And in the End: Spellbreaker

The spells you break are equal to the spells you make.

Where Were We?

It seems so long ago that we began to discuss Spellbreaker. We began in January, with a fun and well-attended Let’s Play at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum. There were distractions, such as my final crunch for an IF game of my own, Repeat the Ending. Meanwhile, some readers questioned a fundamental premise of my reading of Spellbreaker, that the Zork and Enchanter trilogies were a complete, self-contained thing, a coherent narrative apart from other products bearing the Zork™ brand name. A handful of readers asserted that things made by the owners of the Zork intellectual property were all more or less equal participants in Zork-ness.

At the heart of this disagreement is, in my opinion, a philosophical question. Is narrative a matter of property? Is a story whatever the owner of its parts might say that it is? Or should we evaluate works of imagination some other way? Tonally, is Zork Nemesis a Zork game? Does the appearance, unbidden, of Bivotar, who fans will recognize as “Bill” from Steve Meretzky’s “What Do I Do Now” books, make the story of the Nemesis more or less Zorkian? I suppose many old fans from the 1980s will be relieved that June, aka Juranda, was not beaten to death along with her travelling companion.

I suppose many old fans from the 1980s will be relieved that June, aka Juranda, was not beaten to death along with her travelling companion.

If the ending of Spellbreaker is a high point in the history of Interactive Fiction, what do we make of Beyond Zork‘s attempt to rob it of its potency? Would it be enough to say, “Oh, that is just what the property holders thought of Zork in those days.” In the wake of Infocom’s fall, many heroic fans have attempted to reconcile the many dates and characters introduced by the franchise over the years. Why not? If Zork was no longer a coherent narrative, why wouldn’t it be points of data instead?

I say: no, Zork as a single work of fiction has a mostly consistent narrative voice (we must make an exception for Meretzky’s Sorcerer), a satisfyingly mirrored structure, and an ending that, in its way, is a match for its beginning. Later games did not, in my opinion, successfully replace those well-wrought bookends. I am not saying that those later games are good or bad. I have my opinions, certainly, but my point is that they do not enhance, narratively, those six games. They are something else; they are apart. Like it or don’t, but Beyond Zork does not make the ending of Spellbreaker more interesting or satisfying. It is up to something else entirely.

Wishbringer, of course, is a wonderful game, and it is all the more wonderful for leaving be that which already worked well.

The Ending of Spellbreaker

While there are signs throughout the narrative, it only becomes clear who the villainous shadow is and what they are up to near the end. That has been a critique of Spellbreaker‘s narrative: that there is very little of it, and that it is all at the beginning and at the end. I find such readings ungenerous. For one thing, Spellbreaker has five games worth of narrative behind it. We know the Novice (we named him “Novice” during our reading of Enchanter), and we may read him as a reflection of the Zork trilogy’s Adventurer. Unlike the Adventurer, he is a member of a collective. He has status in both a specialist bureaucracy as well as in a federation of quasi-governmental powers.

As the game begins, it is not only magic that has been disrupted, but also the Novice’s social capital. Transforming the various Guildmasters of Quendor into amphibians is not apparently personal (we later learn that it is); it is an act against political and economic powers. The Novice’s quest is not just another adventure. While it turns out that the whole of creation is in danger, Spellbreaker‘s opening seems a less than cosmic event. Given the central and crucial role of magic in civilization, the failure of magic is a social and political problem.

Given the central and crucial role of magic in civilization, the failure of magic is a social and political problem.

This is true of the ending, too. While we have saved the universe along the way, the true weight and shock of Spellbreaker is the complete elimination of magic from Quendor and the Great Underground Empire. Given the primacy of magic in the various civilizations we players have encountered in our journeys, it is hard to even imagine this new world even though we have spent six games’ worth of time there. But here we are, at the end of two trilogies concerned with cultivating magical power, suddenly and irrevocably in a world without magic altogether.

What is the world of the Zork Saga without magic? Who can say? No implementor has really tried to imagine it, have they? Wishbringer takes place after the conclusion of the Age of Science, I suppose, though Moriarty wisely leaves that question open. This ending, which I consider Infocom’s best (I know some of you will say Trinity, which is fine), is appropriately brief and, even now, surprising to me:

The shadow, now as solid as a real person, performs a back flip into the tesseract. "No!" It screams. "Stop! Fool, you've destroyed me!You've destroyed magic itself! All my lovely plans!" Now glowing as brightly as the construction it made, the figure approaches the center. It grows smaller and smaller, and just before it disappears, the hypercube vanishes with a pop, and the "magic" cube melts in your hand like an ice cube.

You find yourself back in Belwit Square, all the guildmasters and even Belboz crowding around you. "A new age begins today," says Belboz after hearing your story. "The age of magic is ended, as it must, for as magic can confer absolute power, so it can also produce absolute evil. We may defeat this evil when it appears, but if wizardry builds it anew, we can never ultimately win. The new world will be strange, but in time it will serve us better."

Your score is 600 of a possible 600, in 1394 moves. This puts you in the class of Scientist.

“Scientist!” Exhilarating. It is interesting to compare it with the conclusion of Zork III:

As you examine your new-found riches, the Dungeon Master materializes beside you, and says, "Now that you have solved all the mysteries of the Dungeon, it is time for you to assume your rightly earned place in the scheme of things. Long have I waited for one capable of releasing me from my burden!" He taps you lightly on the head with his staff, mumbling a few well-chosen spells, and you feel yourself changing, growing older and more stooped. For a moment there are two identical mages standing among the treasure, then your counterpart dissolves into a mist and disappears, a sardonic grin on his face.

