EMBARK ON THE ROAD TO ADVENTURE
A look at three games from infocomBy DAVID and SANDY SMALL
The first thing you notice about an Infocom
game is its packaging. Quite simply, Infocom produces the most imaginative
packages on the market. Remember the Suspended package, with
the skull-mask eyes that stare at you from counter tops? Or Deadline's
detective case file?
Enchanter, the first game in a new fantasy series from Infocom, features a blue package with a jagged crack running across it. Open the package, and you find a parchment with a wax-embossed seal, a well-written and clever game booklet and the game disk itself.
An authentic-looking parchment with a wax seal? Yes, computer games have come a long way from the days when you got a mimeographed instruction sheet and a disk in a baggie. And we find it a lot easier to pay a high price for this sort of class act. The people at Infocom are trying hard to make you feel like part of the story, and packaging is an important part of this effort.
Upon reading the booklet and opening the sealed parchment, you discover that Belboz, chief of the Circle of Enchanters, has discovered that a new and powerful force for evil in the world is gaining power daily. Belboz also knows that the Ancients had foreseen this dancer. According to a prophecy from some very old scrolls, the Ancients had divined that when this evil fell upon the land, "turning day into night," a new and inexperienced Enchanter should be the one to confront it. The Ancients felt that the evil force would disregard an inexperienced Enchanter, whereas a full member of the Circle of Enchanters would be challenged immediately.
Armed with four magic spells and a spell book, your task in Enchanter is to find and defeat the evil and powerful Krill. You journey past the Lonely Mountain (shades of Tolkien!) to Krill's castle, where you're in for all sorts of adventure.
This game differs from the Zork games in its lack of emphasis on the physical manipulation of objects (locating a key, for example) and its new emphasis on magical manipulation. Let's say that you arrive at a gate which is rusted shut. In Zork, you'd probably need to find some oil, lubricate the gate, and then push it open. In Enchanter, on the other hand, you need to cast the right spell to open the gate. To complete your task, you must discover enough spells to make your way past the various obstacles that block your path to Krill.
In some ways, there is a similarity between finding objects with which to manipulate your environment and casting spells, but we find the concept of casting spells far more romantic and exciting. Ah, if only we could discover a spell to repair the leaking gaskets on our Camaro.
JUST FRUSTRATING ENOUGH
We don't want to give away any of the solutions to the puzzles in this adventure; you'll have a great time figuring them out for yourself. We're growing much more comfortable with the Infocom games, and this one in particular, because they contain fewer of the "dead-end" puzzles that were found in the Zork series. Too many times in the earlier games, you'd come up against a puzzle that was unsolvable and that prevented you from advancing to the rest of the game. But in Enchanter, all sorts of subtle built-in aids help keep the game flowing smoothly. Indeed, we experienced just the right amount of frustration, if there is such a thing, until the end of the game. Earlier adventures tended to frustrate us needlessly.
Lebling and Blanc, who wrote the original mainframe and micro Zork games, also wrote Enchanter. Over time, they've mellowed a bit, veering away from puzzles with inconsistent environments that only a masochist could love (such as the Royal Puzzle in Zork III), and evolving a far smoother, and more sophisticated, style in which everything "hangs together." Since this is the key element that makes us like Enchanter so much, we'll try to explain further.
LOST IN THE STORY
When you're reading an engrossing novel, the worst thing that can happen is for the author to intrude and forcibly remind you that you're simply reading a book. The magic mood of the story is disrupted. This kind of intrusion happened frequently in the Zork series--for example, we recall an instance in which a flood-control dam shows up in the midst of an underground environment. Lebling and Blanc are both MIT graduates, so we can understand their tendency to emphasize the technology, but this sometimes gets in the way of the story. in the Zork games, the authors never let you forget that you're in the middle of a computer adventure written by computer programmers.
ENCHANTER IS DIFFERENT
But Enchanter is different. For the first time, we got the impression that the entire background story was laid out, the castle floormap designed, the history of the Circle of Enchanters written, and other groundwork completed before a single line of code was created. This is the only way to write a good, consistent fictional story (note, for example, the work that Tolkien did with the linguistic backgrounds of the Elves and Dwarves in Lord of the Rings). This is part of the process of creating a worthwhile story, and Infocom is doing it now.
Enchanter feels like a story, not a collection of puzzles loosely strung together. Perhaps this is due to the influence of the professional writers, such as Michael Berlyn, on infocom's staff. Perhaps Blanc and Lebling are growing as writers and moving away from a programmer's view of adventure games. Finally, it may be that Infocom's programming tools are improving: This program handles much more varied input than the Zork programs and doesn't crash as easily. Infocom seems to be starting to think of its creations as interactive stories, rather than simply as computer programs.
We'd like to finish our discussion of Enchanter with a few notes for Zork fans. First of all, do you remember the room in Zork III in which a scene from Zork IV can be viewed? Well, that scene-a blood sacrifice ritual-is included in Enchanter; thus, Enchanter could be called Zork IV. Secondly, a sequel to Enchanter, called "Sorcerer," is due out about the time you read this review. Finally, according to an "unnamed source" at Infocom, a third game, also in the works at this time, will turn the series into a trilogy!
