Infocom's Magic System

With Planetfall completed, Enchanter is the next game that I will be writing/podcasting about for my Infocom playthrough.

Having just completed Enchanter again, I recall how amazed I was at the extensibility of Infocom’s technology (I didn’t know what ZIL was in the 1980s, or if I did, I didn’t understand). First, a mystery, and now this. It seemed to me that there was nothing Infocom couldn’t do.

I was interested in Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D specifically) at the time, so the key elements of copying scrolls to the spellbook, memorization, and spellcasting were recognizable to me.

We’ll see how things evolve as the project continues, but I think my new/old favorite Infocom game is Enchanter. It’s innovative, has a reasonably designed map, and has a few of my favorite Infocom puzzles.

General thoughts on Enchanter? The trilogy? Subsequent Inform games that either use or pay tribute to Infocom’s magic system?


Balances by Graham Nelson and Scroll Thief by Daniel Stelzer come to mind. (Maybe you know these already, sorry, wasn’t sure whether you were asking for thoughts on them or whether such games exist. :slight_smile: )

Sorry for my lack of clarity. I’m looking for thoughts on the games. I have both games downloaded (and several other Nelson games besides).

It’s hard to know what to prioritize. While I usually read IFDB reviews, responses to what Jimmy Maher calls the “neo-classical” period are sometimes hard to parse (heheheh). Over the years, ratings tend to decrease, and concerns over scarcity of plot, friendliness, and cruelty take up a greater and greater amount of critical real estate.

I suppose there is nothing to do but play them all (only 25 Infocom games to go!), which I will do, but the thoughts of readers who enjoy older fare are welcome.


Also Spiritwrack and Perilous Magic.


I played a pirated copy of Enchanter with a friend, and found it absolutely fascinating. It was always a thrill to find a new spell. It remains one of my favorite Infocom games. Some years later, when I finally found a way to order the games from the US (finding them in Sweden was impossible, at least for the Mac), the Enchanter Trilogy slipcase was the first thing I ordered, along with Deadline and Trinity, as I recall it.

Clearly I was off to a great start! Unfortunately, the product catalog they sent me was the Summer 1988 issue of The Status Line. (Later, I got what must have been an early version of the “INFOCOM’S NEW GRAPHICS WILL BLOW YOU OUT OF THE WATER” brochure, because it has some notable differences compared to other versions I’ve seen.) Little did I know that Infocom had already released their last text-only games and would soon be gone.

I think Enchanter is a standout game in almost every way. The setting may be hackneyed now, but I’m not so sure it was back then. Not being a native English speaker, I wouldn’t dare to judge the writing. But almost every place you visit seemed pretty vivid to me, and the characters you encounter are memorable each in their own way. I like that you are given access to most of the map from the start. I didn’t mind the hunger, thirst and sleep daemons one bit (on the contrary, I thought the dreams added a lot to the game). The puzzles are well done, and some quite memorable.

The only place where I remember struggling with the parser was the rat hole in the library.

I enjoyed Sorcerer and Spellbreaker too, just not quite as much. Sorcerer has some stand-out puzzles too, but the the map feels less coherent and less memorable. I can’t explain it better than that. Also, I think I was one of the players who missed the vitally important vilstu potion early in the game, and had to replay it.

Spellbreaker is… I’m a bit torn. The map is so fragmented that you don’t get much sense of where you are. For me, that takes away some of the thrill of exploration. On the other hand, the places you visit are once again mostly memorable. There are lots of puzzles to solve, and they’re mostly good. There is one involving the gold box that I still don’t see how you’d figure out on your own, and there’s another one involving two piles of cubes that I wish was a little bit more forgiving. But I think it succeeds admirably in what I imagine it set out to do. The ending was a bit unexpected, but worked for me. (I was not surprised when I read later that one of the inspirations for the series was Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books.)

As for games that paid tribute to it, I remember enjoying The Meteor, The Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet a lot, but it’s been many years and I remember very little details about it. I have some vague memories of the general setting and occasional puzzles, and I remember that it sets up a joke in the opening paragraph that I thought had a great pay-off much later in the game.

1 Like

Oh, it was. But that was Infocom’s stock in trade. They wanted you to feel instantly familiar with the landscape and the tropes so that you could get traction with the puzzles.

Trinity is their only game that presented a really original vision. Aside from the general strain of Frobozz/Flathead fantasy-satire silliness – that descended from the original Zork, and waxed and waned throughout their catalog. Enchanter didn’t have much of it. (Beyond Zork had a lot.)


It certainly wasn’t to me as an 11 year-old, though of course it looks a little different now. I thought the writing shone, not in terms of plot, but in terms of puzzle setups. I think the IF-specific writing was good. Things are well-clued, and the humor (my favorite is the guarded door) is genuinely funny.

I also thought there were nice touches of underlying seriousness–I consider this a Zork staple–the nights get longer, the Zork-like abandoned village, the increasingly aggressive minions (like the nearby stomping in Wishbringer, it’s a nice source of pressure). There is a sense of escalation that is only present if looked-for.

