The passage of time in IF

I’d say at least a little of Infocom’s design affinities for difficulty (timers, zombification, “Tough” / “Nasty” on the cruelty scale, etc.) was to extend the perceived value of the game.

As I recall, they were selling these titles for USD$40+ (in 1980s dollars). A two-hour movie experience could be had for, what, $5 by the mid-1980s? (1978’s Hardware Wars tag line: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss three bucks goodbye!”) Play time was perceived value.


All the above, I agree, but probably zombification most of all. Talk about stretching out the dollar! The practice likely sold an Invisiclues booklet or two, as well.

I’m currently writing about 1985 at Infocom. It was an instructive year, so far as audience expectations and difficulty go.

  • People loved the “introductory” difficulty Wishbringer, and I can’t find much evidence of players complaining that it was too easy. Additionally, Wishbringer’s layout allowed players to explore elsewhere when stuck on a puzzle. It fostered a feeling of ongoing progress. It was one of only eight Infocom games to receive a Gold designation from the SPA.
  • Having examined a lot of tester feedback for A Mind Forever Voyaging, I think people could have overlooked political disagreements or even general humorlessness, but lack of challenge/relatively low playtime was a bridge too far. For this reason, it also did not offer players the satisfaction of overcoming challenges. I think it retailed for $45.00 USD.
  • Spellbreaker, which I’m sure many experienced players could not beat without hints, was a commercial disappointment. I thought the now-infamous Deadline was rather easy by comparison, but perhaps that’s just the way my brain is wired. It was designated “expert” difficulty.

That’s every 1985 game! I take from those examples that most players enjoyed speed bumps more than median barriers, and a smooth, level road least of all. What customers wanted for their money was the experience of solving puzzles. The puzzles were not an end in themselves. Spellbreaker had many brilliant problems to solve, but players found it too discouraging. Based on sales and perceptions that endure to today, I believe customers appreciated that Wishbringer slowed them down but never stopped them. It was in a sweet spot. It never seemed too difficult, yet it presented enough challenge to last a while.

Just spitballing, I suppose that buyers probably wanted something that would last—what—80 to 100 hours? Their entertainment spend might average out to something like fifty cents per hour. “Weeks and even months” appears in Infocom’s marketing literature. AMFV probably took a third of that or less, and market reactions definitely support your thesis.

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80-100 (and more) hrs of play (DLC excluded) is still today a sort of standard in computer/console roleplay games, both japanese and western.

But one must put in the equation the balance between thinking and playing, the ratio between the two being generally higher in IF, even puzzleless ones (e.g. pondering about “will be more interesting going west or going north ?”)

I don’t hide that a good chunk of my designing and coding involves accounting for the player’s path, e.g. having visited room A prior of room B, with or without having examined object C, and so on…

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


Ah, that’s a very good point! It’s still time a player spends with the game.

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That balance is also very much on my mind for ECTOCOMP, since I’m trying to do as much of the planning, designing, and mental experimenting as possible while the clock isn’t running!

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I’m sure that trying to calculate hours-per-dollar for a game is a modern abomination.

What I remember thinking, as a benchmark, was “Is this game bigger than Zork 1?” As measured in number of rooms, objects, and puzzles, rather than time. It was pretty clear that people had widely different experiences with how long an Infocom game took to solve. (When 90% of your play time is “being stuck”, what does duration mean?)

The size comparison was itself pretty shaky, of course. Zork packed its Z3-sized envelope with puzzles – no story, no dialogue, very little worldbuilding. Deadline and even Enchanter had a different balance; but it was still hard to avoid the comparison.

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I’m fine with time of any sort, and I think a lot of the complaints about time have more to do with UI things – a very flexible rewind like the Sorcery games or at least unlimited undo take care of most of the issues. The thing that’s truly dated (and should be fixable with modern interpreters!) is forcing manual saves.

(it’s possible to have time limits that are too tight, or “drama time” that doesn’t make sense half the time like Colonel’s Bequest, but those are specific implementation issues rather than problems with time in itself)

Yeah, that all makes sense. The impression that I’m getting is that lots of people had a floor in terms of time spent, but there was likely a lot of variation in terms of ceiling (tolerance for being stuck, for instance). I always had an influx of pirated games (I’ve outgrown that practice) to keep me busy during long breaks. It took me two years to beat Deadline without hints, but I didn’t mind.

I don’t think most people would be patient for that long, but who knows?

Using Zork as a reference was a good idea! It was very important to me that a game have sufficient things to do. I didn’t mind the absence of plot in Zork at all. It was a game that held my interest for a long time. I was quite young at the time, and I think everything took me longer to beat. I only remember being bothered by The Witness as a game that was not worth the money (I had a five-dollar allowance for chores and relied heavily on Birthdays and Christmas for genuine, store-bought Infocom games).

I didn’t play AMFV until the Lost Treasures collection released because I only had a C64 in the 80s. The question of value was irrelevant by then. LToI felt like a steal.

I’ve experimented with checkpoints and other alternatives for my WIP, as I think most players today feel the same way about saving. UNDO just didn’t feel like enough.

Manual saving can feel like an action a player actively does to prepare themselves. Still, automatic saves are good for power cuts and other instances where a game must be dropped at short notice.

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Alianora’s last point is interesting:

As historian, seems to me that late '70s-early 80s US power grid was not precisely a very stable one, and large blackouts wasn’t uncommon; An environment encourgaging frequent saves in general (in the days of audiocassette and slow 5¼ floppy…) perhaps has tolerated, even encouraged, the so-called “save-restore puzzle” ?

Interesting, if not intriguing “sitz im leben” question…

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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I remember my Commodore 64 drive being painfully slow, which discouraged frequent saves or restores.

Seems there was at least one infocom puzzle (leather Goddesses mase puzzle?) where save was prohibited.

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Fwiw: I think you need a timer, a “clock” that keeps the tension of the story going. Perhaps a puzzle doesn’t need to be timed (some are good without timers) but without a clock for certain puzzles, the player can try all possibilities and story becomes drab. Not all puzzles need a clock, but all good stories do: the bomb will explode in 36 hours; the villain will arrive in 24 hours and stuff must be ready by then; etc. Every chase scene is a real-time clock; otherwise is just a lazy day through a boring plot.

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