After 37 Years, It Still Glows: Wishbringer [2/3]

Examining the text and metatext of Wishbringer.

The Best Gray Box Yet

Wishbringer was the third Infocom game to launch as a gray box package, and the materials feel particularly at home in this new format. “The Legend of Wishbringer” browsie almost certainly tempted its share of purchasers, and purchasers found within a postal map, an ominous ransom note, and—perhaps most memorably—an “enchanted stone that glows in the dark.”

The front cover art of Wishbringer. It shows a brightly glowing pink light held within two cupped hands. The text above the title reads: "Through strange, savage zones your way will be shown by the magical stone called WISHBRINGER."
My Wishbringer box, somewhat warped by age.

The back of the box is laid out in what had become a standard template for Infocom. At top, there is always a photograph and caption featuring all of the materials enclosed in the package. Below the photo, a story synopsis is followed by promotional text and explanations of Infocom’s various difficulty levels. Notably, Wishbringer, as the first Introductory level game from Infocom, provides the first on-box description of Introductory difficulty. This last fact was a bit hard to run down. Reprints of Cutthroats, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Suspect all mention Introductory difficulty on the back of the box, but I was at long last able images of earlier print runs that mention Seastalker’s Junior designation, instead. As for Infocom’s new difficultly level: “Best introduction to interactive fiction, with some built-in hints. Written for everyone from age 9 up.” It’s interesting to note that neither Seastalker nor Wishbringer would feature what we might expect as “built-in hints” in a contemporary sense. Seastalker had its “InfoCards” and decoder, while the protagonist of Wishbringer could wish for hints. In both cases, hints come not from the disembodied voice of an omniscience—sometimes such additions feel like an intrusion from the author themself. Rather, the hints are “built-in” in a very literal sense. Both approaches seem more mature and immersive than, say, incorporating a digitized Invisiclues menu. As for the third and final Introductory game, Moonmist, I can only recall that I cannot escape writing about it forever and promise to discuss whatever help it provides when the time comes.

An image of the back of the Wishbringer package. Infocom had a standard format for back covers, First, it features a photo of all items packaged with the game. It is followed by promotional text and difficulty descriptions. More information is provided in the text of the article.
The back cover of the Wishbringer box.

The Legend of “The Legend of Wishbringer”

The most substantial bit of text included with Wishbringer is a ten-page browsie booklet, “The Legend of Wishbringer.” It has a surprising amount of front matter for such a short booklet, and readers may disagree as to their overall contribution to a player’s experience of Wishbringer-as-text (the game, the packaging, and pack-ins as a single unit of meaning).

This image shows the first two interior pages from the "Legend of Wishbringer" booklet. The first page is an old-fashioned public library placard, with a grid for checking in and out books. It is labelled "Festeron Public Library". The second page is an elaborate title page. It reads: A Moral History, in Verse, of the MAGICK DREAM-STONE recently unearthed by the Society of Thaumaturgic Archaeology, and commonly known as WISHBRINGER including a substantial body of hitherto discoveries regarding the mystical properties of said Artifact."
The first two inside pages from the “Legend of Wishbringer” browsie.

Since we all have free access to every variety of Infocom packaging today, the booklet’s twin invocations of “local history” and the Festeron Town Library will almost certainly interest many of us. For those readers who do not take such an interest in Infocom’s metatext, I encourage them to at least examine the beginning of Zork I‘s underwhelming (feel free to disagree) browsie from its gray box reprint. There will be more to say next week, but for now, it is enough that this library insert is only the first indicator that Wishbringer takes place in the Zork universe!

The “Legend” is, as one might guess, a history of the titular Wishbringer stone. Compared to the tone of the game itself, it is quite dark. It features some familiar types from fairy tales: a jealous, abusive stepmother queen and a princess who can only be saved by the love of a questing knight. However, each of six knights perishes thanks to the machinations of the evil Queen Alexis. Each of these deaths becomes a wish grantable by the wishing stone. The seventh wish is that of the imprisoned Princess Morningstar herself. Upon her death, her heart shrank and hardened, becoming the Wishbringer stone.

