Review: Ballyhoo

(An absolutely fantastic Infocom classic. I had tons and tons of fun.
Ballyhoo - Details (

A lot loafer doing some Johnny Tin Plate-cherry pie on the side.

Yes. That’s just one of the great things about Ballyhoo : you get to learn circus-lingo.

After overhearing the circus boss talking to an obviously incompetent private detective about the disappearance of his daughter, you decide to do some investigating yourself. No other motivation than your protagonist’s whim. Works for me…

So you start the game and soon find that…

Ballyhoo is pure puzzle and comedy gold.

The comedy comes from many different sources.
There is the persistent atmosphere of a somewhat run-down circus. There are mislaid props and animal odours and filthy rags for banners. One of the trailers is off kilter, an old and warped attraction front serves as part of the fence, one of the lions is skinny and shaggy… This atmosphere doesn’t get depressing because it’s offset by detailed and colourful descriptions.

The prose is really good. The room and action descriptions are clear but also playful, and there are some hilarious cutscenes (I include deathscenes in the “hilarious cutscene”-category…) A lot of the comedy comes from the protagonist winding up in awkward situations and uncomfortable circumstances (trying to navigate a tightrope 20 feet up in the air, finding your way through the crowd searching for your cotton-candy). Many times I laughed at the almost slapstick shenanigans needed to complete one or other task.

During your investigation, you’ll meet many outlandish characters. When you (the player) stop and think about it, these NPCs are no more interactive or conversational than a cardboard cutout, but they are so well drawn that their stand-offish behavior and reluctance to answer your questions seems perfectly natural in-game. And they are marvelous just as they are. A collection of wonderful circus-artistes to gawk at.

Other funny features were the many, many instances of wordplay and punnery in the responses to “wrong” commands. My favorite was GET OUT OF LINE when exiting the line in front of a food stand (the game describes your character raving and ranting and jumping up and down in anger, i.e. behaving “out of line”…)

As I said above, the puzzles in Ballyhoo are really top shelf. Beautifully hinted and clued. Very rewarding, in the searching for clues as well as in the discoveries after solving them.
When I came across a puzzle, I always could picture a vague general plan to tackle it. And it always turned out that I had missed a necessary step or forgot to bring an important object, throwing me off-balance again. Wonderful! And it always made sense in hindsight.

A small criticism: although I loved solving the puzzles for their own sake, and a joy to solve they were, I rarely had any idea why I was jumping through these hoops.
Of course I’m going to try to get in the lion’s cage if I find out it’s locked. Why? Because I’m playing an Infocom game. Apart from that, there is little to no motivation in-game to do the weird things that you do. Not even the occasional “You think you see a silvery glint behind the grating”…

This is in line with the characterization of the PC. Sure, the game-world is a late 1800s circus setting, but if you look at the bare bones of Ballyhoo , you’re still a nameless cleptomaniac adventurer solving puzzles because they’re there. There are a lot of instances where you find the solution before you see the puzzle. So you wind up taking everything with you “just in case”. To be clear, I don’t mind that. I actually like it. Just pointing out that we’re not far removed from cavecrawling-thief gameplay.

There is however a bigger and more compelling story woven around the puzzle-solving hoop-jumping. This becomes evident in the finale. Excellent building of tension, beautifully tying together the narrative strands (in a hilariously off-kilter way, but hey…). The player’s expectations are abruptly shaken a few times before finally solving the bigger puzzle that is the disappearance of the boss’s daughter.

Really, play Ballyhoo . It’s a hoot.