it wasn’t. And in The Colonel’s Bequest I didn’t think that discovering the secret passage in the house would be as difficult for some people as it turned out to be.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We try to keep the puzzles on the easy side in the sense of being fair; hints are somewhere in the game. But sometimes the best-laid plans of designers and developers go out the window when programming push-time comes, to mix several metaphors. But we definitely plan difficulty level in advance. The Quest for Glory series was intended to be somewhat on the easy side as adventure games go because we were introducing the concept of role-playing at the same time.

Dave Lebling: I think it’s relatively easy to make a game really hard or really easy. What’s tough is the middle-ground game. They tend to slop over to one extreme or the other, sometimes both in different puzzles, and you get a mishmash.

Mike Berlyn: I tend to design games that have various levels of difficulty within themselves, and so can appeal to a broad range of players. Like Steve, I like to open with an easy one and then mix up the middle game, saving the toughest stuff for the endgame.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We made a real effort to graduate the puzzles in Quest for Glory I, easier ones in the early phases.

Al Lowe: Does anyone else feel we should lighten up on our difficulty level so as to attract a broader audience and broaden our base of players?

Mike Berlyn: Making games easier isn’t going to attract more players. What will is designing and implementing them better.

Roberta Williams: Perhaps a parser-less interface would help. But I still think that each game should be thought out in advance as to who the target audience is, and then go from there on difficulty level.

Bob Bates: I agree that what is needed is not easier puzzles. I think that players want tough but fair puzzles. Where’s the rush that comes from solving an easy puzzle? What will keep them coming back for more?

Dave Lebling: One person’s easy puzzle is another’s never-solved brain-buster. There need to be a range of games and a range of puzzles in each game. Even Wishbringer, Infocom’s “easiest” game, had huge numbers of people stuck on the “easiest” puzzles.

Adventure designs have recently been criticized for becoming shorter and/or easier. Do you agree with this criticism, and, if so, how do you change a design to make a product longer and/or harder? And are harder games commercially viable?

Dave Lebling: Games are already too easy and not easy enough, and other paradoxes. Meaning that the intentional puzzles are getting too easy, and the unintentional ones — caused by size limitations, laziness, lousy parsers, bugs, etc. — are still too hard. Harder games are commercially viable, but only if the unintentional difficulty is reduced. We aren’t real good at that yet.

Roberta Williams: It may be true, to a certain extent, that adventure games have become shorter and/or easier than in the past. Four to ten years ago, adventure games were primarily text-oriented, and, as such, could be more extensive in scope, size, and complexity. Since the introduction of graphics, animation, and sound — and, coming up, speech — it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the same sort of scope that the earlier adventure games were able to accomplish. The reason for this is mainly limitations of memory, disk space, time, and cost. We adventure-game developers increasingly have to worry about cramming in beautiful graphics, realistic animation, wonderful sound, and absorbing plots, along with as many places to explore as possible, alternate paths or choices, and interesting puzzles. There is just so much space to put all that in. Something has to give. Even CD technology will not totally solve that problem. Though there is a very large disk capacity with CD, there is still a relatively small memory capacity. Also, the way the adventure-game program needs to be arranged on the CD creates problems. And as usual, with the new CD capabilities, we adventure-game developers are sure to create the most beautiful graphics you’ve ever seen, the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, etc., etc. And that uses up disk space, even on CD.

Mike Berlyn: Shorter? Yeah, I suppose some of the newer games, whose names will remain untyped, are easier, shorter, etc. But unfortunately, they aren’t cheaper to make. I hate to tell you how much Altered Destiny is going to cost before it’s done. Accolade and myself have over ten man-years in this puppy, and a cast of many is creating it. When I created Oo-Topos or Cyborg or even Suspended, the time and money for development were a fraction of what this baby will cost. In addition, games like King’s Quest IV are larger, give more bang for the buck, and outshine many of the older games.

Steve Meretzky: A few years ago, I totally agreed with the statement that adventure games were getting too short and easy. Then I did Zork Zero, which was massive and ultimately quite hard. A good percentage of the feedback distilled down to “Too big!” It just took too long to play, and it was too hard to keep straight everything you had to do to win the game. Plus, of course, it was a major, major effort to design and implement and debug such a huge game. So, I’ve now come to the conclusion that a nice, average, 50-to-100-room, 20-to-30-hours-of-play-time, medium-level-of-difficulty game is just about right.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: There is plenty of room left for easier games, especially since most “hard” games are hard only because they are full of unfair outguess-the-designer — or programmer or parser — puzzles. Nobody wants to play a game and feel lost and frustrated. Most of us get enough of that in our daily lives! We want smaller, richer games rather than large, empty ones, and we want to see puzzles that further the story rather than ones that are just thrown in to make the game “hard.”

Al Lowe: I’ve been trying for years to make ’em longer and harder!

Groan…

Al Lowe: But seriously, I have mixed emotions. I work hard on these things, and I hate to think that most people will never see the last half of them because they give up in defeat. On the other hand, gamers want meaty puzzles, and you don’t want to disappoint your proven audience. I think many games will become easier and easier, if only to attract more people to the medium. Of course, hard games will always be needed too, to satisfy the hardcore addicts. Geez, what a cop-out answer!

Bob Bates: You have to give the player his money’s worth, and if you can just waltz through a game, then all you have is an exercise in typing or clicking. The problem is that the definition of who the player is is changing. In trying to reach a mass market, some companies are getting away from our puzzle roots. The quandary here is that this works. The big bucks are in the mass market, and those people don’t want tough puzzles. The designers who stay behind and cater to the puzzle market may well be painting themselves into a niche.

Noah Falstein: Al and Bob have eloquently given the lead-in I was intending. But I’d like to go farther and say that we’re all painting ourselves into a corner if we keep catering to the 500,000 or so people that are regular players — and, more importantly, buyers — of adventure games. It’s like the saber-toothed tiger growing over-specialized. There are over 15 million IBM PC owners out there, and most of them have already given up on us because the games are too… geeky. Sorry, folks! Without mentioning that game that’s looming over this discussion, we’ve found that by making a very easy game, we’ve gotten more vehement, angry letters than ever before — as well as more raves from people who never played or enjoyed such games before. It seems to be financially worthwhile even now, and if more of us cater to this novice crowd, with better stories instead of harder puzzles, there will be a snowball effect. I think this is worth working towards, and I hope some of you will put part of your efforts into this. There’s always still some room for the “standard-audience” games. Interestingly enough, 60 to 100 rooms and 20 to 30 hours is precisely the niche we arrived at too! But let’s put out at least one more accessible game each year.

