Tag Archives: plundered hearts

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."

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?"

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.

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."

Time passes...

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

Time passes...

The butler's eyes are getting heavier.

Time passes...

The butler collapses, head back, snoring loudly.

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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Plundered Hearts

Plundered Hearts

Amy Briggs first discovered text adventures during the early 1980s, when she was a student at Macalester University in her home state of Minnesota. Her boyfriend there worked at the local computer store, and introduced her to the joys of adventuring via Scott Adams’s Ghost Town. But she only became well and truly smitten — with text adventures, that is — when he first booted up a Zork for her. The pair were soon neglecting their studies to stay up all night playing on the computer.

After graduating with a degree in English and breaking up with the boyfriend, Briggs found herself somewhat at loose ends, asking that question so familiar to so many recent graduates: “What now?” Deciding that six months spent back at home with her parents was more than enough, she greeted 1985 by moving to Boston, which made for a convenient location for seeking a fortune of a type still undetermined since she had a sister already living there. Only half jokingly, she told her friends and family just before she left that if all else failed she could always go to work for Infocom.

Lo and behold, she opened the Boston Globe for the first time to find two want ads from that very company, one looking for someone to test games and the other for someone to do the same for some mysterious new business product. Briggs, naturally, wanted the games gig. Straining just a bit too hard to fit in with Infocom’s well-established sense of whimsy, she wrote a cover letter she would later “blush about,” most of all for her inexplicable claim that she had “a ridiculous sense of the sublime.” Despite or because of the cover letter, she got an interview one week later — she “stumbled out something incomprehensible” when asked about the aforementioned “ridiculous sense of the sublime” — and got a job as a game tester two weeks after that. As she herself admits, she “just walked into it,” the luckiest text-adventure fan on the planet who arrived at just about the last conceivable instant that would allow her to play a creative role in Infocom’s future.

She joined at the absolute zenith of Infocom’s success and ambition, with the whole company a beehive of activity in the wake of the recent launch of Cornerstone. On her first or second day, no less august a personage than Douglas Adams came through to talk about the huge success of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game and to plan the next one. Her first assignment was to help pack up everything inside the dark warren that was Infocom’s Wheeler Street Offices and get it all shipped off to their sparkling new digs on CambridgePark Drive. Humble tester that she was, it felt like she had hit the big time, signed on with a company that was going to be the next big success story not just in games but in software in general.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Having enjoyed just a couple of months of the good times, Briggs would get to be present for most of the years of struggle that would follow. She kept her head down and kept testing games through all the chaos of 1985 and 1986 leading up to the Activision acquisition, managing to escape being laid off.

As a woman, and as a very young and not hugely assertive woman at that, Briggs was in a slightly uncomfortable spot at Infocom, one to which many of my female readers at least can probably relate. Infocom was not, I want to emphasize, an openly or even unconsciously misogynistic place. On the contrary, it was a very progressive place in most ways by the standards of the tech industry of the 1980s. But nevertheless, it was dominated by white males with big personalities, strong opinions, and impressive resumes. Very few who didn’t fit that profile would ever have much to say about the content of Infocom’s games. (Discounting outside testers, about the only significant female voice that comes to mind other than that of Briggs is Liz Cyr-Jones, who came up with the premise and title for Hollywood Hijinx and made contributions to many other games as one of Infocom’s most long-serving, valued, and listened-to in-house testers.) Briggs needed someone in her corner, “pushing me and showing me how to do everything from compiling ZIL to insisting that I be taken seriously.”

