Gold Machine’s 10(!)-part series on A MInd Forever Voyaging concludes Monday the 16th. It’s been very well received, even gathering attention as featuring one of the best bits of video game blogging in 2022. However, it’s time to move on, and I’m excited about what’s next: Spellbreaker, the last work in the six-game Zork Saga (or Cycle).
Spellbreaker is in my personal top 10 of all-time games.
For me, I like its modular nature and the interconnection between modules.
-The theming of modules after elements makes for really wildly different settings that can still mesh with each other. Darkness, water, fire, etc. give it more variety than most games.
-the tight memory constraints made this big game better, because it forced them to use puzzles that have simple solutions to execute but difficult to come up with the solution for.
-collecting cubes and gaining wild abilities from spells gave the game a nice sense of progression, and the stakes get higher and higher.
-the interconnections between modules really amps up the complexity, having to use items from one world in another.
-the heavy use of one-shot items gives a ton of the complexity here. Sure, you can solve this puzzle with this item. But you’ll never have it again. In a more spread out game this would be deeply unfair, but this game is really compact. It can become a sort of optimization puzzle.
-the ability to customize your cubes was really cool
Standouts to me are the time travel puzzle and the emotional impact it has, the dark world and the way it’s described, and the very hard fish puzzle.
A lot of my favorite later games were heavily influenced by this one, including Curses! and Endless, Nameless (I think, given the Roc and spells, maybe not).
I would read through a let’s play.
It is really hard, and I mostly tried without a walkthrough, but used on in the end.
It has the “one-use scroll which solves multiple puzzles” structure, which is of course my favorite Infocom invention. And a time-travel puzzle, which is also high on my list of puzzle tropes. But it embeds these in a more open world than either Enchanter or Sorcerer.
The puzzles are a bit more piecemeal than in earlier games. In particular the twelve-coins is kind of a misfire – a poorly-integrated old chestnut. But other than that, all satisfying, with a solid open-ended “do something unexpected” ending scene.
Enchanter is very atmospheric but in a way that’s still trying to find its legs—it’s not always sure how to execute the darker, more serious tone than Zork. Sorcerer went the other direction with full Zork goofiness. Spellbreaker is where the trilogy finally figured out what tone it wanted and managed to execute it.
EDIT: Zork III went for something similar, and I love the tone of e.g. the Aqueduct and the feeling of melancholy in the ruins of the Empire. But the game experience itself is a lot less satisfying than Spellbreaker.
Absolutely. This is a game I could never beat without a walkthrough. I’d say it’s also a great candidate for a Let’s Play.
I think the ending was well-executed and I think making the player be actively involved in it was a great step forward in the literary side of IF. Heavy-handed, true, but there’s a certain sort of authorial finesse involved in ramping up the tension and then leading the player to figure out the only possible solution to the problem.
I don’t think the games really sold us on why magic had to be destroyed, and I think it would have been more bittersweet and satisfying if the earlier games (and, hell, even Spellbreaker itself) had really played that up. But I can’t think of really any earlier IF that involved the player in an ending of this sort (though I suppose Infidel qualifies); Trinity would then continue in this vein.
Thanks for the replies, all. I don’t want to steal my own critical thunder, so for now I’ll just say that you’ve touched on a lot of the major considerations. I’ve always said that Enchanter was more consistent, but the highs of Spellbreaker are the best moments in the entire cycle. Among some of Infocom’s best, in fact.
I’ll also add that the single greatest flaw of Zork III was the decision to use everything from Dungeon. If Mark Blanc had written it from the ground up, I think it would have been a far better conclusion to the first trilogy.
I might admire it more now that I’m trying to write my own game. Using the rockslide to teach the player how to correctly cast GIRGOL during the endgame is truly inspired. Genius, even. There are other parts that I admire just as much.
I think it would be fun to talk about these things (and others) during a playthrough. I’ll ask around in other venues to see if people would like to follow along (and discuss, of course).
I voted Enchanter; there are a lot of individually impressive pieces of Spellbreaker - including the ending, destroying all magic is a trope I really enjoy - but the overall package is too hard for me, and the setting feels a bit too dead and abstract for my taste.
