Infocom games and their followers, or what makes a good game

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?

This makes me wonder what you think of Scroll Thief.

I’m glad for the “it isn’t nostalgia” talking part – occasionally I will converse with someone about this stuff that assumes it must be nostalgia, these games are so old.

I’ve actually been too scared to try Scroll Thief for exactly these reasons. I’ll probably try it this month or next.

It’s not just Inform, either; when I tried Colossal Cave Adventure (after playing the Infocom games), it quickly became one of my favorite games; I loved the volcano view, and discovering the truth about the mysterious waving figure. I also loved ASCII and the Argonauts when I played it yesterday, and I’ve never played a Scott Adam’s game.

I’m surprised you didn’t like Augmented Fourth more, to be honest. It’s just as polished as an Infocom game, and almost as oldschool as the other games you liked.

BTW, you might enjoy…

Christminster (a personal favourite)
A Change In The Weather (approach with caution)

I wonder what you’ll make of Varicella…

The biggest thing for me in an IF game, post-Infocom, is when the author gives me a big reason to care about either the protagonist or game’s situation before I input my first command. I’ve grown very jaded of games where you’re plopped in a situation and just sort of expected to muck about for a few turns until you (as the player) discover something to “do.”

Pre-Internet, or in the Infocom days it didn’t matter to me because the games were expensive and there weren’t 6,000 other games that I’d like to try. But yeah, getting hooked on what the author writes as the initial text is really important to me. :slight_smile:

Thanks for your input. It’s interesting to see other people’s take on this.

@Peter, I’ve tried all of those games. I loved curses, disliked Christminster, and liked the others. Varicella is really cool but too dark for me.

By the way, do you like Level 9 or magnetic scrolls? I haven’t tried any of them yet.

The Level 9 games I’ve tried are of the “Erik the Viking” vintage. I’m very eager to graduate up to Knight Orc and Lancelot to see that they’re like.

Magnetic Scrolls are comparable with Infocom in some respects (in fact, you could compare Corruption to Deadline in general design), but whereas Infocom would often try to work WITH you, MS games often delight in being downright cruel. But my experience with MS so far has been limited. I would recommend “Fish!”, with the caveat that at some point you’ll want to take a deep breath and restart the second half of the game from scratch with a walkthrough in hand. But it’s worth playing.

Christminster is one I really really liked, so I’m always bemused when people say they didn’t like it - and a growing number of people are saying it. Ah well. :slight_smile:

Mind you, I also had a flat-ish response to Risorgimento Represso, but Augmented Fourth is one of those I would recommend three thumbs up.

I’m not sure I can articulate why, but I’d have to say that my favorite game of all time has to be A Mind Forever Voyaging. It’s not one of my ‘go-to’ games when I’m bored on the train, though, simply because it takes too long; for train trips, I tend to go for The Gostak, Suveh Nux, Ad Verbum, and maybe Balances or Kook University. After AMFV, or when it just doesn’t appeal, I do go for (in no particular order) Adventure (the 350-point version) and the Enchanter trilogy (especially Spellbreaker), when I’m at home and have a real computer to play on; I’ve also dabbled at Scroll Thief, Dual Transform, and a beta version of Parallel (I should look for an update).

Adventure 350 and the Zork/Enchanter trilogies are my favorites for the “go-to” aspect, though they don’t work as well on a phone without Trizbort or InvisiClues.

Well, I’m going to try Scroll Thief tonight. Thanks for the encouragement, guys!

Flowchart apps are good for mapping, and there are ZCode versions of the invisiclues for all Infocom games. :slight_smile:

Personally, I think part of what makes the Infocom games so appealing and timeless is their efficiency of words. People have such particular tastes about things like humor and prose that it’s easy to accidentally alienate readers. The humor in games like Zork is presented in such a subtle way that it becomes part of the puzzle of understanding this strange place.

Beyond that, I think word efficiency helps add to a feeling of immediacy, and it’s less taxing to keep track of everything that’s going on. The added sense of familiarity the player gets through that makes the experience that much more enjoyable.

I definitely agree with the OP about the darkness in Zork and most other Infocom games, even the “light” ones. My favourite is probably Trinity, and that begins with the nuclear annihilation of London, for goodness’ sake. I think it’s probably true in most forms of art that there’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy - take the slapstick and a bit of wordplay out of any stage or TV farce, and you’ve often got an absolutely horrible story at the core. The Importance of Being Earnest is about a nanny losing a baby in a handbag and running away rather than admitting it. Fawlty Towers is about a man with a monstrously unhappy marriage and a crumbling business, who takes out his aggression out on the powerless foreign waiter.

