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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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Leather Goddesses of Phobos (or, Sex Comes to the Micros — Again)

The Dirty Book

For a brief moment there circa 1981, it looked like Softporn was going to spawn a whole new genre of sexy software. Following that game’s release and its massive-by-the-standards-of-1981 commercial success, others rushed to jump on the bandwagon, and the phrase “bedroom hacker” suddenly took on a whole new meaning. The titles conveyed the programs’ contents pretty well: Bedtime Stories, Dirty Old Man, Encounter, Zesty Zodiacs. Those wanting to get right down to business could presumably buy the straightforwardly named Sex Disk, while those more into foreplay could pick up Wanna Play Footsie?. My personal favorite, which makes me laugh every time for some reason, is Pornopoly. Some ambitious entrepreneurs even formed a program-of-the-month club for adult software, The Dirty Book. Their advertisements trumpeted the microcomputer “sexplosion,” promising “bedroom programs and games geared to creative, joyful living and loving,” the “opportunity to chart your own course to greater intimacy and satisfaction in the months to come.” Virtually all of this stuff was, whatever your opinion of its subject matter, pretty low-rent in execution, managing to make Softporn, hardly a marvel of writing or programming in its own right, look downright classy. But the quality of adult software never got a chance to improve in the way of other genres because suddenly, barely a year after the sexplosion began, it was all over. It was the would-be home-computer revolution that killed it.

A near-hysteria against videogames was sweeping certain sectors of the United States at that time. This was the era when entire towns were banning videogame arcades, when the Surgeon General was claiming they “addicted children, body and soul.” Makers of home computers were eager to not only avoid being tarred with the same brush, but to capitalize on the travails of the arcades and the videogame consoles by positioning a home computer like the Commodore VIC-20 as the better, healthier family alternative to an Atari VCS. A home computer, so the ad copy claimed, was first and foremost educational, a point always backed up with glossy photos of beaming children learning math or their ABCs in front of a glowing screen. A game like Pornopoly was, to say the least, not exactly compatible with that image. Indeed, American culture as a whole was changing when it came to matters of the flesh. The Christian Right was a major force to be reckoned with in American politics following Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority in 1979 and the major role it played in getting Ronald Reagan elected President the following year. Now public attitudes toward sex were beginning to lurch back toward the wholesome 1950s, away from the revolutionary 1960s and the free-and-easy 1970s.

And so the sexplosion petered out prematurely. Even at Sierra the dying embers of California hippie decadence that had led to that famous Softporn hot-tub cover photo were fading out as the marketers and venture capitalists rushed in. Softporn itself was pulled off the market within a couple of years of its release, despite the fact that it was still selling very well, and Roberta Williams underwent a headspinning transformation from the topless swinger on the cover of Softporn to the wholesome Great Mom behind family-friendly titles like King’s Quest, Mickey’s Space Adventure, and Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Even Electronic Arts, who dearly wanted to see software as the next big trend for with-it hipsters, were careful to stay well away from any hint of sex in their games.

But of course sex never, ever really goes away. It just goes underground. With sexy software now too hot for “legitimate” distributors or shops to handle, the latest programs were traded about for free — often via the burgeoning network of pirate bulletin-board systems — or sold via advertisements in the backs of the sorts of less-than-discerning “alternative weeklies” of which every major city seemed to have at least one specimen. The character of the programs themselves changed as well. The first generation of sexy software had been relatively staid as such things go, more akin to one of the ubiquitous soft-core couple’s manuals found in such quantity on bookstore shelves then and now than hardcore pornography. This attitude extended to intent as well as content: most of these programs were quite clearly pitched to adults who would use them to enhance a relationship or social Sexy Times. The new generation of games and programs, however, was all too obviously created by the teenage boys who were beginning to dominate amongst computer users — teenage boys who had watched their share of porn but had little to no experience with actual sex. Their audience was likewise looking for something unabashedly designed to help them get off — solo.

