What is Infocom's cruelest game?

I’ve started putting together my series of posts on Starcross, only to realize that my transcript is missing. In the process of running through again, I wondered: is this Infocom’s cruelest game?

I have always had an unscientific feeling that Starcross was a contender for Most Ways to Ruin Your Game. I wonder, though, how the title “cruelest” would be arrived at. Is it a function of number of possible zombifications and likelihood?

In Zork I, I only ever zombified my game in three ways: Killing the thief without first opening the egg, running out of lantern batteries, and dying. The first (and perhaps the third) outcome seems quite likely, which must lead to a widespread (and reasonable) perception of Zork I as a cruel game.

In Starcross, there are many ways to ruin one’s game. I can think of these right now and am confident there are many more:

  • Pushing the wrong planet at the very beginning
  • Failing to repair the environmental systems in time
  • Choosing the wrong atmosphere
  • Deciding, after several turns, that the chieftain isn’t going anywhere important
  • Putting any rod into the wrong slot
  • Using the ray gun to “solve” the wrong puzzle
  • Entering the weasel ship without one disc in a safe location and carrying the second disc
  • Solving the Weasel ship before using the discs in all other necessary places (projector, mouse hole)
  • Leaping toward the command bubble without a charged ray gun

All but the first are likely in my opinion. I do believe Starcross is the crueler game, yet ultimately both Zork I and Starcross are likely precipitators of zombification.

  1. Can you think of other ways to render Starcross unwinnable?
  2. What do you think is Infocom’s cruelest game (excepting the mysteries, which easily become unwinnable for different reasons)?

“zombification” is the process by which a game becomes unwinnable
“cruel” as in The Zarfian Cruelty Scale

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Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker all lean heavily into the ray-gun idiom. That is, a one-use spell/potion/item which can be used to solve several puzzles, all apparently successfully, but N-1 of them leave you in an unwinnable state.

I don’t know if that counts as “cruelest”. It’s the most highly evolved form of cruelty, I’d say. It’s a fail state that was designed in deliberately; the plan is that the player will have to discover all the possible solutions and then synthesize them into a master plan for winning. The game can’t hint that you screwed up, because that information is supposed to be deduced from your understanding of the entire rest of the game.

(Contrast the atmosphere puzzle, where you’re supposed to understand fairly quickly that you pushed the wrong button. The fact that there’s a trailing zombie state comes from the simulated mechanics of the space suit, which allow you to survive for a while – but not long enough – in a hostile environment.)


Ah, yes. Comparing the ray gun to powerful scrolls is apt. And it’s true, there will come a moment in both cases where the player realizes: this already-expended item is the only way to proceed. The recognition is possible if the player has achieved a certain level of intimacy with the map and its problems.

The Enchanter trilogy at least does the player the kindness of loudly declaring that powerful scrolls are unique, one-time items.

Tangent: it’s surprising how many ways KULCAD can be used in Enchanter. This may or may not be a complete list (I’m not great with source code):

  • the banquet setting
  • the Rube Goldberg danger door
  • magical rope/box
  • the map
  • pencil
  • the stairs

The door being the gotcha, of course. Tangent 2: I didn’t realize there was a text file included with the R29 source, pretty interesting read.

In any case, I do agree that these unique, one-off items are evolved. Or else they are a sort of map-wide puzzle. Different from frotzing yourself or getting flouresced by the Wizard.

As a last thought:

I wonder if what I might call “obnoxiousness” should be something to consider in these discussions. Perhaps it is a scale to gauge the consequences of zombification.

Redoing the thief/maze is potentially obnoxious because the sections may be unpleasant to repeat. The amount of exasperation felt would depend on how far along the player was. If the discovery is made late-game and the thief was defeated relatively early, this might feel “obnoxious.”

The Zork III earthquake is, perhaps, “oblivious” if one only need replay the new areas, but “ungracious” if a replay of the Royal Puzzle (absent good notes, of course) is warranted.

It has been too long since my first success with Leather Goddesses of Phobos–I don’t recall if this condition actually exists–but I think I would have taken a long break if I had needed to redo the Martian Catacombs.

There seem to be factors that affect the subjective experience of cruelty and/or zombification. Back in my old manufacturing days we would have measured this separately as “impact,” probably in terms of time or turns replayed.

Personally, I think Journey is by far the cruelest game Infocom ever made.

  • There are some easily missed clues scattered throughout the game that you’ll need for the final puzzle, unless you want to use trial and error.
  • It’s very easy to run out of some critical magical essence, and not realize until much later.
  • It’s fairly easy to miss some of the few magical essences scattered throughout the game.
  • Towards the end, there are two puzzles where you need to use magical essences, and I haven’t found any way to figure out which ones other than trial and error. Something you really can’t afford.

Neither of the hosts of the Eaten By A Grue podcast managed to get to the end of the game, even with access to walkthroughs. I eventually wrote one myself just to see how small the margin or error really is.


That makes sense. I remember that episode (love EbaG!). I have to admit that there are four canonical Infocom games that I have not yet played: Shogun, Nord and Bert, Border Zone, and Journey.

I will be playing them all for my project, of course.

It seems that few people have felt motivated to rate Journey on IFDB (21). It may be one of Infocom’s least-played games, considering its poor sales and poorer post-Infocom reception. The issue of fairness/cruelty with regard to the essences comes up frequently. Even though I haven’t played Journey, I think this is a good answer.

E: and I’ll hang on to that walkthrough!

I quite enjoyed Border Zone. The second chapter in particular.

When I first played Journey I was quite fond of light fantasy, so that game ticked a lot of the right boxes for me. I like it a lot, despite its obvious flaws.

Nord and Bert… I just don’t know. There are bits of it that I like, and bits which just seem weird. I’m not a native English speaker, which makes parts of it a lot more difficult of course.

I wanted to like Shogun. I had some memories of the TV miniseries, and the ad I had seen made it look intriguing. But there just isn’t much of a game there. Maybe it was a mistake trying to adapt Shogun the book, rather than making a game in the same setting and let it do its own thing? (That seems to have been what Legend Entertainment did with their Gateway games, and I really enjoyed those.)

So I guess the takeaway from all of this is that I wish Marc Blank had written more games for Infocom. :grin:

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Heh. Can’t blame you for that. Even though I give it a hard time, the parts that he wrote for Zork III are among my favorites. And even though he didn’t write Suspended he had a lot to do with the tech. I think that happened more than once. I’m definitely a fan.

I’ll try to keep an open mind with Journey (and save my essences!)