If the tone of the legend surprises, readers may not expect the warning at the back of the booklet: “Forget ye not that Morning-Star, a Princess, who threw away her Youth in easy Wishing, died in vain. Let her fate be thy warning.” It is a bit jarring, here at the end, to find the princess’s own wishing blamed for her miserable fate, since it is obviously her stepmother’s conniving that left her trapped and alone. Player’s will have to decide for themselves how convincing such turns are. Surely some will find the metagame of beating the Wishbringer with wishes versus without them an intrusion or an unfortunate glance at the clockwork behind Wishbringer‘s otherwise convincing fictions.

Players may also be disappointed by what might seem a lack of commitment, since only three of the seven wishes can actually solve in-game problems.

IT’s Platypuses all the Way Down

For those who have listened to the Gold Microphone episode about Wishbringer (co-hosted with Callie Smith), you may recall a repeating refrain: “Moriarty gets away with it.” It’s hard to begrudge this game any perceived fault, thanks to its charm and consistently good prose. I readily admit that, despite any textual flaws I may perceive, Wishbringer is one of Infocom’s greatest games.

In that spirit, the “Legend of Wishbringer” has many appealing features. The art, which is in a style of the sort one finds in fairy tale books, is of very high quality. Interestingly, each page features not only humans (or human graves) but platypuses in quantity. This proves to be one of Wishbringer’s many in-game wonders: the discovery that the royal family are not human at all. Rather, they are platypuses. It would seem that the human tellers of the story of Wishbringer have placed themselves at its center.

Finally, the booklet provides an effective explanation of the wishes and how to use them in an in-game voice, listing the name of each wish and specifying what objects are needed to use them.

Two pages from the Legend of Wishbringer. The first tells the account of how the Princess died miserable and alone, her heart hardening into the Wishbringer stone. The second page explains the use of wishes. Notably, the second page also shows a platypus peeking out from behind a gravestone.
The sad, final fate of princess Morning-Star and a guide to using the Wishbringer stone.

The Other Stuff

Additionally, sealed inside the Wishbringer package are three more items: a Wishbringer stone, a ransom note, and a postal map of Festeron, Antharia & Vicinity (in this last case, the absence of a serial comma is deliberate: Festeron is a town in Antharia). The mention of Antharia is yet another bit of proof that Wishbringer takes place in the Zork universe. According to the Encyclopedia Frobozzica in Sorcerer, “Antharia[,] an island in the Flathead Ocean, is very prosperous thanks to its rich marble quarries.” The map otherwise seems to depict a small seaside town that could be contemporaneous with us. It is used as copy protection, but the map is attractive and interesting in ways that the code wheel of A Mind Forever Voyaging—Infocom’s next game—absolutely is not.

The ransom note is pure, worldbuilding flavor. It doesn’t affect gameplay in any mechanical sense, though the player is instructed to leave it sealed “until the story tells you to [open it].” It has a “90.8” stamp, presumably its value in some currency, and features a rather realistic drawing of a platypus. Underneath the image, the text “E Platypus Unum” appears. This is the first case of an Infocom feelie being used to dramatize a specific in-game moment. I can’t recall if there are more. Please remind me in the comments if you can think of an example. It advises the addressee to, “Deliver the Magick Stone to me before the moon sets or you will never see your cat again! The Evil One.” This is, of course, the moment that triggers the protagonist’s quest.

Finally, the package includes the Wishbringer “stone,” a vaguely heart-shaped lump of textured plastic that glows in the dark. Impressively, the color of its glow is purple, not green. I remember being quite impressed as an 11-year-old boy. At that time, I had never seen anything glow in the dark that was not green. I find significance in the fact that my stone still glows across the many years. The game does too, after all.

A Wishbringer "stone" photographed in the dark. It is a purple glowing shape---it has no clear outline because of the glow---surrounded by pitch darkness.
A Wishbringer “stone” as photographed today, September 5, 2022.

Does Wishbringer have a Plot?