Amongst the earliest and the most popular of all this lot was a little charmer of a text adventure called Farmer’s Daughter. It’s about exactly the teenage fantasy its name would imply: “She’s wearing tight denim shorts and a skimpy white halter top, her nipples just about poking right through. She looks about sixteen… and willing!!!” Originally created on a Commodore 64 by a couple of teenagers named R.W. Fisher and D.W.J. Sarhan and sold through advertisements in Playboy and National Lampoon amongst other places (Fisher claims they “sold a ton”), Farmer’s Daughter was hugely played, traded, and ported within the pirate underground, enough to make it one of the most popular text adventures of all time. This was one that every teenage hacker just had to have in his collection, and thanks to its subject matter one he was much more likely to earnestly try to play than just about any other. With a claim at least as great as that of Softporn to being the urtext of a whole genre of “adult interactive fiction” — Farmer’s Daughter is actually pornographic; Softporn, despite its name, isn’t — it’s still remembered by some with nostalgia even today. In 2001, one “Despoiler” even made a new version to run on modern interactive-fiction interpreters.

Farmer’s Daughter is actually one of the subtler specimens of its type, playing out largely like just another home-grown text adventure until you get to the big climax. A more typical example of one of these blue-balled fever dreams is Mad Party Fucker: “You have been invited to a party at a huge mansion. It is rumored that whores will be there. You come there nude and ready for action.” (You’re destined for the social faux pas of the century if those “rumors” turn out not to be true and this is just an ordinary old dinner party…) The hilarity of that tagline is unfortunately undercut by the ugliness of its other part: “The object of this game is to fuck as many women as you can without getting bufu’ed by fags (contracting AIDS).”

By no means did the horn-dogs confine themselves to text. In addition to endless variants of strip poker — many of them inevitably featuring the era’s most popular pinup girl, Samantha Fox — there were all sorts of rhythmic action games on offer, of varying degrees of grossness. Have a look at the website Girls of ’64 sometime and marvel and shudder at the sheer quantity and variety of the offerings. Disgusting as so much of this stuff is, there’s also something quaint about it. In just another decade or so the arrival of the Internet in homes would mean that never again would teenage boys have to satisfy their lust with pixelated, sometimes almost indecipherable 8-bit graphics and text adventures, for God’s sake.

The respectable magazines of the trade press, not to mention the shop shelves, gave no hint of this hyperactive pornographic underground. Through the brief home-computer boom and bust of 1982 to 1985 commercial software was almost universally G-rated. Sexual content began to creep back into the software overground only in about 1986. By this time the home-computer revolution had, as we’ve noted in plenty of earlier articles, largely come and gone in the eyes of the mainstream media, leaving behind a core of committed hobbyists to which it no longer paid all that much attention. One of the first publishers to sidle back through the door this partially reopened was Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0: both Alter Ego and Portal deal with sex with a bracing frankness. Notably, neither is a “sex game” in the way of those that were once featured in The Dirty Book. They’re rather games with something to say about real life; they include sex simply because sex is a part of life. As such, their sexual content could, and often did, go entirely unremarked by people who didn’t actually play them.

To everyone’s surprise, the first game of the post-bust era that did happily define itself as a “sex game” came from Infocom, heretofore regarded as amongst the most literary and mature of game makers. Leather Goddesses of Phobos put its sexy content front and center in its box copy and advertisements and, most of all, in its title.

Leather Goddesses of Phobos

Long before Leather Goddesses of Phobos became an actual game, it was a title and a joke — or, rather, a couple of jokes. Just after their move in 1982 into their first real corporate offices on Cambridge’s Wheeler Street, Joel Berez and Marc Blank organized a little housewarming party for Infocom’s handful of staffers and board of directors as well as other intimates — among them staffers at their new G/R Copy PR agency, employees of other local software companies and distributors, even owners of nearby computer shops. Berez and Blank were, claims Steve Meretzky, “extremely hyper” about making sure it came off as the perfect coming-out event for the growing company, despite the fact that just a few dozen outsiders were actually attending. In the offices’ central room was a big chalkboard listing all of Infocom’s modest catalog of just a few adventure games and the computers for which each was available. Always the jokester, Meretzky crept over to the chalkboard just before the party started and added an entry for Leather Goddesses of Phobos — “something that would be a little embarrassing but not awful.” Berez saw it minutes later and “erased it in a panic” before any of the outsiders could see it.  (Berez and Meretzky actually had something of a history of this sort of thing. Meretzky, in the words of Mike Dornbrook, “always made fun of Joel. Mercilessly. But in a very humorous way…”)