Dave Lebling: Most of the points I wanted to make have been made, and made well, but I’d like to add one more. What about those 20 million or more Nintendo owners out there? What kinds of games will hook them, if any? Have they written us off? I don’t think our fraction of the IBM market is quite as small as Noah’s figures make it look. Many of those IBM machines are not usable for games by policy, as they are in corporate settings. But all of the Nintendos are in home settings. Sure, they don’t have keyboards, but if there was a demand for our sort of game — a “puzzle” game, for want of a better word — there would be a keyboard-like interface or attachment, like the silly gun or the power glove. There isn’t. Why? Are we too geeky? Are puzzles and even the modicum of text that is left too much? We will have the opportunity to find out when the new game systems with keyboards start appearing in the US.

What do you all think about the idea of labeling difficulty levels and/or estimated playing time on the box, like Infocom used to do at one time?

Steve Meretzky: That was a pretty big failure. As was said earlier about puzzles, one person’s easy is another person’s hard.

Al Lowe: Heh, heh…

Steve Meretzky: For example, I found Suspended to be pretty easy, having a mind nearly as warped as Berlyn’s, but many people consider it one of Infocom’s hardest.

Bob Bates: The other Infocommies here can probably be more accurate, but my recollection is that labeling a game “advanced” scared off people, and labeling a game “easy” or “beginner” turned off lots of people too. So most of the games wound up being released as “standard,” until they dropped the scheme altogether. Still, I think some sort of indication on a very easy game, like the ones Noah was talking about, is in order. The customer has a right to know what he is purchasing.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: But Loom was rated as an easy game, and people who were stumped on a puzzle felt like this meant they were dumb or something.

Mike Berlyn: Good point! I’m not sure that labeling a product as being easy, medium, or difficult is a real solution. I know some games which were labeled “beginner” level were too tough for me. What we as designers need to do is write better, fairer, more rounded games that don’t stop players from exploring, that don’t close off avenues. It isn’t easy, but it’s sure my goal, and I like to think that others share this goal.

Okay, this is the last question. What is your favorite adventure game and why?

Noah Falstein: This will sound like an ad, but our audience constitutes a mass market. Ron Gilbert’s next game, The Secret of Monkey Island, is the funniest and most enjoyable adventure game I’ve ever played, including the others our company has done. I’ve laughed out loud reading and rereading the best scenes.

Steve Meretzky: Based simply on the games I’ve had the most fun playing, it’s a tie between Starcross — the first ever adventure game in my genre of choice, science fiction — and the vastly ignored and underrated Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Roberta Williams: I hate to say it, but I don’t play many adventure games, including our own! I really love adventure games, though. It was this love of adventure gaming that brought me into this business. However, nowadays I’m so busy, what with working on games of my own, helping my husband run the company, taking care of the kids and the house, and doing other extracurricular activities, that I literally don’t have time to play adventure games — and we all know how much time it does take to play them! Of the adventure games that I’ve played and/or seen, I like the games that Lucasfilm produces; I have a lot of respect for them. And I also enjoy the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series that my company, Sierra, produces. Of my own games, I always seem to favor the game I’m currently working on since I’m most attached to it at that given moment. Right now, that would be King’s Quest V. But aside from that, I am particularly proud of The Colonel’s Bequest since it was a departure for me, and very interesting and complicated to do. I am also proud of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, especially the new version coming out. And looking way back, I still have fond memories of Time Zone, for any of you who may remember that one.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Of adventure games, we liked the original mainframe Zork and Space Quest III. But our favorite games are Dungeon Master and Rogue, the only games we keep going back to replay. As for our favorite of all two games we’ve done, we’re particularly proud of what we are doing with Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire. We’re also proud of the first game, but we think Trial by Fire is going to be really great. Okay, end of commercial, at least as soon as I say, “Buy our game!” But seriously, we’re pleased with what we’ve done with the design.

Bob Bates: “You are standing outside a white house. There is a mailbox here.”

Mike Berlyn: This is my least favorite question in the world. (Well, okay, I could think up some I’d like less.) But it’s a toss-up between A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross, and the soon-to-be-forgotten masterpiece, Scott Adams’s Pirate Adventure. Yoho.

Dave Lebling: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Trinity. Both well thought-out, with great themes. But beyond those, the original Adventure. I just played it a little bit last night, and I still get a thrill from it. We owe a lot to Will Crowther and Don Woods, and I think that’s an appropriate sentiment to close with.


  1. One of my favorite things about this transcript is the way that Steve Meretzky and Al Lowe keep making these stupid jokes, and everybody just keeps ignoring them. I fancy I can almost hear the sighs… 

  2. It’s worth noting that the trend the Coles describe as “unfortunate” was exactly the direction in which Sierra, their employer, was moving in very aggressive fashion. The Coles thus found themselves blowing against the political winds in designing their games their way. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were also designing the best games coming out of Sierra during this period. 

  3. This was not what many participating in the conference probably wanted to hear, but it wins the prize of being the most prescient single statement of the evening. Note that Lebling not only predicted the complete commercial demise of text adventures, but he also predicted that they would survive as a hobbyist endeavor; the emphasis on the word “commercial” is original. 

  4. Steve Meretzky’s perennial Titanic proposal, which he pitched to every publisher he ever worked with, became something of an industry in-joke. There’s just no market for such a game, insisted each of the various publishers. When James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic became the first ever to top $1 billion at the box office, and a modest little should-have-been-an-obscurity from another design team called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time rode those coattails to sales of 1 million copies, the accusations flew thick and fast from Meretzky’s quarter. But to no avail; he still hasn’t gotten to make his Titanic game. On the other hand, he’s nowhere near death, so there’s still time to fulfill his promise… 

  5. Meretzky had pitched both of these ideas as well to Infocom without success. In the longer term, however, he would get one of his wishes, at least after a fashion. “Short stories” have become the norm in modern interactive fiction, thanks largely to the Interactive Fiction Competition and its guideline that it should be possible to play an entrant to completion within two hours. 

  6. Legal threats from the makers of the board game HeroQuest had recently forced the Coles to change the name of their burgeoning series of adventure/CRPG hybrids from the perfect Hero’s Quest to the rather less perfect Quest for Glory. Obviously the fresh wound still smarted. 

  7. After some delays, the game Falstein is talking about here would be released in 1992 as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It would prove to be a very good adventure game, if not quite the medium-changer Falstein describes. 

  8. It’s interesting to see Lebling still using the rhetoric from Infocom’s iconic early advertising campaigns

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Moving to California

The work week of May 1, 1989, started off much like any other inside the beleaguered latter-day Infocom. In the cavernous 18,000 square feet of their office space at 125 CambridgePark Drive — its sheer size was an ever-present reminder of more optimistic times, when Infocom had thought themselves poised to become the next Lotus — the shrunken staff of just 26 souls puttered through another Monday, pausing now and again to chat about the weekend just passed. The old days when CambridgePark would buzz during off-hours with parties and socializing and passionate programmers and testers burning the midnight oil were now a memory of the past. Changing life circumstances — the majority of the remaining staff were now married, many with small children — had done as much as the generalized malaise now afflicting the place to put an end to all that. CambridgePark now felt much like any other office, albeit a peculiarly empty one, and one over which hung an almost palpable sense of impending doom. Still, when the axe finally fell it came as a shock. It always does.

