In the last year, I played several long, well-crafted, high-quality games that are in a Zork-like humorous magic world, including Risorgimento Ripresso, Speculative Fiction, Augmented Fourth, and Frobozz Magic Support. The first three could probably have been commercial games (the fourth is a bit shorter).
I had the same experience playing all four of these games. At first I was delighted with the settings and the writing. Each had a clever backstory or game mechanism that was intriguing. But after playing through some of the early puzzles, I began to get bogged down in the remaining puzzles, and Inwould lose interest, turn to a walkthrough, and watch the rest of the game, which was always funny and also very hard.
But the same thing didn’t happen to me for the original six Zork games. Those games I loved, and even when I looked for hints, it wasn’t because I was bored, it was only because I was stuck. Something about them really called out to me. Especially spellbreaker; I used to tell the story of that game to my toddler as a fairy tale and he loved it (“Tell me about the orange smoke guy!”).
Now for me, this isn’t nostalgia. I also played the Infocom games for the first time in my life this year. The only game I had played before was Zork.
So what made the Infocom games more fun for me? For me, I think that the four newer games missed a critical element of the early Zork games: the darker side. The Zork trilogy had a real sense of decay, dread, and wonder, with a lost empire, creepy sounds and animals, someone who locks you in a basement. Zork III especially had it. The enchanter trilogy continued with the dread and decay, with ancient demons and sacrifices and of course the events of Spellbreaker.
That same sense of decay is found in two Infocom-followers I really loved, Theater and Building, even though they were less polished than the four I mentioned above. That sense of decay is also found in the Lord of the Rings and in the King Arthur Legends. But the really polished games all seemed to lack that; in each one, you are a sprightly adventurer with a gleam in your eye who helps improve society, makes everyone happy, and goes home safe.
In the end, I feel it’s just like milk chocolate chips vs semisweet. Semisweet is more popular because the bitterness offsets and compliments the sweetness. In the same way, real sadness can add a lot to a funny game.
These are just my thoughts. I know a lot of people aren’t into the old Infocom games, but I’d be interested in hearing your feedback. What do you think makes for a good ‘funny’ game? What kind of story (not necessarily funny) draws you in?