Anticlimactic as its ending was, the story, and most of all the name, nevertheless passed into Infocom lore. Leather Goddesses of Phobos became the default name of any project that hadn’t yet been given a name of its own: “For years thereafter, when anyone needed to plug the name of a nonexistent game into a sentence, it would be Leather Goddesses of Phobos.” The name even made its way into a couple of real games: it’s a videotape the protagonist of Starcross watches, much to his disappointment when he finds out it’s actually “something about the history of the Terran Union”; and it’s the name of the only functioning machine in the video arcade in Wishbringer.

The other joke was almost as old. Whenever discussions came around to what sorts of games Infocom should do, to what genres they should cover, someone would inevitably suggest a porn game. At first the joke was just a flippant response, but as the company plunged into its disastrous 1985 and overall sales began to clearly trend downward it began to take on a decidedly more blackish tinge. At that year’s end, with A Mind Forever Voyaging behind him, Meretzky decided to actually do it: to make a real Leather Goddesses of Phobos — and to put sex in it. He wasn’t, mind you, suggesting a porn game per se, but rather a “racy” spoof of/tribute to the science-fiction serials of the 1930s. It wasn’t a hugely original idea in itself — the Barbarella comics and film of the 1960s had already worked this ground to good effect by making the sex that was implied in the old serials explicit — but it was fairly original as games went, and that was the real point. Knowing that the old dictum of Sex Sells is about as timeless as marketing wisdom gets and that Infocom could really use a hit right about now, marketing manager Mike Dornbrook as well as the other Imps agreed enthusiastically that it was a great idea. Al Vezza, still clinging by his fingernails to a fantasy of Infocom as a force in business software and always terrified of anything that might damage the company’s image in that quarter, was less enthusiastic, but allowed Meretzky to proceed. As a sop to sensibilities like his, Mereztky did agree to allow the player to select from three levels of naughtiness: “tame,” “suggestive,” and “lewd.” (I’m not certain if anyone in the history of the world has ever actually played Leather Goddesses on anything but “lewd.” That’s kind of the point of the game, isn’t it?)

Sex aside, with Leather Goddesses we’re back in Meretzky’s comfortable wheelhouse of zany science-fiction comedy, complete with all the puzzles that were so conspicuously missing from A Mind Forever Voyaging. It’s thus easy enough to cast Leather Goddesses as an artistic retreat for a Meretzky who had pushed the envelope too far with his previous game. Doing so would not be entirely incorrect, but it’s not precisely the whole truth either. You see, we really can’t set the sex aside quite so easily as all that. Leather Goddesses may mark a formal retreat in many ways, but in his soul Mereztky still desperately wanted to rake some mucks, to make another political statement. And while, as a playthrough of A Mind Forever Voyaging will attest, Meretzky was genuinely passionate about and committed to his political views, he was also a young creative person who, like so many young creative persons, just wanted to cause some controversy — any controversy.

A Mind Forever Voyaging dealt with some politically sensitive topics, and I was hoping that it would stir up a lot of controversy. It didn’t. Not a single flaming froth-at-the-mouth letter. So I decided to write something with a little bit of sex in it, because nothing generates controversy like sex. I’m hoping to get the game banned from 7-Eleven stores. Finally, I get asked all the time, “When are you guys gonna do a graphic adventure?” Well, we won’t add pictures to our stories, so this was the only way to create a graphic adventure.