As to efficiency of words - this is so evident in the Scott Adams games, which I’ve been playing through recently because I’m thinking of mimicking their style in some mobile-oriented games. Ok, he was writing for home micros with tiny memories, but that’s what forced him to be efficient. The very terse descriptions work together with the fact that the settings are “cliches” - if you’re setting a game on a pirate island, and you take two paragraphs to describe a rum-soaked old buccaneer with an eye patch and a hook, that’s stagnant. But if you just say “There is a pirate here” (and by now you’ve established with the reader that that’s the sort of sentence they’re getting), you’re conjuring up the stock pirate that they already have in their mental files, and it stays vivid because you’re not going over it again.

So I tried Scroll Thief, and it was almost a reversal of the previous games. While the first act was well-polished and clever, it seemed aimless and had a sort of Mary Sue fanfiction feel (you happen to surprise ultra-powerful side-characters from the main work with your ability to learn astonishingly powerful magic without really trying to).

But the second act had everything I was looking for, including multiple solutions to difficult puzzles, a haunting atmosphere and location, more purpose, and a sense of danger and urgency. This made Scroll Thief more enjoyable for me personally than those four games I mentioned earlier, and than The Meteor, the Stone, and the Tall Glass of Sherbet (which I forgot when mentioning Zork-likes).

Another thing that made the game for me is the hints. They were maddeningly unspecific at times, so I (who always rely on walkthroughs) had to work out a lot of stuff on my own, but the previous hints made the last intuitive leaps manageable.

Thanks for the review! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

Do you have any suggestions for improving the first act? I’m still reworking parts of that: it’s been commented before that the Mary-Sue-esque bit was somewhat out of nowhere.

[spoiler]That part was based on a response in Balances: if you attempt to lleps gnusto or any other spell that is “yours forever”, it says “You know that spell too well for your mind to be able to accept the change.” But the character in Scroll Thief doesn’t yet know gnusto by heart, and the Enchanters would never give an untrained student access to yonk lest something go horribly wrong. The reason things didn’t go horribly wrong is because random spell failures drove me crazy while playing Spellbreaker. >.>

One alternate idea I’d had was requiring the player to serage the Enchanters, which would add a bit to the feeling of darkness but would feel somewhat anticlimactic. And it would prevent them from getting a lot of that info-dump, though that might not be a bad thing.[/spoiler]
And I definitely want to improve the aimlessness if possible.

Well, I think that having Helistar deliver the line is the main thing I find odd. I think your original characters do better, and that the sleeping librarian doesn’t say much, so if they delivered the line instead, even if Helistar was in the background, it would seem better.Although I would take anything I say with a grain of salt; criticizing is a lot easier than writing.

As for aimlessness, it might help to make the goals more explicit in the beginning. Why not leave after getting 4 or 5 spells? I think your character mentions in passing that they might want to hang around until they got 12 spells. You could give a more specific reason for that goal; maybe you really want to look around until you pick up a powerful spell, or maybe there’s a traditional special recognition for those enchanters who reach a dozen spells.

Anyways, thanks for writing it!

I’m sorry, but I have to chime in - I find it amusing that you’re giving suggestions on making the game less aimless when Ballyhoo is a personal favourite of yours. :slight_smile:

I’ve yet to play Scroll Thief, but I’ve never had a problem with “solving puzzles just because they’re there” - that’s the point of adventure games (when the puzzles are integrated with the story and don’t rip you out of it like Towers Of Hanoi can). I enjoy that bit. Ah well, the times they are a’changin’.

Well, they’ve been a-changing’ for years and by now they’re pretty well changed, actually. I always seem to be a decade behind.

Peter has a good point, I may not be the best person to give advice here :smiley: Following my suggestions may make someone else enjoy the game less…

Although with Ballyhoo, looking around IS your initial goal, so it makes sense to explore as much as you can. In Scroll Thief, your character has a spoken, clear goal that could technically be satisfied after the first few puzzles, so it’s harder to know when you’re done.

I’m totally not saying that. Someone who’s played and reviewed as many games as you have definitely has the right, even the duty, to give whatever advice you think’s best. I just found it amusing. :slight_smile:

And your point re Ballyhoo vs Scroll Thief is a good one.

The traditional special recognition is an excellent idea. I’m actually tempted to make it 14, because Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker each have 14 spells which can be copied into a spell book (including izyuk and golmac, excluding kulcad, girgol, etc), and it’s technically possible though very difficult to have 14 spells in your possession at the end of Act I. But the response to the alarm is triggered by getting that twelfth spell into the book, and I don’t know if players will think to copy it down or just keep searching because they don’t have 14 yet. I’ll experiment with that.

For the one with the spoiler tags in it, I’ll play around with that. I’ve been putting off rewriting that whole scene for too long and it really should be overhauled.

Would you like to be credited as “Craig Locke” or “mathbrush” or something else?