To me, this is another form of “soft” copy protection. The manuals for many early Infocom games contain verbs that may or may not occur to the player otherwise. The BOTH construction in Suspended is one example. People give Deadline a hard time because who would ever SEARCH NEAR anything? Only it is in the manual, so the player knows it’s necessary. I’m not sure where else the player would use SEARCH NEAR. perhaps the crime scene.

This is a lot of words to say: REACH is in the manual (which yes, posed problems for me and my pirated copy).

I think Spellbreaker is widely considered the best of the trilogy, but I really can’t agree. Since you’ve been reading the blog, you know it’s a pet peeve of mine to encounter “brain teaser” puzzles that don’t have a lot to do with the game world. The cube puzzle is doable but it’s a hassle and I really dislike doing it when I just want a transcript for quotes.

The ending is fantastic, though–which makes problems for me in Beyond Zork.

Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve downloaded it and will play it as soon as I have time.

1 Like

Spellbreaker does have a few of those, but I thought they were at least somewhat well integrated into the game. My memory of Zork Zero (which I haven’t played in many years) is that it had a lot more of them, and that they felt more out of place.

I think the cube puzzle in Spellbreaker works well enough. But I wish it did give you just a few more moves to finish it, because I’m more interested in the puzzle itself than finding an optional solution. Also, back when I originally played it I incorrectly assumed that the real cube was always “heavier” than the others, when it can actually be “lighter” as well and couldn’t understand why I seemed to mess up the puzzle half of the time.

1 Like

This is true, Z0 is the title holder. I’m not surprised the Eaten by a Grue folks haven’t dropped the episode yet.

Still, to me, two piles of cubes in a vault feels too videogamey, or like something in an old issue of Games magazine. I don’t have a problem with it mechanically (though it is tricky). I just don’t like its characterization or place in the narrative.

I get some players enjoy that kind of thing, but I think Zork III soured me on the tactic for good. Just one of those things that winds me up. Maybe unreasonably, but I’m probably too old to change my mind.

I agree about the map of Sorcerer’s world, but there are some all-time great puzzles. While it was ultimately a step back for me, I think Steve Meretzky had the highest “batting average” in terms of puzzle design. It isn’t until Zork Zero that there’s a decline in quality. I lay the blame (at least some of it) at the feet of the size/scope of the game. Must have been hard to fill it out.

1 Like

Martin Gardner. It’s a very well-known classic (was already in the 80s). The hard limit of three moves is a standard part of the puzzle – it forces you to find the trick of rearranging the groups of cubes between weighings. Without that, solving the puzzle is just repetitive work.


Thanks for this name! I knew that the “coins on a scale” problem existed outside of Spellbreaker, but I did not know how familiar it would have been at the time.

Anyway, Gardner sounds fascinating, so I look forward to learning more about him and his career

Surprised that I’d never heard the term “Recreational Mathematics.” Would be a great name for a band.

1 Like

I apologise in advance if this is vague. It’s a long time since I’ve played any of the Enchanter series. (Just to confuse matters, I think I played Sorcerer and Spellbreaker long before Enchanter, since I got S&S among half a dozen original versions for the Amstrad PCW (3" disks!).)
I love Enchanter. I think it’s got much more atmosphere than Zorks I/II/III. Sorcerer is my favourite Infocom game for puzzles. (I found the bit where you travel back in time amazing.) I found it very hard, though (and Spellbreaker is even harder). Wishbringer is my favourite Infocom game overall, though. (I know, you’re thinking “what a wimp!” :slight_smile:)
The spell system is great and I’m glad it carried over into more Infocom games than I can remember.
(Which is the Infocom game with the spell that lets you teleport to people? I remember teleporting to the author… which put me in Cambridge, MA, where I started choking on the traffic fumes and was then killed by a mugger!)

:grinning: Back when Scientific American was a lot more fun, they had a regular column on recreational mathematics written by Martin Gardner for 25 years. (I think that was what introduced me to Conway’s Life.) He wrote some books, too, though some of them were hard to come by the last time I tried.
Talking of puzzles ‘everyone’ knows, I was once asked to do a team-building exercise based around the cabbage/goat/human/small boat puzzle. I said that not only was I familiar with the solution but I’d written the puzzle into 2 games (1 using Inform 6(?), the other TinyMUD)!

Then there was the time someone gave me a Tower of Hanoi with 7 discs. “No problem,” I thought, “127 moves and done.” It turned out my arm gets tired long before 127 moves :grinning:
Sorry, I’ll stop rambling.

1 Like

For whatever reason, I had an easier time with Sorcerer than I did with Enchanter. While I wish the map and progression made more sense, the GOLMAC (my web address includes GOLMAC) puzzle has to be one of Infocom’s very best. All of Sorcerer’s spells are well-clued and make intuitive sense.

Not at all! We chose Wishbringer for the first episode of the podcast because we love it and assume that others of good taste do, too :wink:

In Sorcerer you can AIMFIZ MERETZKY

aimfiz meretzky
As you cast the spell, the moldy scroll vanishes!