Leather Goddesses of Phobos begins with this:

Some material in this story may not be suitable for children, especially the parts involving sex, which no one should know anything about until reaching the age of eighteen (twenty-one in certain states). This story is also unsuitable for censors, members of the Moral Majority, and anyone else who thinks that sex is dirty rather than fun.

The attitudes expressed and language used in this story are representative only of the views of the author, and in no way represent the views of Infocom, Inc. or its employees, many of whom are children, censors, and members of the Moral Majority. (But very few of whom, based on last year's Christmas Party, think that sex is dirty.)

By now, all the folks who might be offended by LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS have whipped their disk out of their drive and, evidence in hand, are indignantly huffing toward their dealer, their lawyer, or their favorite repression-oriented politico. So... Hit the RETURN/ENTER key to begin!

Couched in humor as it is, this is also the most topical, baldly political statement ever to appear in an Infocom game. A Mind Forever Voyaging had at least spread a thin veneer of science-fiction worldbuilding over its political message. Not so here; Mereztky calls out the Moral Majority by name. It might perhaps be a bit hard for us today to appreciate the big stew of silliness that is Leather Goddesses of Phobos as a full-on political statement. Indeed, it can be hard not to get annoyed with the game’s intermittent tendency to pat itself on the back for an alleged edginess that strikes us today as about as transgressive as missionary sex in a private bedroom between a happily married heterosexual couple. See, for instance, this gag, obviously inspired by George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” routine.

>z
Time passes...

[A warning for any Jerry Falwell groupies who are miraculously still playing: we'll be using the word "tits" in five turns or so. Please consult the manual for the proper way to stop playing.]

>z
Time passes...

[Only a few turns until the "tits" reference! Use QUIT now if you might be offended!]

>z
Time passes...

[Last warning! The word "tits" will appear in the very next turn! This is your absolutely last chance to avoid seeing "tits" used!!!]

>z
Time passes...

A hyperdimensional traveller suddenly appears out of thin air. "My sister has tremendous breasts," says the traveller and, without further explanation, vanishes, leaving only a vague trace of interdimensional ozone.

[Oh, regarding the use of "tits," we changed our mind at the last minute. Everyone agreed it was too risque.]

We owe it to the game to take a moment to try to understand just why Leather Goddesses is so inexplicably proud of itself. In 1986, the year that Leather Goddesses was released, the culture wars of the 1980s were at their peak. The previous year had given the country Senate hearings instigated by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center and their “Filthy Fifteen” list of offending songs; the hearings would lead to a “Parental Advisory” label, the so-called “Tipper sticker,” appearing on many cassettes and CDs. Two months before Leather Goddesses‘s publication Attorney General Edwin Meese’s Commission on Pornography published a report which claimed a direct link between violent crime and access to pornography amongst a host of other dubious assertions, and which argued for stepped-up enforcement of so-called “decency standards.” The following April the Federal Communications Commission would effectively change some of those same standards in a landmark ruling that levied stiff fines on shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show; from now on it would be possible to fine radio broadcasters not just for violating a list of proscribed words but for any “language or materials that depict or describe, in terms patently offensive to community standards or the broadcast media, sexual or excretory activities or sexual organs.” Taken in the context of these events and many others, Leather Goddesses‘s self-satisfaction feels more understandable and even, in its modest way, more principled.

But what is there to say about Leather Goddesses apart from its politics? Well, Mike Dornbrook’s succinct description of the game for Infocom’s newsletter is a pretty accurate one: “Hitchhiker’s Guide with sex.” You play an ordinary citizen of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, in the year 1936 who gets abducted by the Leather Goddesses of Phobos. These same Leather Goddesses are also planning to invade Earth itself, to make of it their own “private pleasure world.” You’re to be an experiment to pave the way: “your unspeakably painful death will help our effort to enslave humanity” in some way that’s never elaborated, although you are told that it will involve “lots of lubricants, some plastic tubing, and a yak.” Luckily, you escape to hopscotch around a pulp-science-fiction version of the solar system with a sidekick you pick up along the way, trying to assemble the pieces of a “Super-Duper Anti-Leather Goddesses of Phobos Attack Machine!”