A memo went out early that week asking everyone to attend a meeting on Thursday, May 4, “to discuss the next generation of internal products.” More ominously, the memo said that the 3:00 P.M. meeting would “go as late as necessary.” And evidently management expected that to mean quite late, for they would be “ordering out for dinner.”

The axe fell over the course of that long afternoon and evening. Infocom would be “moving” to California, where it was to be reconstituted and re-imagined as a more closely coupled subsidiary of Mediagenic,1 under a “general manager” named Rob Sears. Just 11 of the 26 current employees were offered positions at this new version of Infocom. Exactly whose name was and wasn’t on that list of job offers is neither necessary nor appropriate to discuss here. Suffice to say that those Mediagenic decided were desirable to retain often weren’t the pivotal creative voices you might expect, and that only 5 of the 11 accepted the offer anyway. Only one long-serving employee from Infocom’s glory days would end up making the move: Duncan Blanchard, a longstanding interpreter programmer and the last leader of the old Micro Group before it was assimilated into the Systems Group in 1987. For the other old-timers, it was all over. Another six weeks or so to finish a few final projects and tidy up the place, and that would be that.

Bob Bates, working on his licensed Abyss game from suburban Maryland, had planned to fly up to Cambridge for one of his regular design meetings on Monday, May 8. But Infocom’s new Mediagenic-installed head Joe Ybarra called him early in the week of May 1, saying he really needed him to come up this same week if at all possible. When Bates arrived on Friday, May 5, to a curiously subdued CambridgePark, he was ushered immediately into Ybarra’s office. Infocom was moving to California without most of its current employees, Ybarra informed him, and his Abyss project was being cancelled. Nor would Infocom be requiring Bates’s services again; his development contract was officially terminated as of today. When a shell-shocked Bates returned home on the red eye that same rainy night, he found that his roof was leaking buckets. It had turned into that sort of week for everyone.

Steve Meretzky had been scheduled to attend the Computer Game Developers’ Conference that very weekend in Sunnyvale, California. He was still allowed to fly out on Infocom’s dime, but replaced the company’s name on his badge with “Make Me an Offer!” It was at this event that word of the fate of Infocom, which everyone knew had long been troubled but which still remained one of the most respected names in computer games, was first spread within the industry.

News of Infocom’s fate first reached the world at large via an announcement in the May 22, 1989, issue of the Boston Globe Magazine. The understated headline has become oddly iconic among fans: “Computer-Games Firm Moving to California.” A “new consumer preference for games with graphics and sound,” went the workmanlike report, was responsible for Infocom’s travails, along with Nintendo and “the aging of Infocom’s traditional audience, composed of early computer users who spent evenings and weekends hunched over a terminal drawing maps in text-only games that took 20 to 50 hours to solve.”

When word reached the trade press, Mediagenic held tightly to the story that this was simply a move, not a shutdown. Rob Sears made the counter-intuitive claim that Mediagenic was doing what they were “not so much to close Infocom down as to ensure it survives.” “The Great Underground Empire, curiously enough, has not been shut down,” insisted Joe Ybarra. “What’s happened is we’re in the process of relocating it to the West Coast.” At the same time, though, Ybarra did have to quietly admit that none of the Imps who had built the Great Underground Empire would remain a part of it. He could only offer some unconvincingly vague suggestions that some of the former Imps might “do projects” at some point as outside contractors. Certainly anyone wedded to the idea of Infocom as a maker first and foremost of text adventures was given little reason for hope.

You’ll probably see a shift in direction that’s commensurate with which way the market is headed. If you look at all the successful products, they’re graphics- and sound-intensive. Products as a whole are pushing more toward role-playing than toward our classic adventure game. I think we’ll be building more hybrids that share elements of all these different genres. In particular, one of the areas I find most exciting is getting into more interactive graphics, the idea of doing things that are object-oriented… a cross between Manhole and the HyperCard environment and our traditional object-oriented ZIL environment.

(In case Ybarra’s comments don’t make it clear, know that “object-oriented” was one of the sexiest buzzwords of the period, to be applied to anything and everything possible.)

The personnel inside CambridgePark continued to perform their duties in desultory fashion during those final weeks following the meeting that informed them of their fate. There was still plenty to do; Infocom had still not delivered finalized versions of their four most recent works of graphical interactive fiction for MS-DOS, the most important platform in the industry. Yet there was, understandably, little enthusiasm for doing it. Employees spent a lot of time picking out free games from the collection around the office, bidding on the office furniture and computers, and indulging their black humor via vehicles like a lunchtime “slideshow history of Infocom” entitled “Cornerstone through Tombstone.” And then the last day came, and the lights inside CambridgePark were extinguished forever — or at least until the next corporate tenant arrived.

By the point of that final closure, a considerable amount of back-channel sniping by the people of the former Infocom had begun toward Mediagenic. Not coincidentally, Mediagenic’s own take on recent events also became less sanguine. Sources from Infocom claimed that Mediagenic had pulled the plug just as the money spigots were about to open, just before the all-important MS-DOS versions of their graphical interactive fictions finally hit the market; as it was, these versions would all be released by Mediagenic as un-promoted afterthoughts within weeks of the closure. Mediagenic, for whom Infocom’s slow progress on their MS-DOS interpreter had been a huge frustration and a significant factor in their decision to finally wash their hands of CambridgePark altogether, replied that “the consolidation might not have become necessary if the IBM SKUs could have been released initially.” Likewise, Joe Ybarra’s characterization of the fundamental failings of Infocom’s games grew more pointed: “We cannot continue, in the marketplace, living off products that take eight hours to play well and up to 200 hours to complete.”

The view of the decision of May 4, 1989, that prevails universally today, as representative of a definitive ending rather than a move or consolidation, was already taking hold. Mediagenic stopped giving even lip service to Infocom as an ongoing operation of its own in the spring of 1990, when Rob Sears left and the remaining handful of personnel who had worked under him were either let go or absorbed into the parent company. From now on, Infocom would be a mere label under which Mediagenic would release some of their more narrative-oriented games.

In the long run, the people who had made up the old Infocom would all be just fine. After all, they were one hell of an impressive group, with credentials and talents that made them eminently employable. For those stalwarts in positions of business or creative leadership, who had been forced to bear up under the ever more crushing burden of Infocom’s troubled finances since 1985, the final, sharply definitive ending to it all felt like something of a relief as soon as the shock and pain of the initial announcement had faded.