None other than Steve Meretzky stepped forward to fill that role.  He saw a special creative spark in Briggs quite early, when she helped test his labor of love A Mind Forever Voyaging and just got what he was trying to do in a way that many other testers, still stuck in the mindset of points for treasures, didn’t. He proved instrumental in what happened next for Briggs. When she told him that she’d like to become an Imp herself someday, he introduced her to ZIL. She started working on a little game of her own for two or three hours after work in the evenings and often all day on the weekends. Like the generations of hobbyist text-adventure authors who have set their first game in their apartments, Briggs elected to begin with what she knew, the story of a tester finding bugs and taking them back to the Imp in charge. But because it was after all adventure games that she wanted to write, she muddled up this everyday tale with Alice in Wonderland: the bugs in questions were literal, metamorphosed critters, and the Imp was a caterpillar smoking a hookah.

In the fall of 1986, a call that was destined to be the last of its type went through the Infocom ranks, for a new Imp to help maintain the ambitious release schedule being pushed by Activision in the wake of the acquisition. Meretzky, showing himself to be far less sanguine on Infocom’s future prospects than he let on in public interviews, told Briggs that she should do her best to get it because “after this hiring there’s not going to be another Imp hired until one of us dies.” Along with a quiet word or two from Meretzky, her testing experience and the sample game she had been tinkering with for the last year were enough to convince management to give her a shot. Before the year was out she was an Imp, given a generous nine months — thanks to her being new on the job and all — to write, polish, and release her first game. What said first game would be was, within reason, to be left up to her.

The plan she came up with was a humdinger. She wanted to write an interactive romance novel, much like the literary guilty pleasures she had been addicted to ever since she was a teenager. Marketing immediately liked the idea of having Infocom’s first game with an explicitly female protagonist be written by a woman, saw great possibilities for opening up a “whole new market” with a game that should have huge appeal to female players. Infocom had halfheartedly pursued a similar idea before, entering into talks with a mid-list romance-novel author about a possible collaboration, only to see them peter out in the wake of the chaos wrought by Cornerstone and an evolving feeling that such partnerships with non-interactive authors usually didn’t work out all that well anyway. Now, though, they were happy to revisit the idea via a game helmed by an author who, if admittedly unproven, had been steeped in interactive fiction as well as romance fiction for quite some time now.

Meretzky, for his part, was much less bullish on the idea. A romance game must revolve around character interaction in a way that he, experienced Imp that he was, knew would be incredibly hard to pull off. Indeed, in some ways it marked the most ambitious concept anyone at Infocom had mooted since his own A Mind Forever Voyaging. And being a new, unproven Imp, Briggs would not even be given the luxury of the Interactive Fiction Plus format; her game would have to fit into the standard, aged 128 K Z-Machine. Meretzky’s advice was to do something else first and then circle back to the idea, much as Brian Moriarty had agreed to write Wishbringer before tackling his dream project Trinity. Perhaps sensing already that there might not be enough time left for that, perhaps just feeling stubborn, Briggs for once rejected his advice and pressed ahead with her original plan. Her reason for doing so was about as good as they come: this would be the Infocom game that she had always wanted to play.

Amy Briggs

Amy Briggs

Steeped sufficiently in romance novels to have become something of a scholar of the genre, Briggs had long since divided the books she read into four categories: contemporary romances; Gothic romances in the tradition of Jane Eyre and Rebecca; historical romances, or “bodice rippers,” with “lurid sex-filled plots in historical settings”; and the more subdued Regency romances in the tradition of Jane Austen, as much comedies of manners as stories of love and lust. She decided that she wanted to make her game a cross between a Regency novel, her personal favorite category, and an historical romance, with “more action than a Regency but less sex than an historical.” Whatever else it was, her game would still be an adventure game, and thus the emphasis on action seemed necessary. As for the lack of explicit sex, Briggs wasn’t suited by temperament to writing lurid sex scenes any more than Infocom was interested in publishing them — not to mention the complications of trying to craft interactive sex in a medium that struggled to depict even the most basic conversation.

Looking for an historical milieu, Briggs settled on the age of Caribbean piracy. Like Sid Meier, who was working on a very different pirate-themed game of his own 400 miles away in Baltimore, she wasn’t so interested in the historical reality of piracy as much as she was in the rich tradition of swashbuckling fiction. Many of the references she studied were doubtless the same as those being perused at the exact same time by Meier. Her actual statements about her game’s relationship to real history also echo many of Meier’s.