Wishbringer has two settings: the idyllic town of Festeron and its dark mirror. Most of the game takes place in a sinister inversion of Festeron. Normally benign individuals are malevolent. Normally malevolent individuals are torturers. All is grimy, dismal, and dangerous. While this does not yield the forward movement of a traditional plot, it does create a sense of exploration as the differences between the two worlds are discovered. It may not drive a story, but it does, in my opinion, drive the player. It’s satisfying to find and alternately survive and/or exploit these inversions.

Moreover, there are specific scenes that, while not moving any invisible clock forward, do create a sense of rising dramatic action. For instance, the visitation with the platypus King Anatinus (he is mentioned in the “Legend of Wishbringer”) is one such moment, as is the encounter with evil Postmaster Crisp. Such encounters sustain reader interest while creating a sense of narrative immersion. The experience of exploring “Dark Festeron,” a world studded with dramatic moments, yields Infocom’s most well-paced game to date, with Enchanter a rather remote second.

The space between such encounters, however, is filled in familiar ways. The protagonist solves problems, thereby making other problems solvable, and so forth. In this way, it is what I would call a very sophisticated realization of classically Zorkian adventuring: key problems and exploration made new through strong writing and equally strong—for lack of a better word—stagecraft. I would argue that this design method would reach its highest, most elegant form in that other Brian Moriarty game, Trinity. Both Wishbringer and Trinity come not to abolish the classic adventure aesthetic, but to fulfill it.

Next

Perhaps long-time readers will not be surprised that an examination of Wishbringer‘s place in the Zork universe must follow. However, this inquiry will go beyond worldbuilding and lore to consider the ways in which it manifests—and improves upon—classically Zorkian design.

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16 thoughts on “After 37 Years, It Still Glows: Wishbringer [2/3]

  1. It really is a great game. I really enjoyed the direction that this game and Moriarty’s other entry Beyond Zork pushed the Zork universe into, how BZ tied into Spellbreaker (the best of the Enchanter series), and yes I’m even one of those Zork Zero apologists who loved the huge map and Encyclopedia and Jester coming around. It certainly didn’t need to go on forever and for in my mind it stopped there, but it felt like it started to mature with a bit more seriousness while still keeping the slightly comedic aspect, and it was a good mix.

    1. I once said of a Terrence Malick film that it was the sort of bad movie that only a very smart, talented person could make. It might sound catty, but I was sincere in praising his abilities. More directly: I’ll confess that my feelings toward Z0 are, in many ways, those of a jilted lover. Perhaps they are not the feelings of an objective reviewer. Then again, what is an “objective” review, anyway?

      BZ is a harder one to assess, because I believe it has legitimate gameplay issues. So far as its content goes, I think a lot will depend on how one feels about the conclusion of Spellbreaker. Without saying too much, I would have preferred to let the ending stand.

      Enchanter is my favorite of the trilogy, but I seem to be in the minority. At least, I think that is true among people still interested in Infocom today!

      1. Argh, it’s so hard NOT to discuss this! But I think you’re probably right and we should hold off until those games come up. However I will clarify my previous statement to say the “it” I meant that didn’t need to go on forever was the Zork universe. I’m sure Infocom’s bankruptcy had something to do with it 🤣 but I’m happy to have it end with Z0 in my mind. Graham’s “Balances” is a fun little re-entry, but I’m really happy everyone that community decided to go their own way rather than trying to continue the ZU, it had really reached a natural conclusion.

      2. for what it is worth, I’d probably rank Enchanter as the best of the three. Never got on properly with Spellbreaker. A replay someday will do me good.

        I did also enjoy Zork Zero enormously but I was able to compartmentalize the really bad bits (I just cut and paste directly from the invisiclues for the peg jumping part and the tower of hanoi part).

      3. I think Spellbreaker has higher highs but is uneven with some annoying puzzles.

        Z0 seems to have a divided audience. It feels too large for me, and the pegs and towers seem so out of place. Steve Meretzky is typically an inventive puzzlecrafter. It’s weird to find them in one of his games.