The majority of the old Infocom staff exited the games industry at the same time that they exited Infocom, never to return. The limited or nonexistent applicability of the skills of some of Infocom’s most essential employees to the games being made by other companies — like, for instance, those of editor, producer, and all-around unsung hero Jon Palace — says much about just how unique Infocom really was. For others, though, the decision to get out of games had more to do with their fatigue with such an eternally tormented and tormenting industry than it did with job opportunities or a lack thereof inside it. Put simply, there are easier ways to make a living than by making computer games, and masterful programmers like Tim Anderson, Dave Lebling, and Stu Galley reckoned they were ready for more ordinary jobs. They and many others like them went on to live happy lives, building good, enjoyable careers that needn’t consume them. But there were also some gluttons for punishment who hadn’t yet burnt out on games. Marc Blank, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Brian Moriarty, Mike Dornbrook, and Bob Bates would all be stubborn and passionate enough to remain in the industry. We’ll thus be meeting at least some of them again in future articles.

Seen purely as a business proposition, Infocom had been a colossal, unadulterated failure. Whether as independent company or Mediagenic subsidiary, Infocom never enjoyed a single profitable year after 1983, and its final ledger shows it to be millions in the red over the course of its relatively brief lifetime. But very few of those who had worked there thought of Infocom as a failure in the aftermath of its death — not even those former employees whose jobs had entailed fretting about the endless cavalcade of quarterly and yearly losses.

For some former employees, including many who might have had little to no interest in the company’s actual products, Infocom remains forever in their memories just a really fun office to work in — indeed, the best they could ever imagine. Plenty of these people would be shocked to learn of the aura of awed respect and love that still surrounds the very name of Infocom in the minds of fans today; they never realized they were creating timeless games. Others, of course, including virtually everyone who played a major creative role in making the games, did realize, at least after the fact, that they had done something very special indeed. Some former employees accept the bad decisions and missed opportunities that so frustrate fans peaceably, as karma, fate, or just plain old learning experiences. Others, thankfully a minority, still curse the names of either or both Al Vezza and Bruce Davis, the two great villains of the story, and are intermittently tormented by thoughts of what might have been.

What might have been… it’s a fraught question, isn’t it? Yet it’s a question that we as humans, confronted with something as special and noble as Infocom that seems so self-evidently to have died too soon, can hardly resist asking. The historian in me knows to be very leery of setting off down that road. Still, just this once, coming as we are to the end of the most detailed story I’ve ever told on this blog, maybe we can indulge in a little bit of counter-factualizing.

It seems to me that the first and perhaps most important thing we need to do to come to grips with the might-have-beens that surround Infocom is to separate the company itself from the medium of the text adventure. Such a separation can be weirdly difficult to actually accomplish. Infocom didn’t create the text adventure, nor did the company’s end mark the medium’s end — far from it, as years of articles that are hopefully still to come right here on this site will underline — but the name of Infocom would always remain all but synonymous with the form. Jason Scott has told how, when he was making his Get Lamp documentary about the life and times of the text adventure, he was constantly asked by friends how his “Infocom movie” was coming. At a certain point, he just gave up on correcting them.

Given this close connection, it can be jarring to consider that few to none of the people working at Infocom, even among those who weren’t on Team Cornerstone, thought of their company as an exclusive maker of text adventures. The story of how Infocom first came to make text adventures almost accidentally — that of needing a product to bootstrap their operation, and pulling good old MIT Zork down off the shelf as the fastest way to make one — has of course been well-documented, here and in plenty of other places. But even after they had become identified as makers of the world’s most sophisticated text adventures, they were very reluctant to settle for that niche. A research project into cross-platform graphics was begun already in 1983, at the same time that they were running all those iconic “anti-graphics” advertisements; said advertisements were merely clever promotions, not the expression of an absolute corporate philosophy. In 1984, Mike Berlyn and Marc Blank poured considerable time and effort into another innovative research project that came to naught in the end, a multi-player MUD-like environment to be hosted by the online service CompuServe. The following year brought the multi-player computerized board game Fooblitzky, Infocom’s first graphical product and one of the oddest they ever released. In short, Infocom always had ambitions beyond the text adventure, but those ambitions were consistently crippled by the lack of money for game development that plagued the company beginning as early as 1983, when Cornerstone first began to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

The counter-factual scenario most likely to yield an Infocom that survives beyond the 1980s is, as fan wisdom has long attested, one in which they never start down the Cornerstone wormhole. Yet the same best-case scenario is also possessed of a trait that fans may be less eager to acknowledge: in it, the money not spent on Cornerstone isn’t spent on making ever more elaborate text adventures, but rather on embracing new genres, new paradigms of play. Infocom could quite likely have survived if they’d avoided Cornerstone and made smart business decisions, and the world of gaming would doubtless have been a better place for their tradition of literacy, thoughtfulness, and innovation. But unfortunately, those same smart business decisions would likely have to entail branching out from the text adventure early, and eventually moving on completely. Dave Lebling:

I think in terms of continuing to produce the kind of thing we had been producing — i.e., text adventures with lots of cool technology to make them more realistic, lots of plot value, etc. — we could have gone on forever. I’m less sure whether the market would have continued to buy those. We had big arguments about this even before the Mediagenic/Activision acquisition. If you’ve spent several thousand dollars for a computer with a color screen and a video card and you want to display lots of pretty pictures, are you going to settle for a text adventure?

In my opinion, that was sort of a minority taste, just like reading is somewhat of a minority taste. People would much rather look at pictures than read as a rule. There’s a subculture of people who love to read, who are passionate about reading, passionate about books, but it’s not the majority of the public. The same thing is true in computers. There are people who like pictures and action and so forth, and there are people who like reading. And again, they are a minority.

So, I don’t think Infocom could have continued to go on from strength to strength the way we seemed to have been doing initially; we would have plateaued out. I think we eventually would have had to branch out into other kinds of games ourselves. The advantage would have been that we would have decided what to do, rather than some other company.

For proof of Lebling’s assertions, we need only look to what happened in the broader computer-game industry of our own timeline during the mid- to late-1980s. In 1984, at the height of the bookware frenzy, at least a dozen publishers in the United States alone could lay claim to major initiatives in the realm of text adventures, a medium that, being in most people’s mind the ultimate anti-action game, seemed the perfect fit for post-Great Videogame Crash electronic entertainment. Every single one of those initiatives, excepting only the games Infocom released that year, disappointed to one degree or another. To imagine that a counter-factual Infocom — even one with the resources to improve their technology, to offer even bigger and better games than the ones we know, to include pictures and interface conveniences years before the Infocom of our own timeline — could have continued to buck the trend for very long seems a stretch. And indeed, many of Infocom’s financial travails, which began already in 1985 when a subtle but worrisome sales slowdown on the part of many of their games first became evident alongside the obvious disaster that was Cornerstone, had far more to do with the wider market for text adventures than it did with Cornerstone. Put another way: if their games business had continued to explode as it had in 1983 and 1984, Infocom could have weathered the storm of Cornerstone’s failure bruised but solvent. It was a perfect storm, a combination of their slackening games business and the fiasco that was Cornerstone, that cast them into Mediagenic’s arms in 1986.