I already had plenty of experience with romance novels, from my reading, and I have long been interested in fashions, so I only needed to brush up on those. Pirates, though, I had to research, and sailing ships. I watched a lot of movies — Captain Blood-type movies and romantic adventures like Romancing the Stone. Plundered Hearts is about as historically accurate as an Errol Flynn movie. I tried not to be anachronistic if I could help it, but if the heroine’s hairstyle is from the wrong century or if pirates really didn’t make people walk the plank, if stretching the truth adds a lot to the story, does it really matter?

As the extract above attests, she gave her game the pitch-perfect title of Plundered Hearts. You take the role of the young Lady Dimsford, whose ship is waylaid on the high seas by a pirate who is both less and more than he seems. Captain Jamison, the legendary pirate known as “the Falcon,” is actually there to rescue you from kidnapping by the captain of your own ship, who’s in the thrall of the evil Governor Jean Lafond; Lafond already holds your father captive. Cast in the beginning in the role of damsel in distress, to survive and thwart the sinister plot against your family you’ll soon have to take a more active part in events. Along the way, you’ll need to rescue your erstwhile rescuer Captain Jamison a few times, and of course you’ll have the chance to fall in love.

As Emily Short notes in her review of the game, at times Plundered Hearts layers on the romance-novel stylings a bit thick, and with a certain knowingness that skirts the border between homage and parody, as in the heroine’s daydream that represents the very first text we see.

Trembling, you fire the heavy arquebus. You hear its loud report over the roaring wind, yet the dark figure still approaches. The gun falls from your nerveless hands.

"You won't kill me," he says, stepping over the weapon. "Not when I am the only protection you have from Jean Lafond."

Chestnut hair, tousled by the wind, frames the tanned oval of his face. Lips curving, his eyes rake over your inadequately dressed body, the damp chemise clinging to your legs and heaving bosom, your gleaming hair. You are intensely aware of the strength of his hard seaworn body, of the deep sea blue of his eyes. And then his mouth is on yours, lips parted, demanding, and you arch into his kiss...

He presses you against him, head bent. "But who, my dear," he whispers into your hair, "will protect you from me?"

A number of Infocom’s other more unusual genre exercises similarly verge on parody, whether as a product of sheer commitment to the genre in question or the company’s default house voice of sly, slightly sarcastic drollery. One thing that redeems Plundered Hearts, as it also does, say, many a Lovecraftian pastiche, is the author’s obvious familiarity with and love for the genre in question. And another is that even its knowing slyness, to whatever extent it’s there, departs from the usual Infocom mold. There aren’t 69,105 of anything here, no “hello, sailor” jokes, no plethora of names that start with Zorkian syllables like “Frob,” no response to “xyzzy” — all of which (and so much more like it) was beginning to feel just a little tired by 1987. Like Jeff O’Neill, another recently minted Imp who brought a fresh perspective to the job, Amy Briggs just isn’t interested in plundering the lore of Zork. Unlike O’Neill, she gives us a game that’s eminently playable. Plundered Hearts is the polar opposite of the cavalcade of insider jokes and references that is The Lurking Horror. Yes, that game certainly has its charms… but still, new blood feels more than welcome here. Plundered Hearts really does feel like it wants to reach out to new players rather than just preach to the choir.