THE REALM OF THE PYRAMIDS
Michael Berlyn wrote several adventure games before he joined Infocom; if you've seen 00-Topos or Cyborg, you're familiar with his earlier work. He's also published several books, so he's got credentials as both programmer and writer.
Infidel reveals the many sides of Berlyn. While it doesn't appeal as much to our deeper instincts as Enchanter does, it is still a good, well written game. in Infidel, you're a brash, young archaeologist. Tired of being an understudy to another explorer, you've decided to set out on your own. Alas, you don't know much about keeping your workers happy; when you demand that they work at the digs on a religious holiday, they drug your wine and leave you to die in the sun, as befits an infidel.
The game includes a great deal of historical information about the find you're exploring, along with details such as the letter you were writing when you passed out from the drugged wine, a map, several archaeological symbols, and a mysterious sketch of a cube remnant. Aside from these clues, though, you are on your own.
Infidel confronts you with a number of puzzles. You can solve most of them by manipulating objects in your environment and being observant. The program doesn't try to hide information from you (for instance, if there are six exits from a room, it tells you about all six), but it doesn't go out of its way to help you, either. Midway through the game you'll come across a puzzle that is a bit of a stickler. It will force you to experiment. One hint: If you don't get the bricks right the first time, they'll never work properly again, so you might as well RESTORE the game and try again. This will save you a great deal of time.
As you advance through the adventure, watch for traps and puzzles that are consistent with the technology and culture of the Age of the Pyramids-collapsing walls, deadly darts, one-way doors, bottomless pits, and the like (to avoid ruining the game for you, we've mentioned some traps that aren't actually included in Infidel). If you enjoyed the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," you know how to approach this game.
Suspense is very important in Infidel. In one room, for example, there are four exits. Each exit leads into a corridor with a door on the far end. As you walk down the corridor, the door in front of you gradually closes; by the time you reach the door, it is completely shut. Ah, but when you look over your shoulder at the opposite corner of the room, the opposite door is open-until, of course, you walk down that corridor.
A NEW KIND OF INVOLVEMENT
When you finish this game, you'll realize that you've been involved in a story that was written by an author who considers it as such. You are not borne off into the sunset on the backs of cheering elves, as in earlier adventure games. Nor do you become the heir to a kingdom, save the human race, or heal the Dark Crystal. Instead, the ending is entirely consistent with the story and its background. It feels right, even if it's not what you're used to in adventure games.
A COMEDY ADVENTURE
Planetfall comes in an impressive package that pictures a go-getting soldier against a background of stars. But this interstellar soldier is carrying a mop and bucket: He's been assigned to galactic k.p.!
You've joined the Stellar Patrol to escape the drudgery of farm life. Your primary goal: to avoid the task of cleaning up after all those farm animals. So, you join the Patrol-only to find yourself assigned to clean up the spaceship Feinstein.
Soon, however, an asteroid destroys your ship. As the sole survivor, you manage to land on a nearby planet, which just happens to be inhabited by a robot named Floyd.
Floyd is a bit like an insecure, highly affectionate dog, or perhaps a six-year-old child. He's constantly stumbling into you, knocking things out of your grasp, challenging you to games of "Hider and Seeker," and so on.
Together with Floyd (he won't let you leave him behind), you set off to explore the planet's buildings and corridors, and uncover a mystery about its former inhabitants. There's a lot of ground to cover, so get out a large sheet of paper and start mapping. You'll need the map by the time you're done.
We have mixed feelings about Planetfall. We got the distinct impression that Steve Meretsky, the author, either got tired of tying up loose ends or simply found that the fine game he'd designed didn't fit on a double-sided Atari disk, and had to be cut until it did. As a result, the game includes teleporter booths that lead nowhere, and a helicopter complete with instructions but with a control panel that can't be used.
We could be wrong, but it's always been Infocom's style to include just enough objects to complete a game, and there is an excess of material here. It's possible that Infocom has finally realized that there should be some excess material included in an adventure, so that you don't always know which objects need to be used. However, in this case, it doesn't appear that the excess was planned.
Planetfall does include a little gem of writing that saves it from mediocrity, and the game is worth playing just to find it. Other magazines have splashed this magic moment across their covers, thus ruining the game for their readers, but we feel that you should experience it for yourself. We gained a lot of respect for the game's author as a result of this special moment. We're pretty sure that you will too.
Infocom lists Planetfall as its first "Comedy Adventure." To be sure, there's a lot of humor in the game-you're tormented by an awful ensign named Blather-and many of the game's descriptions and responses are wonderful. However, as the author's first effort for Infocom, it is somewhat unsteady, although, clearly, a lot of thinking and work went into it.
Infocom continually produces the best-selling text adventure games. They can be contacted at: 55 Wheeler St., Cambridge, MA 02138. Telephone (617) 492-1031.
David and Sandy Small are contributing editors to Antic. They also have an abiding love of adventure games.