So, to understand the reasons for Infocom’s collapse we need to ask why it was that the bookware boom, during which they were the shining example to be emulated by all those other publishers, so comprehensively failed to meet expectations. I think there are two reasons really, involving two D-words I tend to dwell on a lot around here: Demographics and Design.

Simply put, the games industry of the mid- to late-1980s wasn’t populated by enough readers to sustain a vibrant culture of commercial text adventures. The overwhelming computer-game demographic by 1985 was teenage boys, who have never been known as a terribly thoughtful group. The dominance enjoyed by text adventures during the earlier years of the decade owed much to the fact that computer gaming was a much more exclusive hobby during that period, practiced only by those with a restless bent of mind and the financial resources to invest thousands of dollars in an object as ultimately useless as an early microcomputer for the home. Mike Dornbrook and others involved with Infocom near the beginning have often mentioned their wonder at the sheer number of doctors and lawyers on their mailing lists. The demographics of gaming began to change with the arrival of the inexpensive Commodore 64 as a major market force in 1983. Within the next year or two, it remade the entire industry in its image — and most definitely not to the text adventure’s benefit.

At the same time that this demographic shift was underway, Infocom and the various bookware bandwagon jumpers were allowing themselves to become confused about the reasons for the text adventure’s ascendancy even among the relatively cerebral home-computer constituency of the early 1980s. Companies making text adventures in those early days can be divided into two groups: those like Sierra who were working in text because nothing else was practical at the time, and those like Infocom who saw the text adventure as a worthy new ludic and/or literary form unto itself. Sierra got away from text adventures just as soon as they could, and went on to become one of the biggest and most important game publishers of the 1990s. Infocom stuck with the form, and we know what happened to them. There is I think a lesson to be found therein. Infocom craved a sort of player who didn’t exist in the numbers they believed them to even in the early years, and who came to make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the gaming public as time went by. By 1987, some of Infocom’s experiments were aimed at a computer-game customer who was all but nonexistent: like a fan of New Yorker-style verbal wit in the case of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It, or a romance-novel fan in the case of Plundered Hearts.

A tantalizing question must be whether a healthier Infocom could have created a market for such games among non-gaming, possibly non-computer-owning lovers of books and puzzles. Clearly their games did have appeal to some well outside of the typical computer-game demographic. Infocom during their halcyon days had enjoyed glowing write-ups in such places as the Boston Globe, the New York Times Review of Books, Discovery magazine, and even Rolling Stone. Still, the fact remained that their games threw up tremendous barriers to entry, beginning with the sheer cost of the equipment needed to run them and ending with the learning curve for interacting with them. While it’s tempting to imagine a world of interactive fiction existing entirely outside the rest of the games industry with its bash-and-crash take on existence — a world where literary sophisticates pick up a copy of the latest Infocom release from a kiosk in a trendy bookstore — it’s hard to imagine even a healthy Infocom creating such a milieu from scratch. It’s also doubtful, for that matter, whether most of their precious remaining base of customers really wanted to see them moving in that direction. The Infocom games that are most notable for their literary ambition, like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, were never among their biggest sellers. A substantial percentage of their customer base, as various Imps have wryly noted over the years, would have been quite happy if Infocom had churned out nothing but endless iterations on the original Zork. It was at least as much the Imps’ own creative restlessness as it was the need to serve the market that led them to dabble in so many different literary genres.

But what of those customers who were perfectly content with new iterations of Zork? Where did they disappear to as the years went by? After all, Infocom continued to indulge them with plenty of traditional games right up until the end, and plenty of other companies were equally willing to serve them. I think that it may be when we come to the Zorkian traditionalists that we especially have to consider that other D-word.

If you ask gaming old-timers about text adventures today, most will recall them as creaky, virtually unplayable things riddled with guess-the-verb issues and incomprehensible puzzles. And here’s the thing: such conventional wisdom really isn’t wrong. When I first began to write the history that this blog has become, I hoped I would be able to unearth a lot of hidden text-adventure gems from publishers other than Infocom to share with you. I did find some games that fit that description, but I also found that even the good games from other publishers stand as deviations from the norm of terrible design, sometimes fostered by an unusually dedicated development team, sometimes by the stars just seeming to align in the right way. It seems impossible to imagine that the bad design that was so endemic to the medium throughout the 1980s didn’t play a major role in turning many players away permanently. Infocom’s games were vastly better than those of their competitors, a fact which played a huge role in fostering the company’s small but legendarily loyal group of hardcore fans. Yet even Infocom’s games were hardly guaranteed to be completely free of design issues. Indeed, as Infocom’s personnel pool shrank and the pressure from Mediagenic to release more games more quickly increased, design issues that they once seemed to have put behind them began to creep back into their games to a rather disconcerting degree. With almost all of the trade-magazine reviewers uninterested in really delving into issues of design, playability, and solubility, players had no real way of knowing which games they could trust and which they couldn’t. The graphic adventures that came to supersede text featured lots of terrible design choices in their own right, but they at least had the virtue of novelty, and that of serving as showcases for the graphics and sound of the latest home computers. (In the longer run, there’s a strong argument to be made that the graphic adventure would wind up shooting itself in the head via poor design by the end of the 1990s exactly as the text adventure had ten years before.)

But rather than unspooling further counter-factual speculations on how it all could have turned out differently, maybe we should ask ourselves another important question that’s less frequently discussed: that of whether an Infocom that survived and continued making text adventures of one sort or another would really have been the best thing for the still burgeoning art of interactive fiction. It’s hard not to remark the sense of creative exhaustion that imbues Infocom’s last gasp, their final four attempts at “graphical interactive fiction.” Much of that is doubtless down to the strain of their ever-worsening relationship with Bruce Davis and Mediagenic, and the long run of commercial disappointments that had prompted that strain. But is that all that was going on? Both Dave Lebling and Marc Blank have spoken of a sense of not really knowing what to do next with interactive fiction after having innovated so relentlessly for so long. Lebling:

I think the space of what can be done in text adventures has been well-explored by a variety of very creative people (by no means all of whom worked at Infocom). It would take, I fear, a qualitative leap in the development language or environment to expand that space. We never got very good at doing conversation, for example. There’s a long way to go before realistic conversations exist in games. We were okay but not spectacular at giving people more than one way to solve a problem. You need a more advanced input method to solve that one. People are just not that interested in typing to the game to simulate physical actions. A virtual-reality suit would solve that but they’re a long way off.

No one has yet solved the primary problem of adventure games, which is, what happens when the player doesn’t do what you expected? Once progress is made on that one, it might be fun to write an adventure game again.