One thing I really like about parser IF is the way environmental storytelling allows you to understand the history of a place (I forget if I’ve said out loud that I think this makes for an interesting connection point between IF and immersive sims?), and while Sorcerer was frustrating on that score because it was too zany, in Spellbreaker I found that while the mood obviously shifted a lot, I had a similar feeling that these themed planes and nameless ruins were puzzle environments first and foremost.
(This is also why I’ve never made it more than fifteen minutes into Starcross - all those anonymous color-coded hallways turn me off almost immediately).
Anyway I’d dig a Let’s Play - obviously a big fan of those in general and I think your thoughts and close reading would be very worthwhile!
Aww. It’s true they’re color-coded for the player’s convenience, but there’s a lot of implicit history in the various alien encampments!
I think Starcross is really Infocom’s first attempt to do environmental storytelling. Zork 1/2/3 were neutral-zany to neutral-grim with only fragments of Flathead history behind them; Deadline was single-mindedly contemporary. Starcross had an implicit deep history of this Big Dumb Object passing through one solar system after another, picking up hapless spaceships as it went.
I liked enchanter (the first in the series) because the spell casting system felt fresh, the character of ‘the adventurer’ was so brilliantly written, and there were several other brilliantly designed puzzles also.
Spell breaker was a well written game, certainly, but it was just too damn hard. The time-stop puzzle on the cliff face is memorable, but I never got much beyond there. Among other challenges, I didn’t figure out that you could label the cubes until years later, which left me juggling a lot of identical cubes, trying to remember which was which based on their location in my inventory list. Frustrating.
Did someone mention Starcross? I know that this isn’t where most people are coming from, but as a lit student I read a lot of books that I didn’t like. I don’t enjoy George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans (though many people do) for instance, but she’s generally considered an important writer for a number of reasons. So I’ve read her! I would argue that most Infocom games (at least through Trinity) are similarly important as a matter separate from their capacity for fun or entertainment. Why else would I have played Seastalker?
That said, I actually do love Starcross. I think it’s fairer than Spellbreaker. It’s tough as nails, but very reasonably clued. I think its penchant for zombification makes it hard for contemporary audiences to access, but what else is new?
We see Dave Lebling grow as a game designer. His “maze that isn’t a maze” from Zork II is a famous failure, but his second attempt with the weasel village is outstanding.
Anyway! I agree with Zarf’s comments re: environmental storytelling. Zork is interesting as a post-colonial text, but that’s a consequence of the culture that produced it. Starcross is a more intentionally wrought world. In that it is like the first half of Zork III, only committed to the follow-through. My big complaint is that it’s excessively sparse, even though Starcross is 24K (I think) smaller than Deadline. That was a lot of space in those days!
It sounds like there is enough interest to do a let’s play, and it makes sense to start before the Gold Machine essays start dropping. So… within the week, I think? I need to consider my approach. Should be fun!
Yeah, I am more than willing to believe that the fault lies not in Starcross but in myself. It seems like the kind of thing I should enjoy - I remember reading and really enjoying Rama, which it’s pretty directly riffing off of - and I’ve read multiple appreciations of it that seem convincing. But I tried it after I got to that part of Jimmy Maher’s blog; between the giant, bland map and the timers, I bounced right off. Then when you got to it, Drew, I tried again and bounced right back off it again.
Perhaps this is a sign that I’ll be third-time lucky, but there’s enough IF I haven’t played (heck, I’ve still never played more than ten minutes of any of the Zork games!) that I think it’s better to just write this one off - or enjoy a Let’s Play if one’s on offer!
[Yes, I am familiar with Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, and Wishbringer. I don’t see them as part of the Zork cycle, even though they occur in the Zork universe. They are a bit like Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (though Wishbringer is a good kind of problem). Stick around for Gold Machine’s eventual discussion of those games!]
Spellbreaker was the second Infocom IF I bought – in Germany most retailers did not stock all titles, so Zork was not available at that time and I wanted a new game so badly, the first one was actually Suspended (in that odd blue Commodore packaging). So, of course, I may be biased and I could of course not appreciate what Spellbreaker really was up until I played the other “magic” titles, I must say that the way it handles magic is so, so good - it’s hard to vote for anything else on this list