1. a common household blender
2. six feet of rubber hose
3. a pair of cotton balls
4. an eighty-two degree angle
5. a headlight from any 1933 Ford
6. a white mouse
7. any size photo of Jean Harlow
8. a copy of the Cleveland phone book

It is, to say the least, a pretty nonsensical plot, one that ultimately boils down in tried-and-true adventure-game fashion to a big treasure hunt — something the game, which spends lots of time gleefully embracing and then subverting adventure-games clichés, is well aware of.

All of those teenage boys who doubtless dived into Leather Goddesses hoping it would get them off were in for a disappointment. If we accept the common definition of pornography as any work designed primary to sexually arouse or titillate, over and above any other artistic purpose, Leather Goddesses resoundingly fails to qualify. Its few sex scenes are purposely full of schlocky romance-novel cliches, all “hot, naked bodies,” “warm and wild feelings springing from your loins, spreading like a fiery potion through your veins” and “lustful orgasms” (is there any other kind?). The detailed play-by-play and anatomical precision that teenage boys crave is, needless to say, not to be found here. In a nod toward gender equality that you certainly wouldn’t see from the pornographic-software underground, it’s actually possible to play Leather Goddesses as either a male or a female; you select your gender at the beginning of the game by going into either the men’s or women’s restroom. The sexes of various people you encounter during the game are adjusted accordingly. The very fact that Meretzky was able to do this so seamlessly within the brutal textual constraints of the 128 K Z-Machine says a lot about just how soft-focus the sex scenes actually are.

While Meretzky gets points for making the effort to include the 30 percent or so of Infocom’s loyal customers who were females, my old Gender Studies indoctrination from university does prompt me to note that even if you choose to play as a female you’re still playing a game largely built for the male gaze. Notably, the Leather Goddesses themselves don’t change gender, and remain equally interested in you whether you play as male or female. There are a couple of obvious causes for this. One is of course that changing the Leather Goddesses to Leather Gods would have been really hard given the constraints of the Z-Machine, not to mention problematic given the name of the game. And the other is that 1980s males who were appalled by male homosexuality were often more than accepting of a bit of female-on-female action.

I find the most jarring moment in Leather Goddesses to be not one of the sex scenes but rather the first time Meretzky swears at me. His first “let’s cut the bullshit” just a few turns in feels so aggressive, so at odds with Infocom’s usual house style that it always hits me like a slap. Moreover, it somehow doesn’t feel genuine either; it feels like Meretzky is swearing at me out of a sense of obligation to the “lewd” mode, and that he’s not entirely comfortable in doing so. More successful are all of the sly double entendres that litter the text, right from the moment you walk into a restroom at the beginning of the game and find a “stool” there. They’re all about as stupid as that, but sometimes gloriously so. My favorite bit might just be the response to the standard SCORE command.

>score
[with Joe]
Unfortunately, Joe doesn't seem interested, and it takes two to tango.

When he’s not cursing or referencing sex in some way, Meretzky is giving you pretty much the game you’d expect from the guy who wrote Planetfall and co-wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: lots of broad, goofy humor, the jokes coming fast and furious, often falling flat but occasionally hitting home. The situations you get yourself into are as gloriously stupid as the puns and double entendres, and perfectly redolent of the game’s inspirations: you go wandering through the jungles of Venus; go sailing the canals of Mars; and, best of all, get into a swordfight in space where you can inexplicably talk to your opponent and where Newtonian mechanics most resoundingly don’t apply. I’d probably be a bit more excited about the humor in this and Meretzky’s other games if it hadn’t led to so many less clever imitators who held fast to the “stupid” but forgot the “glorious.” See, for example, this description of a spaceship in Leather Goddesses, which is far more anatomically explicit than anything in any of the sex scenes: “Hanging from the base of the long, potent-looking battleship are two pendulous, brimming fuel tanks.” Then compare it with its distressingly literal adaptation to graphics in the blatant but more explicit Leather Goddesses clone Sex Vixens from Space of a couple of years later.