And Blank:

To me, the problem was where it could go, whether we had reached some kind of practical limit in terms of writing a story that way. People used to always ask whether you could have a more powerful parser. Could you have a parser that understood different kinds of sentences? Questions, statements to other characters like “I’m hungry.” Better interaction than the very stilted kind of thing we did in the mysteries, or in Suspended where you could only say things like “go to this room” — where you’re basically just adding the name of a character and a comma at the beginning of a sentence, but everything else is the same.

The problem is that the more things you want to handle the more cases you have to handle, and it becomes very open-ended. You end up much more with the guess-the-word problem. If all of a sudden you can ask any question, but there are really only three questions that are important to the story, you’re either going to spend all this time coming up with answers that don’t mean anything or you’re going to have a lot of “I don’t know that,” which is frustrating. I always suspected it was a dead end. The nice thing about the command-oriented game is that you can come up with a pretty complete vocabulary and a pretty complete set of responses. As soon as it becomes more open-ended — if I can say, “I’m hungry” or “I like blue rubber balls” — how do you respond to that? It’s like Eliza. You get an answer, but it has nothing to do with what you asked, and at some point you realize it’s a fraud, that there’s no information there. What happens is that the worlds get bigger as you open up the vocabulary, but they get sparser. There’s less real information; it’s mostly noise just there to convince you of the world. I think that’s when it gets boring.

I worried about this a lot because people would always ask about the next step, the next thing we could do. It really wasn’t clear to me. Okay, you can make the writing better, and you can make puzzles that are more interesting. But as far as pushing toward a real interactive story — in a real story, you don’t just give everyone commands, right? — that was an issue. We worked on some of those issues for quite a while before we realized that we just weren’t getting anywhere. It was hard to know where to go with it, what was going to be the interesting part of it. Or were you turning it into a simulation, a world you can wander around in but not much happens? I always kind of hit a wall trying to move forward there.

So we said, okay, there are new [literary] genres. So then we had Amy doing Plundered Hearts, Jeff doing Nord and Bert, etc. We don’t know what the next step is technically, so instead we’re going to just kind of mess with the format. So we’ll do a satire and a pulp romance and a horror story. But there was a real issue of creative burnout. You’ve done all these things. Do you just keep doing them? Where does it go? Where does it lead? By the time Infocom closed down, I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t obvious. I got the sense that some of the games were just an excuse to try something else: “I don’t know what to do, let’s try this.”

To some extent, Lebling and especially Blank fall victim here to their need, being technologists at heart, to always measure the progress of the medium of the text adventure in technological terms. No one declares the novel to be a dead form because the technology of printed text hasn’t advanced in hundreds of years. As many of my earlier articles attest, I see immense value in many of the literary experiments of Infocom’s later years that Blank is a bit too eager to dismiss.

I see evidence in Lebling and Blank’s comments of two creatively exhausted people rather than a creatively exhausted medium. I suspect that the group of people who made up Infocom, brilliant as they were, had taken the art of interactive fiction just about as far as they were personally able to by 1989. The innovations that would follow — and, contrary to both men’s statements above, they most definitely do exist — would largely come out of a very different culture, one free of the commercial pressures that had begun more and more to hamstring Infocom by the end. A work that is to be sold for $30 or more as a boxed computer game has to meet certain requirements, certain player expectations, that often worked at cross-purposes to the medium’s artistic evolution. Must a game require many hours to play? Must a game have puzzles? Can a game feel like a personal testament? Is an interactive-fiction game necessarily a game at all? To paraphrase that famous old Electronic Arts advertisement, can a work of interactive fiction make you cry? These were questions that Infocom — especially but not exclusively an Infocom under Mediagenic, laser-focused as the latter was on delivering conventional hit games — wasn’t in any position to further explore. The medium’s creative future would have to be left to the amateurs.

If we begin to see Infocom as, rather than a beautiful thing that was strangled far too soon, a beautiful thing that simply ran its course, we might just begin to upend the narrative of tragedy that surrounds the legendary company to this day. Among many fans of text adventures today, there’s still a marked tendency to look back on the heyday of Infocom and the commercial text adventure in general as the pivotal era in the medium’s history, a lost golden age that ended far too soon. That’s understandable on one level. This brief era marks the only period in history when it was realistically conceivable to make a living authoring text adventures, a career that plenty of hardcore fans would rate as their absolute first choice in careers out of all of them. We’ve thus seen the tragic version of the medium’s history repeated again and again for far longer than the alleged golden age actually lasted. Ironically, we tend to see it especially in those summations of interactive fiction and its history that try to reach beyond the insular community of present-day enthusiasts to serve as introductions for the uninitiated. Such articles almost always begin with Infocom, proceed to dwell at length on those glory days gone by, then mention the modern community — “but wait, interactive fiction isn’t dead!” — in a way that inevitably smacks of a lingering population of diehards. It seems rather a shabby way to frame the history of a living literary form, doesn’t it? Perhaps we can learn to do better.

In his 2007 PhD thesis on interactive fiction, Jeremy Douglass proposed recasting the commercial era as “an important anomaly, a brief big-business deviation from the otherwise constant association of the IF genre with individual authors each networked into a kind of literary salon culture.” This was what interactive fiction largely was before Infocom, and what it became again after them. Seeing the medium’s history in this way doesn’t mean minimizing the accomplishments of Infocom, whose 35-game canon deserves always to be regarded as the text adventure’s version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the wellspring and constant source of inspiration for everything that followed. It does, however, mean recognizing that, in terms of great games that delight and amuse and tantalize and sometimes move their players, the text adventure was really just getting started even as Infocom died. Because this blog has long since begun to reach readers from well outside the interactive-fiction community from which it first sprang, I’m going to guess that some of you may have little experience with what came after Infocom. It’s for those readers among you especially that I plan to cover what came next with the same care I lavished on Infocom’s history. So, never fear. I plan to spend a lot more time praising the humble text adventure in the time to come, and I’m far from ready to bury it alongside Infocom.

(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. Periodical sources include Computer Gaming World of September 1989; The Boston Globe Magazine of May 22 1989; Questbusters of July 1989; The Games Machine of October 1989, December 1989, and July 1990. See also Adventure Classic Gaming’s interview with Dave Lebling and Jeremy Douglass’s PhD thesis. And my huge thanks go out to Bob Bates, who granted me an extended interview about his work with Infocom.)


  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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Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur

Arthur

And so at last, twelve years after a group of MIT hackers had started working on a game to best Crowther and Woods’s original Adventure, it all came down to Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, Infocom’s 35th and final work of interactive fiction. Somewhat ironically, this era-ending game wasn’t written by one of Infocom’s own long-serving Imps, but rather by the relatively fresh and inexperienced Bob Bates and his company Challenge, Incorporated, for whom Arthur represented only their second game. On the other hand, though, Bates and Challenge did already have some experience with era-ending games. Their previous effort, Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, had been the last text-only Infocom game to be published. As Bates’s buddy Steve Meretzky delights in saying, it’s lucky that Challenge would never get the chance to make a third game. What with them having already “single-handedly killed” the all-text Infocom game with Sherlock and then Infocom as a whole with Arthur, a third Challenge game “probably would have killed the entire computer-game industry.” We kid, Bob, we kid.

