Gold Machine: Ballyhoo August 14 Update

The next game up for discussion is Jeff O’Neill’s Ballyhoo. It’s a curious case for a number of reasons and is, in its way, emblematic of middle-late Infocom.

I’ve started with a brief discussion of the conditions of production at Infocom, beginning with my unpopular assertion that Infocom’s “golden age” ended with the publication of Sorcerer in 1985. This all leads to an assessment of Infocom’s financial and critical fortunes in the years hence. I hope you’ll stick around for the duration!

As always, discussion is welcome. I love talking about this stuff!


This is one of my favorite Infocom games, I just like the setting a lot and the way that time is linked to puzzle solutions instead of turn counts.

Actually, the setting in my game Color the Truth was an attempt to update the setting of Ballyhoo; by the 1980’s, circuses were already an older, dying institution of the distant past that brought nostalgia but also was decidedly dated. So for Color the Truth, written 30 years later, I tried to find some other institution that mostly died off around 30 years later than circuses, and I hit on radio stations.

Edit: I’m definitely in the minority on Ballyhoo, I haven’t seen a lot of people rank it as an above-average Infocom game, even if they find it generally acceptable.


I agree. It has issues, but the setting and structure make it a unique and very influential game. The result feels more modern than a lot of other Infocom games. I guess I’m an outlier, too!


Gold Machine’s discussion of Ballyhoo continues with a critical introduction focusing O’Neill’s innovative approach to temporal and narrative progression.


Still more Ballyhoo, with a focus on its tonal and geographical uniqueness.


To my knowledge, Ballyhoo is the only Infocom game to use the word “soulful.”

Well, that’s just daring me to check, isn’t it.

With dreamy slowness you begin to fall back upon your laurels for the long, soulful respite you have so well deserved. In the enclave of your dreams the clarion voice of a herald is given forum:

“We, the members of the Citizens’ Action Committee of Punster, do hereby honor your exploits in delivering our town of the nefarious crime of wordplay. Punster has once again returned to a life of trusting normalcy. […]”

(Nord and Bert, of course.)


Ah, yeah my transcript is incomplete for N&B. Both O’Neill. Only implementer, I should say.

Thanks for checking, I’ll update the article.


Even before the source code release a few years ago, I kept a directory with a txd string dump of every Infocom game. Just for questions like this.


Ah, that’s a good thought! I have pretty complete transcripts (N&B notwithstanding), but that’s never as authoritative as a text dump.

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Ballyhoo is the first narrative game to be geographically and thematically grounded in a circus. Not an abandoned circus grounds, mind you, but a real, operating circus with performers and animals!

Even if not precisely a circus, Scott Adams’s Mystery Fun House seems quite close, with the puzzles based around the attractions, performers, guests, and staff.


Cliff Johnson’s At the Carnival was later than Ballyhoo, but only by three years. (1986 vs 1989.) This surprised me when I checked the dates.

The 1980 Prisoner game included a carnival puzzle. One building of the twenty on the Island was “The Carnival”. You have to buy a clown suit to enter.

The player (#) is standing on the left side of a teeter-totter. If you type WT at the prompt, it drops a weight on the right side, sending you flying in a graceful arc to pop the balloon (O).

(Go ahead, guess the puzzle solution.)


Brian Howarth’s Circus, (Mysterious Adventures #6) came out in 1982.


I think readers will enjoy hearing about these other games, so I’ll add a section at the end of the article for them.

I’ve played through Circus but not Mystery Fun House. The Prisoner is its own, awesome thing. I will hopefully get to writing about it one of these days…


Thanks so much for your series, Drew - I’m enjoying it a lot - and the podcasts have been great too.

Ballyhoo has a special place for me - it was the third Infocom game I played and the first that I completely ground to a halt with - yet I came back to it and completed it last year in a feat of heavily hint-induced nostalgia. Back in the late 80s, I remember checking in at my dad’s computer for hours to try to get beyond the sideshow characters by endlessly quizzing them about the show and each other. It felt like trying to solve some kind of zen koan whodunnit - I just had no idea how to make the game progress. But like you, I still loved the atmosphere and tone of the piece and feel that this game is perhaps Infocom’s flawed masterpiece - if only I’d had a copy of the Invisiclues!

Taking you up on your invitation, I want to talk about the puzzle that I DID solve back then and why I still feel that it’s a genius piece of design. I don’t know how much the structure has been used since but it feels such a generative idea that I’d welcome people telling me other games which have used it. So the sequence I’m talking about is the Rimshaw hypnosis.