Sex Vixens from Space

One thing that had changed about Meretzky’s work by the time of Leather Goddesses is pointed out by passages like the one just quoted: his writing has improved, subtly but significantly. Perhaps due to his enthusiasm and the sheer pace at which he turned out work, the Meretzky of Planetfall, Sorcerer, and even A Mind Forever Voyaging could be a bit slapdash, even a bit lazy in stringing his words together from time to time. Jon Palace, Infocom’s secret weapon in so many things, did much to keep that from happening in Leather Goddesses. Palace:

I would make an attempt to point out areas where the text could be a little richer. At one point Steve just gave me a big fat printout of all the words in the game. I went through it and tried to find opportunities for adjectives or verbs that could be a little more interesting.

Leather Goddesses‘s text is indeed more interesting, with more of a “you are there” feeling, with more showing and less telling. Mereztky was grateful enough to give Palace a special public thank you for “sensualizing” his text.

Still, I remain most impressed by Meretzky as a game and puzzle designer rather than as a writer. Leather Goddesses excels here. Take all the sex and all the humor away, and it’s still just a damn fine example of adventure-game craft, the best Meretzky had yet come up with. One of its puzzles in particular, the “t-removing machine,” has rightly gone down in text-adventure lore as just possibly Meretzky’s cleverest and most memorable ever. It’s also one that could never, ever be done successfully in any other medium, and another example of an increasing interest in abstract wordplay that marked many of Infocom’s later titles. The game’s most elaborate set-piece puzzle is yet another example of an Infocom maze that isn’t really a maze in the traditional sense. That said, it might just leave you longing for the days of “twisty little passages, all alike.” What with a quickly expiring light source and the cycling series of perfectly timed actions required to stay alive, it’s certainly the most polarizing of the puzzles, infuriating to a certain sort of player who considers it just tedious busywork and delightful to another type ready to pull out a pencil and paper and settle down for a nice logistical challenge. (Personally, I’m in the latter camp.) Virtually all of the other puzzles are very entertaining in less polarizing ways, logical despite the illogic of the setting and solvable, but not trivially so. It all makes for a hell of a lot of fun, even if you do mostly have to have your clothes — well, your loincloth — on.

Leather Goddesses‘s packaging became one of Infocom’s most memorable collections, arguably the last such before the company’s straitening economic circumstances began to really affect the contents of those beloved gray boxes. Meretzky always took an early and personal interest in this aspect of his games, and Leather Goddesses was no exception. He had barely begun working on the game when he had the idea of including a scratch-and-sniff card with various scents that the player would be asked to smell from time to time. Meretzky:

I got several dozen samples from the company that made the scents. Each was on its own card with the name of the scent. So one by one I had other Infocom employees come in, and I’d blindfold them and let them scratch each scent and try to identify it. That way, I was able to choose the seven most recognizable scents for the package. It was a lot of fun seeing what thoughts the various scents triggered in people, such as the person who was sniffing the mothballs and got a silly grin on his face and said, “My grandmother’s attic!”

Thus the game was designed to incorporate the seven “most recognizable” scents rather than the scents being chosen to fit the game, an unusual but not unique case of placing the feelie cart before the game horse (remember, for instance, the Wishbringer stone?). And, since you’re probably wondering: no, none of the scents were remotely sexual.

The package also included a 3-D comic complete with the requisite glasses for reading it, drawn by the same artist responsible for Trinity‘s comic, Richard Howell. (Howell would go on to have a long career in comic books.) The box cover art itself would prompt a squabble between Meretzky and Mike Dornbrook’s marketing department almost as heated as the great Spellbreaker/Mage controversy of the year before. Meretzky wanted to develop for the cover the concept drawing you see below, featuring a collection of elements from the game itself. (Thanks to Jason Scott for making this image available online.)

