Zany tone in IF?

On my blog last week I wrote about zaniness and adventure games, thinking especially about Steve Metertzky’s Superhero League of Hoboken.

I had a bunch of loose questions out of this that I thought might be fun to discuss:

  • Is wackiness still endemic in IF?

The comedy in 80s text adventures tended towards zaniness, but is that still true? IFComp winners like Hunger Daemon, Zozzled, The Wizard Sniffer are definitely playful, but they each have an internal consistency. They’re not dominated by anachronisms and 4th wall breaks, they’ve each held together by story and character.

  • Does the puzzle adventure inherently tend towards the zany?

I think going around at leisure, solving ad hoc problems by strange means lends itself to the bizarre, to the silly, to the out-of-place. Did we see a domination of that kind of story because they’re the easiest things to write in a game with puzzle?

  • Which of those old style comedy games hold up, and why?

It seems to me the thing people still talk about with regard to Leather Goddesses of Phobos are ground breaking puzzles like the Tee-Remover which was fertile enough puzzle ground to fill out the whole of Counterfeit Monkey. I’m not hearing a lot of people clamouring for more games that are tonally like Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All The Girls, right?


As ever I credit/blame In the End, the watershed moment where this scene said (for some reason) “oh yes let’s do more of this.”

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The game Augmented Fourth comes to mind. I haven’t replayed it in a while, but I think it would hold up better than Spellcasting 101. S101 has a lot of sexually-tinged humor that can be kind of eye-rolling.


I think zaniness may have waned, but perhaps absurdism has not.


Look at Animalia, that one’s pretty fantastic.


The Spellcasting 101 series had a rather sophomoric sense of humor which was faintly embarrassing even when I was a sophomore. (1990, okay, maybe I didn’t play it until I was a junior.) (See also LGOP, the Tolkien parody Bored of the Ring, etc.) That sort of thing has definitely aged out.

Floyd in Planetfall is a completely different sort of wackiness, which people are still happy to see.

I think going around at leisure, solving ad hoc problems by strange means lends itself to the bizarre, to the silly, to the out-of-place.

There’s an odd historic split between the Infocom adventure tradition (mostly austere, solemn, and lonely) and the LucasArts/Sierra tradition (rapidly migrated to wacky cartooniness). It’s not just a text-vs-graphics thing; Myst and its cohort followed the text-adventure tradition, tonally.

I think “lonely” is the key word there. Parser games and Myst-likes had very limited NPCs, because they were trying to be realistic, and realistic NPCs are hard in both formats. (Tghtly-bounded FMV for graphical games; and we know how hard parser NPC dialogue is.)

Third-person point-and-clicks threw in lots of NPCs, but they weren’t trying to be realistic. (Either visually or in dialogue.) That means cartoon stereotypes almost by definition. It just worked better, so it became a genre convention.

I think the point-and-clicks also tended to more ad-hoc wacky puzzles because they couldn’t fit in enough detail to make really interesting explorable mechanisms. Infocom and Myst-likes both let you examine a situation in detail (either with lots of EXAMINE text, or a highly-detailed visual closeup) but Lucas/Sierra games couldn’t do that. So the puzzles had to boil down to “what thing can we USE here”.


Yeah, I think this is a lot of it - and having USE be the main verb means that players can (and will) just click everything on everything else, without necessarily being able to formulate exactly what they think their character is going to do, unlike a parser game where you need to specifically type out your action, or a choice game where the options are typically more curated. And since these were puzzle games, and players who are stuck will do even more of that throw-things-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks stuff, and you want to give them something enjoyable and now that you think about it actually you can think of a fun gag for trying to use the widget on the whatsit… you can see how the zaniness can escalate.


I like the application of the word “lonely.” It feels very apt as a descriptor of parser adventures. Authors can successfully push against this tendency, but I think it’s difficult, craft-wise. I mean “craft” in terms of both the technical and the textual.

I have absurdism on the brain, as I think Trinity is IF’s first, great work of deliberate absurdism. It is a very lonely game; perhaps that is one thing that distinguishes what is surreal or illogical in Trinity from what might otherwise be zany.


I think Infocom kind of developed the common “parser snark” that we all kind of fall back on. Even in the lonely games.

I wonder if what you’re referring to as “zany” kind of came about due to the fact that the logistical demands of adventure game puzzles frequently require a bit of absurdism and suspension of disbelief - such as the PC carrying 20 kitchen appliances and a coatrack in their pockets.

Zaniness can also blunt what might be too intense or serious if you think about it too hard, such as dicey sexual hijinks of LGOP or Spellcasting 101 or Leisure Suit Larry, or murdering a salamander in Trinity. Zany is that energy in farce where an author can whiplash away from something illogical “boy, that doesn’t make any sense, but look over here now!

It’s similar to how you can feel a difference in a horror movie that seriously wants to traumatize and disturb you like Hereditary versus one that intends you to have a good time such as Thanksgiving where the events are so absurd you’re not like “this could really happen.”

In an adventure game you’re like “Sure…scotch tape + cat hair = mustache disguise, this isn’t real life, disbelief is suspended…” There’s less narrative friction if you have a character who insists they’re going to push the button and destroy the world, but will wait 852 turns while you figure out how to prevent it. Zaniness can hand wave adventure puzzle tropes.

That’s not to say realism won’t be appreciated, it’s just a higher bar to clear.


I’ve played In The End, but I don’t quite get the connection here. Do you want to expand on this?