Yet at the same time that it’s so uninterested in so many typical Infocom tropes, Plundered Hearts might just be the best expression — ever — of the Infocom ideal of interactive fiction. The backs of their boxes had been telling people for years that interactive fiction was like “waking up inside a story.” Still, the majority of Infocom games stay far, far away from that ideal. Some, like Hollywood Hijinx and Nord and Bert, are little more than a big pile of puzzles built around a broad thematic premise. Others, ranging from Infidel to Spellbreaker, give you a dash of story in the beginning and a dab of story in the end, with a long, long middle filled with lots of static geography to explore and yet more puzzles to solve. Even Infocom’s two most forthrightly literary efforts, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, aren’t quite like waking up inside a story in the novelistic sense: there’s very little conventional narrative of any sort in Trinity, while for most of its length A Mind Forever Voyaging makes its hero more an observer than the star of its unfolding plot. The mysteries do offer relatively stronger narratives and more complex characters, but they’re very much cast in the classic mystery tradition of figuring out other people’s stories rather than really making one of your own.

Plundered Hearts, however, feels qualitatively different from them and almost everything else that came before. (The closest comparison in the catalog is probably Seastalker, Infocom’s only game marketed explicitly to children.) There’s a plot thrust — a narrative urgency — that’s largely missing elsewhere in the Infocom canon, coupled with many more of the sorts of things the uninitiated might actually think of when they hear the term “interactive fiction.” As you play, the plot thickens, events unfold, relationships change, characters develop and deepen, romance blossoms. In short, real, plot-related things actually happen. I don’t mean to say that this is the only way to write a compelling text adventure. Nor do I mean to say that there’s a lot of plot here by the standards of a typical novel or even novella, nor that you can do a whole lot to influence it beyond either clearing the hurdles before you and making it to the end — the game does offer a few alternate endings via a final branch — or screwing up and dying or suffering a “fate worse than death” that usually implies rape, and often a lifetime of indentured sexual servitude. What I am saying is that Amy Briggs took interactive fiction as Infocom preferred to describe it and made her best good-faith effort to live up to that ideal.  And, against all the odds, it works way better than it has any right to. I recently called the Infocom ideal of interactive fiction “something of a lost cause.” Well, I should have remembered that Plundered Hearts was waiting in the wings to prove me wrong just this once. Briggs dispenses with the things she can’t easily implement, like character interaction, via quick text dumps and concentrates the interactivity on those she can. By keeping the plot constantly in motion, she distracts us from the myriad flaws in her world’s implementation.

While Plundered Hearts has plenty of puzzles, those puzzles feel more organic than in the typical Infocom game, arising directly out of the plot rather than existing for the sake of their own cleverness. They’re also a bit easier than the norm, which suits the game’s purposes fine; you don’t want to spend hours teasing out the solution to an intricate puzzle here, you want to keep the plot moving, to find out what happens next. Most of the puzzles require only straightforward, commonsense deductions based on the materials to hand and your own goals, which are always blessedly clear. Yes, were Plundered Hearts written today, there are a few things a wise author would probably do differently. The timing of the first act, when you need to keep a powder keg in the hold of your ship from exploding, is tight enough that you might need to replay it once or twice to get it right, and it’s quite easy in one or two places to leave vital objects behind (don’t forget to grab that piece of pork when you make it to St. Sinistra!). Still, this game is far friendlier as well as far more plotty than the Infocom norm, and as a result it feels surprisingly modern even today.

As with many Infocom games, particularly in the latter half of the company’s history, much of the process of developing Plundered Hearts came down to cutting out all those pieces that wouldn’t fit into the 128 K Z-Machine. Briggs says that she finished the game inside six months, and then spent the remaining three cutting, cutting, and painfully cutting some more. Impossible as it is to make any real judgments without seeing the game she started with, Plundered Hearts doesn’t feel so much like a victim of those cuts as does Dave Lebling’s nearly contemporaneous The Lurking Horror. In some ways the cutting may have improved it, made it more playable. Briggs notes that she just didn’t have the space to allow the player to go too far astray, meaning that a screw-up more often leads to immediate death — or one of those other nasty, rapey endings — rather than a walking-dead situation. There are, she admits, “a lot of deaths” in Plundered Hearts. A lot of rapes too, more than enough to make the game feel squicky if it had been written by a man. (Yes, this is a double standard. And no, I don’t feel all that motivated to apologize for it in light of the history that gave rise to it. Your mileage may obviously vary.)

