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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.