This is all insightful, and I think some of this gets to why Starship Titanic is a flawed in an interesting way. It has a Myst-like first person perspective, but it wants to tell a wacky story with very silly robots. There’s a lot of Myst style empty rooms and passages the interaction style is lonely (and problems with trying to communicate make trying to converse a distanced and frustated experience) so the joke density per location is low compared to a lot of the Lucasarts games. And where it has puzzles, it’s often fighting against the interface to implement them.

Yes, I think this is it, in many ways zany is an easier tone to meet and you can make comedy out of it. You have to work harder to maintain other kinds of tones.


One game I continue to admire decades later is Grim Fandango. It was certainly humorous and absurd, but shied away from the zany-wacky spectrum. (Ok, Glottis was wacky, but I always thought he was one of the weaker elements of the game.) It had its somber and moving moments too, and a pretty healthy cast of differentiated NPCs. It wasn’t what you would call realistic, though. I feel it walked an interesting line that few games since have toed.

I still listen to the soundtrack now and then on my evening walks.


I think zaniness emerges from “having specific responses to zany player behavior.”

That applies to when the player tries to use an inventory item on an irrelevant object, but also to performing zany verbs in the parser. Eating, kissing, etc.

Infocom games generally just didn’t come up with interesting responses to zany player behavior. “You can’t be serious.”

But, if they had, they’d have had a zany feel.


I loved Grim Fandango and you’re right, it has a weird premise (grim reaper as travel agent) and plenty of bizarre situations (the big cat racing comes to mind) but it plays the core story and relationships straight which allows it to have drama and some emotional weight. The noir storyline and associated cast of characters aren’t genre parodies.

Yes and I think it’s a two-way street here. I remember the designers of the point and click adventure The Journey Down said that they explicitly designed puzzles around thinking about what might be a funnier inventory items: it’s more amusing to try using a fish on various things than a screwdriver.


I think Origin’s early Ultima games had the solemn and lonely tradition like Infocom. Ultima II was also full of delightful anachronisms - of course it had time travel so there’s some rationale, but still. To this day I can’t hear the Eagle’s song Hotel California without thinking of Ultima II.

When I was playing One Does Not Simply Fry, I realized how much I missed this kind of insane comedy game. It knows how ridiculous it is but it plays it roughly seriously to make the story work. Still, it’s loaded with jokes and puns. The fact that I also like Nord and Bert, Limerick Heist, and In a Manor of Speaking also speaks to my inclination towards wordplay-style humor.

Given that a LOT of recent choice IF seems to just be relationship dramas or horror, I feel like these zany games are less common. It’s totally possible to tell a compelling story but also work some humor in. I’m not the kind of person who needs comedy to enjoy a work, but it could definitely liven up some of the more dry games I’ve played.


I tend to categorize Grim Fandango as “silly and cartoony” even though the underlying story is serious. On a moment-to-moment level, it’s got the wacky attitude.

(Of course any comedy can be serious underneath, and the better ones usually are. Think Pratchett.)

Loom is closer to being an entirely serious game in that genre. Although even that’s got its moments of sheep-dyeing.

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I don’t see anything wrong with a certain amount of zaniness in a game. Since IF pretends to have player alternatives, it makes sense to have silly responses to silly player actions.

Infocom games generally just didn’t come up with interesting responses to zany player behaviour. “You can’t be serious.”

I always thought this was a missed opportunity for Infocom. Bearing in mind games are there for entertainment, this was a chance for the games to have a moment of levity - even for serious games. After all, even Shakespearean tragedies had comedy moments.

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I’ll try, and try to keep it succinct.

I just listened to the Drew Cook podcast in which he credits A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity with introducing the concept of the somber game.

I feel like In the End introduced the concept of the dour game. Nothing matters. The only joy is in admitting there is no joy.

There was a point where I tuned out of this scene for about a decade, blinked back to it, looked around, and much of what I saw appeared to be a spiritual descendant of In the End. Dour. Smug. Joyless.

And then I blinked out for another decade or so and… still feel that way.

Anyway, rather than rant more about In the End I should have instead plugged the first episode of Retro Adventurers in which I marveled in not-a-good-way at what I think is what you’re calling zaniness but I call an aversion to sincerity in The Pawn. I think that a lot of early games were oddly afraid of appearing to be too sincere, as though someone was going to come along and give the author a wedgie because they wrote something with an ounce of genuine feeling and consistency. (Which, who knows? Maybe that was the culture at MIT/Stanford/Cambridge and we just reaped the consequences of that!)

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I’ve never played In the End, but I have been playing IF on and off for about 25 years, and I’m not sure I agree that the early aughts were less dour and joyless than the early teens scene ( though I wasn’t that active then), much less the contemporary scene. I mean, just looking at Comp winners, compare Slouching Towards Bedlam and Vespers to Grown-Up Detective Agency or Dr Ludwig!

More broadly, I guess I feel like it’s less productive to counterpose “zany” with “dour” than it is comparing it to other kinds of comedy. It’s worth considering broader cultural trends too, I think - Airplane/Naked Gun style farces were prominent through the 89s and 90s, and parodies of the Scary Movie style still big business through much of the aughts, but that style of comedy has seemed quite out of vogue to me for at least the last fifteen years. It would be odd if IF weren’t downstream of that to at least a certain degree - even something as light-hearted as Brain-Guzzlers is character-based in its humor, and clearly is trying to have an emotional core.

(I should say, I like all the games I mentioned here quite a lot!)


I really got a kick out of seeing Guybrush Threepwood, at the beginning of one of the later Monkey Island games, making fun of the infinite carrying capacity by showing in great absurd detail him successfully stuffing an oar into his pocket.