        I think what bothers me most about it is something that doesn’t bother a lot of people—its “last word” in defining and characterizing the Zork mythos. My weird intensity about such things keeps the project moving!

      4. BUT Zorks magic system is soooo good, I would not mind to see more Balances out there from the community.

  2. I am just winging in here to say hello to my fellow Michael Russo who is into IF – I’ve come across you in old Digital Antiquarian threads and the like, but rarely I think “live”, so this seems like an opportune moment. Hello! You do credit to our name.

    I guess so long as I’m here I’ll say that Enchanter is also my favorite game in the Zork universe, though this opinion is probably suspect as I’ve never played any of the actual Zork games (save I had a friend in high school who had Return to Zork, and we played it together one time, though we mostly just found the prospector guy hilarious and just went back and forth with the drinking game so kept saying “want some rye? Course you do” over and over).

    1. It’s great to have both Mike Russos in the same place at the same time!

      My friends and I usually incanted the “want some rye” bit when the whiskey came out. One of our enduring inside jokes.

      1. We actually pluralize as “Mikes Russo” – it’s like attorneys general.

        That’s funny re the “want some
        rye” bit being a thing for y’all as well, I guess it was a few decades too early to be memeable but kind of similar vibes!

    2. lol thanks I know both names are really common. Sometimes i go by the handle I stole from Guy L Steele Jr (The Great Quux) to differentiate myself, though other login systems just use my real name. Just another MR who grew up on these amazing games and later discovered the amazing community pushing the art form forward!

  3. There is indeed something disappointing about being penalized for using wishes in “Wishbringer,” which is after all the whole selling point of the game. But it is in keeping with a long-running motif in literature that you can’t get what you want without an offsetting negative consequence. In the short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” for example, Mr. White wishes for £200 only to receive that exact amount as compensation for his son’s death in a horrible workplace accident. In one version of Faust, the titular character sells his soul in exchange for unlimited wishes but does not use any of them after Mephistopheles informs him of the dire consequences that will occur if he exercises each one.

    1. You’re right. There is absolutely a literary precedent for consequential wishing. Perhaps if such bad outcomes were dramatized events in-game rather than just numbers in a score, they would feel more meaningful and interesting. I think the principle is fine if executed well. In any case, I do wish that Morning-Star had not been accused of “easy wishing.”

      1. It’s true! though it feels more like trolling than monkey’s paw irony. The message is different depending on whether you have the cat or not, but Y’Gael basically calls you stupid. “‘You have failed, then,’ she sighs. ‘Too bad. I should not have placed my hopes upon a simpleton. But thank you for your useless effort.'”

  4. I think the question if this is the best package is something worth to post a poll on twitter or intfiction… because, it is funny that you found it the best package. I have no opinion formed about it, but I’ve hear from others complain that the Wishbringer package was the worst XDDDD with that cover that looks like a purplish glowing female parts, and that stone that seems just a piece of plastic (I actually like it a lot).

    Also, probably I’m confusing packages standards, because I remember well being in awe upon the Enchanter package. (so maybe the question is… Is it wishbringer package in general worth? If it is the best from the grey box series and you (hipotetical reader that does not like it) don’t like it … how worst are the others?)

    About the dissonance of the whole vain wishing theme, one can argue that it is quite modern feminist managing of the topic because wishing static princesses are out of fashion nowadays. Maybe Moriarty was questioning the trope there. Or maybe the whole fairy tale just was to add flavour of grim ghotic tale, and in that case, I think it delivers. (The whole game has a sinister mist hovering over it, so I think the fairy tale adds to it).

    Really nice posts, as always. Kind regards.

    1. Well, I admit to being a little sly there… “Best gray box yet” means only that it was better than Cutthroats, Suspect, and Hitchhiker’s, the only other gray boxes at the time. I actually agree about the body parts on the cover (!), but the booklet is very good. 11 year-old me treasured the “stone,” and I have yet to outgrow it.

      The Enchanter folio is without a doubt the most beautiful Infocom package. I don’t think anything comes close. My favorite gray box is Ballyhoo, believe it or not!

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