A Critical Introduction to Ballyhoo

Send in the clowns.

Ballyhoo: True Tales of Mystery

Jeff O’Neill’s Ballyhoo was the fourth Infocom game to be categorized as a mystery. Unlike Infocom’s “quantum detective” games, Ballyhoo initially appears to be a traditionally structured adventure in which the player expands the game world by solving problems (opening doors and the like). This is a change when compared with previous Infocom mysteries. Those were recognizable by their global clock. As the text of Ballyhoo advances, it is clear that Ballyhoo employs a very different model of time.

Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that it leaps, stone-to-stone, over a temporal creek.

The way Ballyhoo handles the passage of time proved to be such a practical and effective approach to making linear narratives out of nonlinear play that it’s easy to forget that someone had to imagine it, to first put it in a game.

Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that it leaps, stone-to-stone, over a temporal creek.

I get ahead of myself! Yes, Ballyhoo is formally innovative in a way that is sometimes undervalued (then and/or now). It is also a singular Infocom game in terms of its narrative voice. It takes place in the “real” world in what was then the present day. What previously Infocom games had attempted such “realism?”

  • Deadline (Mystery, 1981)
  • Infidel (Tales of Adventure, 1983)
  • Cutthroats (Tales of Adventure, 1984)
  • Suspect (Mystery, 1984)

These four games–no, I did not forget Seastalker–make for a curious bunch. The mystery-branded games are made by Zork alumni Marc Blank (Deadline) and Dave Lebling (Suspect). Whatever their virtues and faults, these games emphasize, rather than hide, their clockwork. The story of those games is what happens when we run down the clock in the right place, when we play in the right spacetime. That is, I think, a valid representation of the “real.” Those old mystery games are realistic because, in their idiom, time is what makes things real.

The others in that list are Mike Berlyn games. Longtime readers of Gold Machine know that I have both respect and affection for his work at Infocom. He was an subversive artist and wickedly funny. He questioned the ideological assumptions at work in adventure games, including Infocom’s own Zork. Given Ballyhoo‘s effective uses of irony and humor, I think it has more in common with the Tales of Adventure series than it does previous mystery games.

Let’s start there, at the corner of Deadline and Infidel.

Ballyhoo (Jeff O’Neill)

Masterpieces Version: Release 97
Format and size: Z3, 128K

Vital Statistics (Zork figures in parentheses for comparison’s sake)
Rooms: 36 (110)
Words: 962 (697)
Takeable Objects: 42 (60)

Opening Crawl

Infocom interactive fiction
Copyright (c) 1986 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
Release 99 / Serial number 861014

As you trudge along in the wake of the outflowing crowd, you thumb through your memories of this evening. Your experience of the circus, with its ballyhooed promises of wonderment and its ultimate disappointment, has been to sink your teeth into a candy apple whose fruit is rotten.

Never mind the outrageous prices, the Mt. Everest vantage point, the communistically long lines, the audience more savage than the lion act. And it wasn't the shabbiness of the performances themselves that's got you soured on Spangleland. No, instead it's that the circus is a reminder of your own secret irrational desire to steal the spotlight, to defy death, and to bask in the thunder of applause.

In the Wings
The big top can be entered to the north and exited to the south. To the northeast, the grandstand begins its precipitous rise.

This opening, combined with Ballyhoo‘s statistics, tells us a lot about the kind of text we’ll be experiencing. What can we conclude from its file size? Like Suspect and Spellbreaker, it uses practically all storage available to the Z3 format. Unlike Spellbreaker, it hasn’t filled that space with geography and mechanical complexities. Unlike Suspect, it hasn’t filled a Commodore 64 diskette with a temporal simulation.

Let’s start there, at the corner of Deadline and Infidel.

Instead, Ballyhoo is filled with descriptive language and a geography that iterates upon itself. That is, when specific events move the narrative forward, the game’s clock advances. A player enters an area during the afternoon, where they solve a problem. When they exit, the sun is setting. As sometimes frustrated players can attest, the clock will not advance until a specific act is performed. Twenty minutes of story progress might require hours of playtime. Or five minutes.

The result is that even though Ballyhoo has a relatively small number of “rooms,” many of them hold different gameplay and narrative potential at different points in the game’s progression. In other words: there is more to consider than room count in Ballyhoo. In previous Infocom games, there were global events, but they did not greatly alter the objectives and/or challenges before the player. Does anyone recall the controversial earthquake from Zork III?

There is a great tremor from within the earth. The entire dungeon shakes violently and loose debris falls from above you.

As some painful memories might attest, this message occurred wherever the player was, geographically, once a number of turns passed. I believe it was configured as a possible range of turns, perhaps because Marc Blank thought that would be interesting. It had two specific effects. Access to one area, the Royal Museum, would be opened, and passage via the aqueduct would be closed. It may not sound like much, but this was a very interesting thing to do in a 1982 text adventure game. Global events such as the earthquake insisted upon the existence of a unified game world that was linked by more than connections on a map.

Deadline can be interpreted as an extreme version of that design, with a possibility of global change from turn to turn (the actual intervals prove to be far less frequent, but the player doesn’t know at the beginning of the game). The lamp in Zorks I and II functioned as timers, but running out of battery power was a local event with potentially global implications (unwinnable game, entire geography cut off). Nobody has to explore the world to determine what happens when the batteries die. Wherever you go, there’s darkness.

Nobody has to explore the world to determine what happens when the batteries die. Wherever you go, there’s darkness.

By comparison, Ballyhoo feels incredibly modern. Beloved games like Anchorhead have geography that changes as the narrative advances, and their narratives advance as the player solves problems. We really ought to call this the Ballyhoo model of time, if we don’t already (I do). Robbed of its history and narrative strategies, it is easy–perhaps too easy–for critics to dismiss Ballyhoo as a flawed game that isn’t as friendly as 21st century games. Some have done as much, but you didn’t come here to read that sort of thing. We’re all serious readers and players–there must be some authors here, too!–of interactive fiction who care little for the New Critics of the 20th century.


It isn’t only time that makes Ballyhoo unique among Infocom games. Its setting, mood, and, perhaps most important of all, Jeff O’Neill’s atmospheric prose are signature elements of one of Infocom’s strangest and most forward-looking games. Stay tuned for a discussion of the text, including stylistic and narrative features.

3 thoughts on “A Critical Introduction to Ballyhoo

  1. “What other Infocom games attempted such “realism?””

    Would Border Zone and Moonmist count? I don’t remember off-hand if Moonmist was set in the past, like The Witness was.

    1. You’re absolutely right! I meant to say “what previous Infocom games,” but that’s not what came out! I’ll do an edit.

      Re: Moonmist, I think it is present day with a nostalgic tone. I’m not sure that can be proven, though. There is the small tape recorder in/under the bust in the dining room; maybe that points toward present day. Those were invented in the late 60s, I think, but weren’t really prevalent until later. The narrator doesn’t seem impressed by the tech; just its application.

  2. Yes, the Zork 3 earthquake takes place in a range of turns. I’ve observed between 85-130.

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