You appear on a road in a far-off province called Cambridge. As you begin choking on the polluted air, a mugger stabs you in the back with a knife. A moment later, a wild-eyed motorist plows over you.

****  You have died  ****

Did you find Zork Zero challenging? It has a reputation for using familiar puzzles. It sounds like you may have already been familiar with them. I tend to fare better with intuitive/observation/information management puzzles. I do manage to bang my way through logic/math problems, but they aren’t my forte.

Thanks for the posts, I enjoyed hearing about your experiences.

1 Like

What I most remember about it is that I was making a map of it in Visio. When I was at least half-way through, I went to save the map, the computer hung, and, when I rebooted, the map was gone! :sleepy:
(And the moral is, Bruce: make frequent backups!)
(I seem to remember reading that it’s easy to miss something (or not pick something up) in the first half of the game which makes it impossible to win the second half without restoring way, way back. Is that true?)


That takes me back. I used to use Visio all the time back in the old IT days.

Oh, no. That is what I remember most clearly about Zork Zero: The massive map, and repeatedly crossing it.

That certainly sounds like something that could happen, but I don’t remember. I replayed every Infocom game last year for the blog. Well, not every game. I stopped at Zork Zero. It just seems so massive and filled with puzzles that I can solve, but don’t really want to. I know I’ll have to tackle it eventually, but I’ve got a lot of time (I’ve only just reached Enchanter).

It’s one of a very small number of Infocom games that I do not like. I don’t know if you’d enjoy it or not, but it does sound like you would find several of its puzzles easy (or familiar) based on your interest in recreational mathematics.

While I don’t have any special insight into Zork Zero’s development, I’ve always imagined that it was made as a last, desperate effort to release a hit game. It feels like Meretzky may have preferred working on something else, and the circumstances at Infocom had to have been quite grim. To me, Stationfall is his last, great game (e: at Infocom). It’s one of my favorites.

1 Like

I think this is sorta true but sorta not? Per Jimmy Maher:

Much more detail at the link.

As for the nominal subject of the thread, I’m someone who came late to the Infocom canon – I’m like 5 years too young to have really gotten into them the first time, and bar a copy of Wishbringer in my sixth-grade classroom that I banged at in desultory fashion a few times, only went back to them well after getting into post-2000 amateur IF. I played about a third of the Infocom games three or four years ago, including the full Enchanter trilogy (though I’ve never played any of the Zork games).

I’d say Enchanter was maybe my second or third favorite of those I played, with Plundered Hearts the obvious winner and Lurking Horror the one it was jostling. It does have a good mix of puzzles that are reasonably solvable and reasonably grounded, and the magic system adds just enough business to make it feel like you’re doing something other than cash in plot coupons without being overly fiddly. The environment is a little boring, and the overall story pretty generic, but there are worse crimes.

(Sorcerer I found too much of a funhouse, and the puzzles in Spellbreaker were way too hard for me to find enjoyable).


I think that the Zork games can be hard for post-Infocom players to enjoy. Viewing it as innovative is easier for those who experienced it as a technological leap forward. I imagine that it might be a bit like reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene was for me as a graduate student of English. I experienced it as important rather than enjoyable.

A very strong line-up! And I agree with your assessment of the trilogy. Spellbreaker was one of a very small number games for which I needed a hint. I usually just put them on the back burner until inspiration strikes, but I was getting absolutely nowhere.

If we look at Enchanter as an evolution of the Zork model (open map, treasure hunt) then it definitely feels like an improvement in almost every way. What I like best is its treasure hunt, which is, as you say,

The treasures (scrolls) are actually useful. They make it possible to find more treasures, and so on. Instead of the checklists of Zork we get an actual gameplay loop


That makes sense – the other barrier for me is a phenomenon my brain has labelled the Simpsons Effect, after the experience of watching a movie well after I’ve seen the Simpsons episode parodying it. Just by virtue of being an IF fan for a couple decades, I’ve played a lot of stuff that’s parodied, inverted, tweaked, or otherwise responded to Zork (some of it quite good – I loved Robin Johnson’s Gruesome in last year’s ParserComp) so going back to the source feels like it might be anticlimactic?

As long as I’m commenting here, I wanted to say I’ve been enjoying your blog! I had a thought about one of your Planetfall entries that I never got around to writing up as a comment, but no time like the present. In your second post on the game, you wrote:

I think these jokes–which are quite clever–landed differently when I first saw them in 1993. Today, it’s hard to see enlistment separated from the realities of class or financial pressures. Moreover, the human costs of decades-long military engagement in the middle east certainly complicate this 1980s delineation of “good” and “bad” assignments.

Given Meretzky’s left-leaning politics, and the time when the jokes were written, maybe Vietnam might be part of the (already-complicated?) context? Again, I’m too young to have firsthand experience or opinions here, but I think there was a lot of quote-unquote humor around then riffing on the disjunction between the lofty promises of recruiters and politicians, and the ugly realities of service as a grunt. I agree that Planetfall sticks to goofiness rather than digging into satire in any real way, but still, I suspect some contemporary players might have had stuff like that in mind when they encountered those jokes.

1 Like