Here goes:

So in this sequence, as most people reading probably know, [spoiler]

you have to explore your memories by undergoing hypnosis with Rimshaw. I find this totally brilliant on a couple of levels. First up, memories are great for limiting player agency - after all, the author has the option to state that they happened a certain way without irritating the player as much as this might in the story’s present.

Secondly, solving the past dynamically alters the story’s present. In the case of the performance episode, the player is really hungry and has to solve a quick maze of the crowd, deal with a Murphy’s Law set of queues and then get a quite literal monkey off their back. If they can do all these and get back to the hawker, they are rewarded with PROGRESS in the present. I just find this so clever! In Ballyhoo, it lets the player search the garbage under the bleachers again and find the granola bar that they can use to unlock another sequence of puzzles. Until they have seen their memory of the granola bar fall, they can’t access finding it in the present. As a reward, the granola bar seems a bit of a anticlimax as I write

[/spoiler] - but this structure just seems ripe to be repeated across a game. Has anybody done something like this in other games?

Thanks for starting this trip down memory lane - look forward to the next part.


Thanks for coming along on this journey! I couldn’t agree more; that one (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers) is among my favorite Infocom puzzles. What a wildly inventive mechanic! I’ll be writing about it next time, and I hope you’ll enjoy the piece.


The last one is up. It’s a wide-ranging piece that talks starts with Nelson’s triangle of identities, returns to a favorite subject of mine, influence, before talking about subjectivity as an important ingredient in O’Neill’s narrative strategy.

Trinity is next; I won’t be touching Fooblitzky. I mentioned doing a let’s play a while back, which I am still happy to do if there is interest.

If someone else is planning to do one, that’s fine. Just putting the idea out there.


The difference is largely existential: declaring sex is important because it is a choice. Some pronouns shift based on the decision, but such cases are surprisingly few (I welcome corrections from people familiar with the code).

That’s my cue, I guess…

(SPOILERS follow)

Looking at the code, these are dialogue differences based on gender:

“This [clown/chick] given you trouble?”
“There is the perpetrator. Shoot [him/her].”
“Well, [brother/sister], step right up – I don’t care what’s your sickness…”
“Romance: A [woman of mysterious beauty/tall handsome stranger] will soon come into your life…”

Also, in the chase scene, the dealer will punch a male PC in the gut, but merely shove a female PC away.

I see just two other differences: the blind guard and the fat lady each have a special failure response to KISS, but only if you’re of the opposite gender.

Of course, he’s your blind date.
The fat lady is far too distant for your affection.

The puzzle solution about kissing the fat lady’s hand is not gender-specific, but curiously there is a comment in the source indicating that it used to be!

  (T            ;<FSET? ,BLUE-BOX ,RMUNGBIT>

In I6 this would be something like:

  if (true)     ! if (blue-box has punched)

The gender test is commented out, so the action always succeeds, but it seems like it wasn’t conceived that way. In some earlier draft, if you were a female PC, you’d have to use a different action (I think SHAKE or RUB).

Overall, the approach seems rather one-step-forward-one-step-back. The game can’t really think of any gender expression other than “you’re trying to romance someone” (HETERONORMATIVITY ON) or “a male NPC has a dimly chivalrous impulse.”


Thanks for that! While Ballyhoo is forward-looking in terms of its rhetoric, I would not call it a progressive game. Tina, Andrew Jenny, and Comrade Thumb have problems that warrant attention. The choice of “sex” and assumptions regarding sexual norms are of the same cloth and sadly not surprising.

Perhaps it should not seem so momentous, being asked in the first place, and yet.


I’ve been thinking about my approach to Trinity, since it is a capital-B capital-G Big Game and the favorite of many.

I am interested in doing a Let’s Play of it, but I know others have expressed interest in doing one. That’s fine, too! If I am to do it, I’d like to confirm that there’s interest. Don’t worry, you don’t need to talk me into it. Saying you’ll follow and/or participate is enough. Really, just a few people would make it worthwhile.

Alternately, if someone else would like to do it: I got to do Spellbreaker, another game lots of people like, so I don’t feel territorial about this. Let me know if you would like to take a crack at it! I don’t mind at all.

(note: if you do want to do it, I’m not suggesting you do it now. this is not a pressure tactic.)

Just checking…


I’d definitely follow it!

(You’ve also convinced me to add Ballyhoo to my to-play pile).