Leather Goddesses of Phobos

Dornbrook’s people, however, thought the drawing was just too busy to work on store shelves. Dornbrook:

You can’t look at a cover in isolation. You’ve got to look at a cover when it’s with a hundred other covers. Does it work on a shelf that’s crowded with covers? If it blends in, doesn’t stand out, it’s a failure, no matter how great the art is. It’s got to work as a cover!

Marketing instead opted for the cleaner, simpler design you saw earlier in this article, which also had the advantage of highlighting the marvelous name around which the whole game had been designed in the first place. A very unhappy Meretzky satirically asked to include a disclaimer in the package apologizing for the lame cover art and explaining how much better it should have been.

Leather Goddesses was released in September of 1986. Obviously feeling they might just have a sorely needed commercial winner on their hands, marketing gave the game special priority. For instance, they printed tee-shirts to pass around and sell through the Infocom newsletter, featuring the Leather Goddesses logo on the front and the slogan “A dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste” on the back. About half of the considerable fan mail the game generated was indeed of the “froth at the mouth” stripe Meretzky had been missing in response to A Mind Forever Voyaging. (Most of the other half, meanwhile, seemed to consist of complaints that the game was too tame.) A woman in Orange County, California, wandered into her local software store only to see the tee-shirt on display on the wall and, even worse, on the backs of some of the staff. She pitched a fit about the game’s title with its “deviant sexual overtones and references to bondage and other unnatural acts.” Her complaints forced an official policy change for the chain’s sixty or so stores: Leather Goddesses must be placed only on the highest shelves at the very back of the store, and could not be included in sales promotions, special in-store displays, or advertisements in any form of media — and of course staffers wouldn’t be allow to wear their complimentary tee-shirts anymore. At least one of the big mail-order sellers, Protecto Enterprises of Illinois, declared that they were “founded on Christian principles and ethics and will not sell any product that goes against those principles”; Leather Goddesses by their lights did just that. Still, most of the most committed culture warriors in the country just weren’t paying enough attention to the relatively tiny entertainment-software market when there was so much more mainstream material in the form of music and television and films and books to rail against. Thus Meretzky would have to be satisfied with only the occasional outraged letter rather than the pitchfork-wielding mob of his dreams.

Any sales lost for reasons of outraged morality were more than made up for by the game’s sex appeal. Leather Goddesses proved to be by a factor of at least three Infocom’s biggest seller post-Activision acquisition, selling around 130,000 copies — Infocom’s last game to break six digits, their last to qualify as a genuine hit, and their first and last to prove that Sex Sells was as true in computer games as it was in any other media. It lands just below Wishbringer on Infocom’s all-time sales chart, their sixth best-selling game overall. At least one of the fans it attracted may have horrified Meretzky: Tom Clancy, technothriller author and noted friend of the Reagan administration. “I’d like to meet whoever wrote that,” he said in an interview. “I just don’t know what asylum to go to.”

The milestones in general start to get more melancholy now as we move into the latter stages of Infocom’s history. There’s one more we should mention in the case of Leather Goddesses, over and above “last 100,000 seller” and “last hit.” It marked also the last time that Infocom would have a significant part in, for lack of a better word, the conversation inside the computer-game industry at large. Other publishers took note of Leather Goddesses‘s success. With the industry’s sexual taboo at least partially broken thanks to Infocom and (to a lesser extent) Activision, sex on the computer would begin to cautiously poke its head back up out of the underground again. We’ll see plenty of evidence of that in future articles.

Like Hitchhiker’s, Leather Goddesses advertises a sequel in its finale that the original Infocom would never deliver: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X. (A graphic adventure by that name would be designed by Meretzky and released by Activision under the Infocom label well after the original company was dissolved.) Too bad the series barely got started, because the already planned title of a third game might have really riled up some sensitive souls: Diesel Dikes of Deimos.

(As usual, Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews were invaluable to this article. Steve Meretzky is also interviewed at length in Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III. Also useful: the October 1987 and July 1988 Computer Gaming World, and the Summer 1986 edition of Infocom’s Status Line newsletter. The Dirty Book advertisement is from the September 1982 Kilobaud.)

 

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