The story of Arthur‘s birth is the story of one of the few things to go according to plan through the chaos of Infocom’s final couple of years. When he’d first pitched the idea of Challenge becoming Infocom’s first outside developer back in 1986, Bates had sealed the deal with his plan for his first three games: a Sherlock Holmes game, a King Arthur game, and a Robin Hood game, in that order. Each was a universally recognizable character from fiction or myth who also had the advantage of being out of copyright. The games would amount to licensed works — always music to corporate parent Mediagenic’s1 ears — which didn’t require that anyone actually, you know, negotiate or pay for a license. It seemed truly the best of both worlds. And indeed, after Bates finished the Sherlock Holmes game, to very good creative if somewhat more mixed commercial results, his original plan still seemed strong enough that he was allowed to proceed to phase two and do his King Arthur game.

He chose to make his game the superhero origin story, if you will, of the once and future king: his boyhood trials leading up to his pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone in which it’s been embedded, thereby proving himself the rightful king of England. That last act would, naturally, constitute the climax of the game. In confining himself to the very beginning of the story of King Arthur, Bates left open the possibility for sequels should the game be successful — another move calculated to warm hearts inside Mediagenic’s offices, whose emerging business model in the wake of the Bruce Davis takeover revolved largely around sequels and licenses.

From the perspective of Challenge, Arthur was created the same way as had been Sherlock, from their offices in suburban Virginia as an all-text game, using a cloned version of Infocom’s DEC-hosted development environment that ran on their own local DEC minicomputer. But after Challenge had delivered their game to Infocom this time around, it went through a lengthy post-production period in the latter’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, offices, during which it was moved to Infocom’s new Macintosh-hosted development environment, then married to graphics created by a team of artists. Due at least to some extent to the nature of its development process, Arthur can be seen as a less ambitious game than any of the three works of graphical interactive fiction that preceded it. Its pictures were used only as ultimately superfluous eye candy, static illustrations of each location without even the innovative scrolling page design of Shogun. A few niceties like an onscreen map and an in-game hint menu aside, this was graphical interactive fiction as companies like Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls had been doing it for years, the graphics plainly secondary to the very traditional text adventure at the game’s core.

Created by a team of several outside contractors, Arthur's pictures are perhaps best described as workmanlike in comparison to the lusher graphics of Shogun and especially Journey.

Created by a team of several outside contractors, Arthur‘s pictures are perhaps best described as “workmanlike” in comparison to the lusher graphics of Shogun and especially Journey.

Far from faulting Arthur for its lack of ambition, many fans then as well as now saw the game’s traditionalism as something of a relief after the overambitious and/or commercially compromised games that had preceded it. Infocom knew very well how to make this sort of game, the very sort on which they’d built their reputation. Doubtless for that reason, Arthur acquits itself quite well in comparison to its immediate predecessors. It’s certainly far more playable than any of Infocom’s other muddled final efforts, lacking any of their various ruinous failings or, for that matter, any truly ruinous failings of its own.

That said, the critical verdict becomes less positive as soon as we widen the field of competition to include Infocom’s catalog as a whole. In comparison to many of the games Infocom had been making just a couple of years prior to Arthur, the latter has an awful lot of niggling failings, enough so that in the final judgment it qualifies at best only as one of their more middling efforts.

A certain cognitive dissonance is woven through every aspect of Arthur. In his detailed and thoughtful designer’s notes for the game, which are sadly hidden inside the hint menu where many conscientious players likely never realized they existed, Bates notes that “there is an inherent conflict built into writing a game about King Arthur. It is the conflict between history and legend — the way things were versus the way we wish they were.” Bates took the unusual course of “cleaving to the true Arthur,” the king of post-Roman Britain who may have reigned between 454 and 470, when the island was already sliding into the long Dark Ages. He modeled the town in which the game is set on the ancient Roman British settlement of Portchester, just northwest of Portsmouth, which by the time of the historical Arthur would likely have been a jumble of new dwellings made out of timber and thatch built in the shadow of the decaying stonework left behind by the Romans. A shabby environment fitting just this description, then, becomes the scene of the game. Bates invested considerable research into making the lovely Book of Hours included with the game as reflective of the real monastical divine office of the period as possible. And he even wrote some snippets of poetry in the Old English style, based on alliteration rather than rhyme. I must say that this approach strikes me as somewhat problematic on its face. It seems to me that very few people pick up an Arthurian adventure game dreaming of reenacting the life and times of a grubby Dark Ages warlord; they want crenelated castles and pomp and pageantry, jousts and chivalry and courtly love.

But far more problematically, having made his decision, Bates then failed to stick to it. For instance, he decided that jousting, first anachronistically imposed upon the real Arthur many centuries after his death, had to be in his own more historically conscientious version of the story “to make the game more enjoyable.” The central mechanic to much of the gameplay, that of being able to turn yourself into various animals, is lifted from a twentieth-century work, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, as is the game’s characterization of Arthur as a put-upon boy. Other anachronisms have more to do with Monty Python than written literature, like the village idiot who sings about his “schizophrenia” and the kraken who says he “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.” I should say that I don’t object to such a pastiche on principle. Writers who play in the world of King Arthur have always, as Bates himself puts it, “projected then-current styles, fashions, and culture backwards across the centuries and fastened them to Arthur.” Far from being objectionable, this is the sign of a myth that truly lives, that has relevance down through the ages; it’s exactly what great writers from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory, T.H. White to Mary Stewart have always done. The myth of King Arthur will always be far more compelling than the historical reality, whatever it may be. What I object to is the way that Bates gums up the works by blending his psuedo-historical approach with the grander traditions of myth and fiction. The contrast between the Arthur of history and the Arthur of imagination makes the game feel like a community-theater production that spent all its money on a few good props — for instance, for the jousts — and can’t afford a proper stage. Far from feeling faithful to history, the shabby timber-and thatch environs of his would-be Portchester just feel low-rent.

A similar cognitive dissonance afflicts the game and puzzle design. In some ways, Arthur is very progressive, as feels appropriate for the very last Infocom text adventure, presumably the culmination of everything they’d learned. For the first time here, the hint menu is context-sensitive, opening up new categories of questions only after you encounter those puzzles for the first time. (It’s also integrated into the structure of the story in a very clever way, taking the form of Merlin’s future-scrying crystal ball.) The auto-map is useful if not quite as useful as Infocom’s marketing might have liked it to be, and for the first time here the new parser, rewritten from the ground up for this final run of graphical games, does sometimes evince a practical qualitative difference from the old. In these respects and others, Arthur represents the state of the art in text adventures as of 1989.