In an interview published in Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, Briggs tried to head off accusations that the game offered a retrograde depiction of gender relations by noting that “feminism does not rule out romance, and romance does not necessarily have to make women weak in the cliché sense of romance novels.” She further pointed out, rightly, that the protagonist of Plundered Hearts must soon enough take responsibility for her own fate, must turn the tables to rescue her Captain Jamison (“several times!”) and certainly can’t afford to “act as an air-head.” Not having much — okay, any — experience with romance novels, I don’t know whether or how unusual that is for the form, and thus don’t know to what degree we can label Plundered Hearts a subversion of romance-novel tropes. I do think, however, that by the time near the end of the game that it’s you, the allegedly helpless female, who comes swinging down off a chandelier to effect a rescue, the game has quite thoroughly upended the gender roles of your typical Errol Flynn movie.

Plundered Hearts and Nord and Bert, released simultaneously in September of 1987, represented the two most obvious marketing experiments in a 1987 Infocom lineup that otherwise largely played to the adventure-gaming base. These were also the two titles about which marketing had been most excited at their inception, as chances to pry open whole new demographics. By that September, however, following a punishing nine months already full of commercial disappointments, such ideas seemed like the fantasies they had probably always been. Infocom’s marketing efforts on behalf of Plundered Hearts in particular were tentative to the point of confusion, playing up the romance-novel angle on the one hand while seeking on the other to reassure the traditional adventurers that Infocom could hardly afford to lose that, really now, this wasn’t all that big a departure from Zork. And so we got this testimonial from one Judith C.: “Infocom’s first romance does the genre proud. Playing Plundered Hearts was like opening a romance novel and walking inside.” But we also got this one from Ron T.: “I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t like the game at first, being male and playing it as a female, but once you got started it was NO PROBLEM! I enjoyed it!!!”

Neither marketing angle was sufficient to make Plundered Hearts a hit. The sales of it and its release partner Nord and Bert dropped off substantially from those of the pairing of Stationfall and The Lurking Horror of just a few months previous. The final numbers for Plundered Hearts reached only about 15,500. Briggs recalls no big thrill of accomplishment at seeing her name on an Infocom box for the first time, nor even a sense of creative fulfillment at having done something so different from the Infocom norm and done it so well, only a deep disappointment at what she and Infocom’s management viewed as just another failed experiment.

Briggs’s remaining time at Infocom proved equally frustrating. While certainly not the only Imp whose most recent game had failed to sell very well, she was in a precarious position as the newest and most inexperienced of the group, with no older, more successful titles to point to as proof of her artistic instincts. In contrast to Plundered Hearts, an idea which Infocom’s management had embraced from the get-go, her new ideas got rejected one after another by a company she characterizes as now “terrified,” desperate to find “the next Hitchhiker’s” that could save them all. Management wanted games with obvious “marketing tie-ins,” but her personal interests were “geekish.” At the same time, though, they gave her little real direction in what sorts of subjects might be more marketable: “Just write us a hit.” The most retrospectively promising of her ideas, one that would seem likely to have satisfied management’s own criteria if they’d given it a chance, was a game either heavily inspired by or outright licensing Anne Rice’s vampire novels. But it came perhaps just a little too early in the cultural conversation — Rice’s books hadn’t quite yet exploded into the mainstream to help ignite the still-ongoing craze for all things vampire in popular culture — and was ultimately rejected along with all her other ideas. About the time that management started pushing her to call up Garrison Keillor to try to get a game deal out of her very tangential relationship with him — she had worked as an usher on A Prairie Home Companion during her university days, and had attended occasional potlucks and the like with the rest of the cast and crew at Keillor’s house — she decided that enough was enough.

