DP Royal Archives - The Infocom Legacy

The Infocom Legacy
by Joe Santulli

"Man, this game is huge!," or something to that effect, was racing through my mind the first time I played Infocom’s Zork on my Commodore 64. The Great Underground Empire sprawled out before me in rich detail, chock full of colorful characters and wondrous scenery. Yet the game takes up a mere 90K of disk space and has no graphics or sound. You wonder how such a game could fool a lifetime slave to gaming such as I? Allow me to explain.

The "trick" that Infocom pulled on me was that they allowed my own imagination to fill in the blanks. They supplied the rules, the plot and enough description. My mind supplied the sights (the dam in the kingdom under the house is a vivid one), the sounds and even the smells. It’s a plan so simple and yet so cunning: present a game like you would present a book. Everyone knows the book is better than the movie, so the mind can supply audiovisuals far better than a computer can.

Remember: the heyday of Infocom was between 1983-1986. There were very few eye-popping graphic adventures at the time, friends. I can’t honestly say I’d rather play Zork than Final Fantasy III, but I will say that Zork was "state of the art" for computer adventures in its day, and the few Zork wannabes that came along, complete with stills to complement the text, were lacking in substance. Could anyone really put together an adventure as entertaining as the Zork trilogy? Well, maybe Infocom could (more on that in a moment), but to me those wannabe "graphic adventures" with their primitive stills just made me wish I had a better computer! Zork didn’t try to dazzle, but it certainly did delight.

I’m sure most of you reading this have had at least some experience with Zork. I know scores of gamers besides myself who have had the pleasure of beating it. Did you know, however, that the creators of the game, Marc Blank (hence the repeating message throughout the game that stated "This space intentionally left blank") and Dave Lebling, wrote the game years earlier for a mainframe system and called it Dungeon? Did you also know that "Dungeon" actually contains all of Zork, most of Zork II and even some of Zork III? I’ve never played it, but I’ll bet it’s amazing. It is from the minds of Blank and Lebling that many of the Infocom treasures rooted. I hold a very short list of game designers I consider geniuses. These guys are on that list.

There are so many memories from Zork alone - the perplexing mazes, the dam puzzle, the diamond inside the machine, the hysterical references to the GUE (Great Underground Empire). Although most players will cite their toughest challenge as the thief who roams randomly, moving stuff around and taking things from you, my toughest challenge was always just staying out of the dark. For, as you probably know, doing anything in a dark room results in instant death. Three things I will never do in "real life," as a result of what I learned from Zork: 1) Forget to turn off the lantern and have it run out early in the game; 2) Leave the lantern behind in favor of the torch, only to have the thief steal the torch; and 3) Accidentally torch the matches so that you can’t light the "insurance" candles when the thief steals the torch. Yep, I must have died a hundred times in the dark. Ah, sweet memories!

It’s so easy to get hung up on that one game alone, and yet the wizards of Infocom built two superb sequels (which, as mentioned earlier, were actually all part of the original game) and then created Zork Zero, a prequel where you can see how the GUE came to be the ruins you found in the original Zork (great stuff!), and the much later Beyond Zork, which plays a little more like an RPG in that your character has attributes and an automap feature! Now put all of those games together and throw in Enchanter, which was also written by Blank and Lebling, and ask me if it’s a better package than Final Fantasy III, and I’d have to think about it.

What about those "other" Infocom games, anyway? Well, I haven’t played ‘em all, but I’ve sampled at least a handful from each of their categories. One of my favorites is Suspended, a sci-fi adventure where you have six robots at your command, each one acting as a sensory replacement. For example, "Iris" the robot has enhanced visual capability, "Poet" can touch and interpret its surroundings, etc. Suspended plays like Zork in the future and with much more strategic possibilites. I’m pretty sure that I found a seventh robot in the game, but I can't for the life of me remember it. Scout out the game and let me know if you find out for yourself!

As a big fan of the Douglas Adams "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" trilogy (which, in typical fashion, consisted of five books), I was thrilled when Infocom released the licensed game. Now you know it, and I know it, and I’ll sure bet Infocom knew it at the time: licensed products usually mean "crapware." Fortunately, for fans of both the books and computer gaming, both Adams and Infocom handled this project very nicely. If you’ve read the original book, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the fact that the game strays very little from the original story - and even more surprisingly, the humor - while remaining a challenge throughout. Somehow, the merger of Adams and Infocom managed to produce a software title that serves as an excellent alternative to reading the book a second time. There are minor plot changes, and there are situations that you can only imagine might have happened in the book had Arthur Dent followed a slightly different path. You can follow that path. You’ll know what I mean when you wander around the Vogon ship and wonder how to get that Babel Fish in your ear. In the book, Ford Prefect tells Arthur to do it and he does. In the game, however, you have to solve the mystery of how to prevent some cleaning robots from continually taking anything you put down - one of the game’s greatest challenges. The only downside to "Hitchhiker’s" is that it kinda sorta promises a sequel, much like the book. Alas, that never materialized.

There are other greats: Suspect (also written by Lebling) challenges you to solve a murder that you’ve been framed for; Sorceror and Spellbreaker, both sequels to the excellent Enchanter (which in turn to me was more like Zork than Zork Zero or Beyond Zork); and even Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which is a pulpish satire with occasional laughs. They are all worthy games, all certainly signatures of this company’s obvious commitment to quality products.

>Near the end of the column.
>You are in the year 1998. The "text-based" adventure is dead.
>To the north lies a dark passageway leading to a world where polygon-based fighting games are the norm.
>A rickety staircase leads down to the games of yesterday, where substance prevailed over fluff.
>There is a bottle of Jolt Cola here.
>There is a Menudo lunch box here.
>Jolt Cola: Taken.
>Menudo lunch box: Taken.
>You put the Cola in the lunch box.


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Last updated Tuesday, February 13, 2007 06:01 PM