In other ways, however, Arthur is profoundly old-school, not to say regressive. There is, for instance, an unadulteratedly traditional maze in here, the first such seen in an Infocom game since Zork I‘s “maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” There is a trick to figure out at the beginning of the one in Arthur — the old drop ‘n’ plot isn’t possible, necessitating the finding of another method for distinguishing one room from another — but after that moment of inspiration you can look forward to the tedious perspiration of plotting out ten rooms and the hundred separate connections that bind them. How odd to think that the only Infocom games to include traditional mazes were their very first and their very last. And while we’re on the subject of Zork I, I should mention that there’s a thief character of sorts in Arthur who’s every bit as annoying as his shifty progenitor. When you first wander innocently into his domain, he steals all your stuff with no warning. (Thankfully, undo is among the game’s modern conveniences.) But perhaps the best illustration of Arthur‘s weird mixing of new- and old-school is the magic bag you find in Merlin’s cave. It can hold an infinite amount of stuff, thus relieving you of the object-juggling so endemic to so many early text adventures from Infocom and others. Unfortunately, though, the bag is stuck behind the domain of the aforementioned thief, who steals it as soon as you try to walk out with it. Thus this huge convenience is kept out of your hands for what may for many players — Arthur is quite nonlinear — amount to the bulk of the game. Progression and regression, all in one would-be handy bag of holding.

In marrying its puzzles to its plot, Arthur is once again best described as confused. Instead of a single score, Arthur has four separate tallies, measuring how “wise and chivalrous,” “strong and courageous” you’ve so far become. In common with a number of late Infocom games, there’s a slight CRPG element at play here: your scores actually affect your ability to perform certain actions. The goal, naturally, is to “gain the experience you need to claim the sword,” in the course of which you “must demonstrate them [your knightly virtues] for all to see.” So, when it comes down to the final climactic duel with King Lot, the villain of the game, what do you do? You distract him and sucker-punch him, that’s what. How’s that for chivalry?

Arthur

Before wrapping up my litany of complaints, I do have to also mention a low-level bugginess that’s not awful by the standards of the industry at large but is quite surprising to find in an Infocom game. The bugs seem to largely fall into the category of glitches rather than showstoppers: if you immediately wear some armor you’ve just discovered instead of picking it up first and then wearing it, you don’t get the points you’re supposed to; another character who normally won’t follow you into a certain location will suddenly do so if you lead him in animal form, which allows you to bypass a puzzle; etc. Relatively minor as such glitches may appear on their face, Arthur‘s CRPG-like qualities make them potentially deadly nevertheless. Because your success at certain necessary actions is dependent on your score, the points you fail to earn thanks to the bugs could make victory impossible.

Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s influential adventure-game columnist, called Arthur nothing less than “Infocom’s most poorly produced game ever,” labeling the disk-swapping required by the Apple II version “simply outrageous”: “When you have to change disks because part of a paragraph is on one, and the rest on another, you know something is wrong with the design. This is also sometimes necessary within a single sentence.” These problems made the much-vaunted auto-map feature essentially unusable on the Apple II, requiring as that version did a disk swap almost every time you wanted to take a peek at the map. Granted, the Apple II was by this point the weak sister among the machines Infocom continued to support, the only remaining 8-bit in the stable — but still, it’s hard to imagine the Infocom of two or three years before allowing an experience as unpolished as this into the wild on any platform.

During Arthur‘s lengthy post-production period, Bates already turned his mind to his next project. It was here that that surprisingly durable original plan of his finally fell victim to the chaos and uncertainty surrounding Infocom in these final months. Still searching desperately for that magic bullet that would yield a hit, Infocom and Mediagenic decided they didn’t feel all that confident after all that the Robin Hood game would provide it. Bates delivered a number of alternative proposals, including a sequel to Leather Goddesses of Phobos and a game based on The Wizard of Oz — yet another licensed game that wouldn’t actually require a license thanks to an expired copyright. Most intriguingly, or at least amusingly, he proposed a mash-up of the two ideas, a Wizard of Oz with “more suggestive language, racier insinuations, and a sub-stratum of sex running throughout. We could substitute a whip for the striped socks and dress Dorothy in leather.” History doesn’t record what Mediagenic’s executives said to that transgressive idea.

In the end, Bates had his next project chosen for him. In a development they trumpeted in inter-office memoranda as a major coup, Mediagenic had secured the rights to The Abyss, the upcoming summer blockbuster from James Cameron of Terminator and Aliens fame. This time Bates drew the short straw for this latest Mediagenic-imposed project that no one at Infocom particularly wanted to do. He was provided with a top-secret signed and numbered copy of the shooting script, and dispatched to Gaffney, South Carolina, where filming for the underwater action-epic was taking place inside the reactor-containment vessel of a nuclear power plant which had been abandoned midway through its construction. After meeting briefly there with Cameron himself, he returned to Virginia to purchase an expensive set of Macintosh IIs through which to clone Infocom’s latest development system. (With Infocom’s DEC system being decommissioned and sent to the scrapyard at the end of 1988, he now didn’t have any other choice but to adapt Challenge’s own technology to the changing times.) The beginning of the Abyss game he started on his new machines, a bare stub of a thing with no graphics and little gameplay, would later escape into the wild; it’s been passed around among fans for many years.

But events which I’ll document in my next article would ensure that the interactive Abyss would never become more than a stub and that the money spent on all that new equipment would be wasted. Bob Bates’s Infocom legacy would be limited to just two games, the first a very satisfying play, the second a little less so. Lest we be tempted to judge him too harshly for Arthur‘s various infelicities, we should note again that the three most prolific Imps of all — Steve Meretzky, Dave Lebling, and Marc Blank — had all delivered designs that failed far more comprehensively in the months immediately preceding the release of Bates’s effort, Infocom as a whole’s last gasp, in June of 1989. By the time of its release, Arthur was already a lame duck; the Infocom we’ve come to know through the past four and a half years worth of articles on this blog was in the final stages of official dissolution. With its anticlimactic release having been more a product of institutional inertia than any real enthusiasm for the game on Mediagenic’s part, Arthur‘s sales barely registered.

So, it remains for us only to tell how the final curtain (shroud?) came to be drawn over the short, happy, inspiring, infuriating life of Infocom. And, perhaps more importantly, we should also take one final glance back, to ask ourselves what we know, what we’ve recently learned, and what will always remain in the realm of speculation when it comes to this most beloved, influential, and unique of 1980s game-makers. We’ll endeavor to do all that next time, when we’ll visit Infocom for the last 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. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Plus the September 1989 issue of Computer Gaming World, and the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989. And my huge thanks go out to Bob Bates, who granted me an extended interview about his work with Infocom.)


  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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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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