Briggs left Infocom in mid-1988 after completing her final work for them, the “Flathead Calendar” feelie that accompanied her old mentor Steve Meretzky’s Zork Zero. She said that she was leaving to go write the Great American Novel. But like many an aspiring novelist, Briggs found the reality of writing less enchanting than the idea; the novel never happened. She jokes today that her fellow Imps set expectations a bit too high at her farewell party when they gifted her with a tee-shirt emblazoned with the words “1989 Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.” She wound up taking a PhD in Experimental and Behavioral Psychology instead, and has since enjoyed a rewarding career in academia and private industry. Her one published work of interactive fiction — for that matter, her one published creative work of any stripe — remains Plundered Hearts.

It may be a thin creative legacy, but it’s one hell of an impressive one. Other Infocom games like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity may carry more thematic weight, but in terms of sheer entertainment I don’t think Infocom ever made a better game. The last game ever released for the original 128 K Z-Machine, it’s the interactive equivalent of a great beach read in all the best senses, grabbing hold quickly and just rollicking along through rapier duels, exploding powder kegs, daring waterborne escapes, secret passages, death-defying leaps, etc., all interspersed — this being an interactive romance novel, after all — with multiple costume changes, a little ballroom dancing, and a few sweaty seductive interludes sufficient to make the old bosom heave. Much as I usually shy away from the Internet’s obsession with ranking things, if I was to list my personal favorite Infocom games Plundered Hearts would have to be right there at number two, just behind Trinity. And this comes from someone who doesn’t know the first thing about romance novels.

Indeed, one of the thoroughgoing pleasures of Plundered Hearts, the gift that keeps on giving for years after you’ve played it, is watching players like me and our friend Ron T. above fall victim to its charms despite all their stoic manly skepticism. Even Questbusters‘s redoubtable William E. Carte, who in just the previous issue had declared Nord and Bert unfit for “true adventurers,” succumbed to Plundered Hearts despite being “a traditionalist and quite conservative as well.”

I must admit it bothered me a bit at first — my character being hugged and kissed by a man. After the initial scenes, however, I quickly got lost in the plot, and soon my character’s sex honestly didn’t matter. One female QB reader wrote me that she enjoyed the game and gave it to a male friend who also liked it. He particularly liked changing clothes repeatedly.

Don’t you love the sound of prejudices collapsing? I complain from time to time, doubtless more than some of you would like, about the lack of diversity in so much ludic culture. Leaving aside politics and social engineering and even concerns about simple fairness, I think that Plundered Hearts serves as a wonderful example of why diversity is something to be sought and cherished. Amy Briggs’s unique perspective resulted in an Infocom game like no other, one that gives people like me a glimpse of what people like her see in all those trashy romance novels. In a world that could use more of that sort of understanding, that can only be a good thing. But we don’t even have to go that far. In a world that can always use better and more varied games, more and more diverse game designers is the obvious best way to achieve that.

Like a number of people I’ve written about on this blog who have long since gone on to lead other lives, Amy Briggs’s own relationship to the game she wrote all those years ago is in some ways more distant than the one some of its biggest fans enjoy with it. It crops up in her life on occasions scattered enough that they always surprise, like the time that a student knocked on her door at the university where she was teaching to ask in awed tones if she was “the Amy Briggs.” He had played Plundered Hearts ten years before with his sister — young male fans, Briggs notes bemusedly, are almost always careful to make that distinction — had loved it, just wanted to say thank you. Briggs’s own memories of her brief, unlikely career as a game designer remain a mishmash of nostalgia for “the best job I’ve ever had” with the still-lingering disappointment of Plundered Hearts‘s commercial failure — a commercial failure that, at the time and even now, is all too easy for her to conflate with its real or alleged artistic shortcomings. “There are actually people who think my game is really good,” she says with more than a tinge of disbelief in her voice. Yes, Amy, there are. We think your game is very good.

(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. Thanks again, Jason! Other sources include Infocom’s Status Line newsletters of Fall 1987 and Winter 1987, Questbusters of December 1987, and an XYZZY interview with Briggs.)


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