This may not be 15th Century Italy, but there is a definite Renaissance going on in the realm of computer gaming in general and Amiga gaming in particular. There are treasures from the past, portents of the future, and some of the best games I've ever seen in years. I can't remember the last time I reviewed four 5-star games in a single issue. Since the beginning of 1992, what has been a trickle of Amiga games has become a flood. Where a few months ago I had to scramble to dig up enough games to fill the space, now I'm sitting here with my shelves overflowing. Next time, I promise I'm going to play catch-up with those titles I've had to neglect this time. Stay tuned, it's a great time to own an Amiga.
The reason Infocom adventures are so good is the writing. I would revise the description of them from interactive fiction to interactive literature. It's been long enough since they were first published to provide a little perspective and they have held up better than I would have expected when I first played them. They're not in the same category as the Iliad or Hamlet, but they can certainly hold their own against Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or The Big Sleep. The writing takes advantage of the medium and does it with great style, wit, and a sure grasp of what it takes to involve the player in the story. And most of EF="../zork1.html">loud funny.
The games fall into three basic categories, though there are a few strays. The fantasies are my favourites and include Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, Enchanter, Sorceror, and Spellbreaker. The science fiction category has Suspended, Starcross, Planetfall, Stationfall, and the sublimely loony Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The five mysteries are Deadline, Witness, Suspect, Ballyhoo, and Moonmist. Rounding out the twenty titles are Infidel, an Indiana Jones-type Egyptian adventure, and The Lurking Horror, which would do H P Lovecraft proud. I also want to give credit to the authors here. The original Zork trilogy was written by Dave Lebling and Marc Blank, who are at the top of my list for the computer game Hall of Fame. Beyond Zork was written by Brian Moriarty and Zork Zero by Steve Meretsky (sic), both of whom are also on my Hall of Fame list. I'm really kind of surprised at how small the group of Infocom authors is. Besides those already mentioned, I only need to mention Stu Galley (Witness), Jeff O'Neill (Ballyhoo), Jim Lawrence (Moonmist co-author), Michael Berlyn (Suspended, Infidel). Douglas Adams collaborated with Steve Meretsky in bringing his very successful Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the interactive format. The contributions they've made to computer gaming are inestimable.
I suppose I like the fantasies best because Zork was the first computer game I ever played. It's partly a nostalgia trip for me, but it's also the game that popularised the adventure genre. The trilogy, consisting of Zork I, II, and III, is a cohesive whole, filled with puzzles, strange places, even stranger goings-on. The basic premise is to find your way around The Great Underground Empire and collect treasures. The catch is figuring out how to do it. I long ago found all the treasures, solved all the puzzles, and explored all the nooks and crannies, but I returned to it over and over again. The reason is that Zork is such a great read and there's so much satisfaction in making things work in it. It has never bored me and I go through it in slightly different ways each time I play it. I treasure Zork above all other games. Beyond Zork and Zork Zero aren't quite as successful as the trilogy, but I would have been disappointed if they hadn't been included in the collection. They're later additions to the series and while they are worth playing again, they don't quite hold the same fascination; they expand on already discovered territory and ideas. Like most sequels, they don't break much new ground, though they do make some technical improvements.
Enchanter, Sorceror, and Spellbreaker form another trilogy and set the stage for many of the swords and sorcery games being published today. After spending time with Enchanter again, I found myself wishing that the designers of current S&S games would take another look at this trio. The games don't take themselves seriously, spells consist of a single word instead of needlessly complex formulas, and there's a terrific sense of fun in playing. The emphasis is on exploration, interesting images, and clever puzzles, rather than on endless, meaningless combat with trite monsters and villains. How refreshing these games are and how sad to have to go back nearly a decade to find some originality.
I spent nearly as much time with the science fiction games as I did with Zork. Starcross was always a particular favourite, though Planetfall and Stationfall are actually better games. They also introduced Floyd, a robot companion I'd love to have around in real life. Suspended took a little different approach. The plot has you waking from cryogenic suspension unable to move. The planet you're on has gone terribly wrong and it's up to you to save it by directing six robots, each of which has a different ability. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, though, is the best of the sci-fi adventures. I had, of course, read Douglas Adam's lunatic books long before I played the game, but that didn't spoil anything at all. If anything, I appreciated the game more for having read them. Adams was a Monty Python collaborator and that type of humour pervades the game. Logic is skewed (and skewered), things are seldom what they seem. Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a intergalactic bypass, and no one seems terribly concerned about it except you. Even so, Hitchhiker's Guide tells us, "Don't Panic".
I regret to say I never played the mysteries all the way through. Some strange personality quirk makes me prefer being told a mystery rather than figuring it out on my own. That doesn't stop Deadline, Witness, and Suspect from being terrific games and classic mysteries in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. They add time limitations to the Infocom formula and also introduced us to Sgt. Duffy, who is still referred to occasionally by old-timers in adventuring. Deadline is in the classic locked room genre and places a time limit on finding the murderer. Witness is set in 1938 Los Angeles, and is my favourite of the trio. (Not too surprisingly, considering my all-time favourite movie is Chinatown). It, too, allows you only twelve hours to solve the crime. Suspect takes place at an uppercrust estate, where a costume ball turns deadly. Ballyhoo puts you behind the scenes in a circus where the owner's daughter has been kidnapped. Moonmist covers yet another genre, the gothic romance. Set in a prototypical English castle that may or may not be haunted, it rounds out the collection of mysteries nicely.
In some fit of obsession, I played through all of Infidel in a single weekend. I think I may have slept for a couple of hours, but I can't remember for certain. I do remember being utterly exhausted after finishing, though. Set in an Egyptian pyramid, Infidel offers Indiana Jones-type thrills, exotic scenes, and fine puzzles. It also makes a great companion piece for The Lurking Horror, which is set on (and under) a college campus, where there are some scary things going on. The game pays homage to H P Lovecraft and the horrors in it are horrible indeed.
Infocom adventures fell out of fashion as computers became more graphically orientated. They require constant typing and many people just plain hate to type. (Although it is an entertaining way to improve typing skills). The Infocom parser was, and still is, the best text interpreter I've ever seen. The vocabulary of the games and the range of things they can understand is a tribute to the skills of the programmers and writers. The Lost Treasures isn't all of the Infocom games. I can remember the titles of nine more that aren't included - Wishbringer, Trinity, Bureaucracy (another wickedly funny Douglas Adams work), Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Border Zone, Seastalker, Cutthroats, Journey, and Shogun - and I believe there were 33 Infocom adventures in all. Activision doesn't have any immediate plans for rereleasing the remaining 13, but I hope they will. I'm sure the fact that 10,000 copies of Lost Treasures were sold within 48 hours will help them in their decision. (They're also planning on doing graphic versions of some of the Infocom titles, but I believe I'll stick with the all-text ones).
What makes these games so special is that they leave so much to the player's imagination. The scenes, characters, locations, and objects can be visualised as you wish, not how a graphic artist renders them for you. The wit, cleverness, and storytelling have never been equalled. Lost Treasures is a bargain at $69.95. Where else can you get twenty games of this calibre for so little ? The only thing I miss is the original packaging; Infocom was known for all the trinkets, doodads, and paraphernalia they included in the box. Kevin Cheung (remastering engineer), Kelly Zmak (manual & hint book), and Pat Zmak (manual & hint book) have done an outstanding job in recreating the flavour of it whi e making the whole package compact enough to be easily manageable.
Thanks, Activision, for giving us this piece of history. And thanks ev n more, Infocom, for giving us these legendary games.
Thanks to Warwick Annear for transcribing and donating this article.