For a moment you are relieved, safe in the knowledge that you have at last completed your quest in ZORK. You begin to feel the vast powers and lore at your command and thirst for an opportunity to use them.

Your potential is 7 of a possible 7, in 454 moves.

Just as the Adventurer reaches his full potential in terms of magical power, so does the Novice return we players to the mundane individualism of Zork I‘s opening. In other words, we have come full circle. How should we read the ending? Just as Zork III might be a metaphor for interactive fiction’s emergence as an exciting new medium, so too might Spellbreaker. Jimmy Maher invokes a bit of the Old Testament, then goes on to name other possible readings:

You can cast it as the proverbial setting aside of childish things (while hopefully still leaving space for the occasional computer game), marching into a future of adulthood and responsibility with clear eyes. You can cast it in a melancholy light, as the loss of, well, magic in a modern world where everything is already explored and mapped and monitored. Or you can, as I prefer, cast it as the dawning of a better age free of the prejudices and superstitious dependencies of the past. Any way you cast it, to my mind this textual Rorschach test is one of the strongest endings in the Infocom canon; the contrast of “Scientist” with your penultimate title of “Archmage” is bracing and surprising in all the right ways.

I agree with him; these are all viable readings. I find the ending provocative in its resistance to finding a single, “correct” meaning. In fact, I celebrate its openness. That is another problem with further applications of the Zork™ brand name. With their emphasis on dates and history and various factoids, interpretive freedoms are reduced. Did it ever really matter how long the “Age of Guilds” lasted, or when Lord Dimwit Flathead was born? It didn’t matter to these six very special games, because that was never what they were about. Somehow, later, we were asked to settle for quanitative rather than qualtitative affinities. It feels like an impoverishment to me.

Final Thoughts on Spellbreaker

There is so much more to say! I have written, elsewhere, that A Mind Forever Voyaging is Infocom’s attempt to make a post-cave game. I mean “cave game” in Graham Nelson’s formulation: a classic ADVENT-/Zork-derived puzzler with a “narrow-wide-narrow” design. I have also said that Trinity fulfills rather than abolishes the cave game. It is, I think, the highest expression of Infocom’s cave game designs. What is Spellbreaker, then?

A subversion, naturally.

Spellbreaker is a game that is only recognizable within the context of cave games, yet it constantly undermines or challenges our understandings of them. The geography, consisting of many small areas, is wide and widens as the game progresses. Yet, it is also an explosion of wide geographies. Unlike a contiguous map, the design of Spellbreaker‘s world seems incoherent at first. It is a chaos of unrelated places and events until it isn’t. Slowly, the patterns and intersections of the world reveal themselves. Our conception of Zorkian geography is challenged and, better still, enlarged.

Unlike a contiguous map, the design of Spellbreaker‘s map seems incoherent at first. It is a chaos of unrelated places and events until it isn’t.

I suppose people will always argue about the box puzzle (I found it underclued), but every other puzzle in Spellbreaker strikes me as brutally, unsentimentally fair. I think this is appropriate, though it took years for me to draw that conclusion. What could challenge the most powerful human in the sunlit world, a match to his underground equivalent, the Adventurer? Only the greatest challenges would do. Whether we like hard puzzles or not, it is fitting that the game and its narrative emphasize challenge. We have the Invisiclues near at hand if need be, unlike so many 1980s players.

Some consider Spellbreaker Infocom’s greatest game. Perhaps we can all agree that this is Dave Lebling’s best. Even if one prefers The Lurking Horror, we might acknowledge his success in tying up one of the best-loved storylines in interactive fiction. Few would dare to try, and fewer still could succeed. I think we can see, too, that Lebling’s skill as a prose stylist is perhaps greater than some critics have acknowledged. The necessarily terse descriptiveness of his text sometimes reads like Haiku. It is admirably economical. In a way, I think it was fortunate that Spellbreaker was limited to a 128K story file, as Lebling consistently managed to accomplish more with less.

Spellbreaker‘s difficulty has limited its audience over the years, though many contemporary players have either forgiven or embraced its challenges. It is, somehow, the greatest narrative achievement in a series that did so much to establish the foundations of game narrative. Its legacy is everywhere, whether we recognize its exploded geography of influence or not.


If I receive my copy of 50 Years of Text Games soon, I’ll review it. In any case, I’ll begin writing about Ballyhoo in two weeks. A flawed yet brilliant game, I think.

3 thoughts on “And in the End: Spellbreaker

  1. I will be interested to hear your thoughts on more of the non-“Zork” games especially underconsidered ones like “Ballyhoo”. It was indeed a brilliant failed experiment.

  2. Thanks for a very entertaining series! One thing I was thinking of as we got to the end (again) of this game, was that the Implementers were themselves Scientists (not just computer scientists, still a very new field, but other disciplines as well) and wound up this series in such a way that would made the eventual creation of computers (and ZIL, the Z-Machine, and Zork) possible! And also that the scientists using computers were “pressed into service” to create art – not to say that any human being can’t create art, of course they can, but seeing as it was something they stumbled into rather than a chosen career path, perhaps this informs the resulting work in some way that’s also worth discussing, especially since it’s not that common anymore, it’s something that mostly exists just in that era. This was a kinda rambling comment but as you mentioned there is still a lot things you could discuss, but gotta leave it off somewhere!

    1. That’s an astute observation, Michael! I do think that the new field of IF emerging from a highly technical environment is an important consideration. Maybe, near the end of the project, we can mull that over. Seems important.

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