Are You Not Entertained: Last Thoughts on Infidel

In Infidel, we once again clear out a ruin, solving all the puzzles and taking all the things. Are we not entertained?

Warning: This essay spoils Infidel and the Zork Trilogy. If you have yet to play these games, you may wish to come back and read another time.

This score gives you the rank of a master adventurer

I quite recently argued that the appearance of Zork’s Adventurer in Enchanter is less a parody of the Adventurer’s character than it is a lampoon of certain types of play (or players, even). In Zork (especially the first and second installments), the Adventurer may wander around attempting to carry everything he can find and doing silly things. He does so because we–the players–told him to. These jokes are good-natured and of the type one laughs along with. I laugh along with Enchanter because I recognize in it a side of myself.

There is, however, another “canon” Adventurer that does none of these things. He is the product of many failures and deaths. He is seen most clearly in Zork II, where the map seems designed to waste lamp batteries and the Wizard’s magic wastes even more. This Adventurer, or second Dungeon Master, has no time for parser experimentation or jokes. He is efficient, serious, and practical. He barges into the homes of others, kills them, and takes their stuff. He loots the lands and buildings of a lost civilization.

So far as our conversation goes: he is a taker, a haver, a colonizer.

These issues are all subsumed within Zork‘s own Zorkiness, with its wisecracking narrative voice, MIT hacker slang, varied geography, inscrutable inside jokes, and sci-fi/fantasy mashups. Zork III is the only game that pulls the curtain back, and it loses its nerve at the last minute. In its final moments, Zork‘s protagonist becomes the literal “master” of the Great Underground Empire, with all of the problems that the word presents.

The colonial implications of Infidel, by contrast, are more consistently overt. By placing its treasure hunt in our world, with its geography and history, author Mike Berlyn cannot easily hide the implications of looting the ruins of a fallen civilization. He cannot simply arrange for the protagonist to arrive at the front door of a white house pyramid. For the sake of realism, it must be dramatized. There are financial questions to answer, and the American must, of course, lead an expedition of north Africans to the dig site. Unlike Zork‘s Adventurer, the American cannot be the winner in a grand game of conquest and mastery (we ultimately learn that Zork‘s treasures are merely a means to reaching the Empire’s dark heart). Wealth remains the Amercian’s alpha and omega.

Infidel: Hate the Player or Hate the Game?

At some point in the development of Infidel, Mike Berlyn realized that the treasure hunt genre posed significant moral problems. Perhaps the realistic setting of Infidel made the issues more apparent. He describes this moment during the 1984 CompuServe Games Special Interest Group (GameSIG) conference (you can read the Computer Gaming World writeup here, though the Infidel discussion is conspicuously absent).

Some of the problems I faced in this game are What kind of a human being would even WANT to ransack a national shrine like a pyramid?. And once I asked myself that question, I was sunk and there was no turning back. It wasn’t even a game I wanted to write. I got off on it by putting in all the weirdness, the ‘glyphs, the mirages, the descriptions but I’ve learned from the experience….

In abstract terms, entering Zork I‘s Land of the Dead to loot a crystal skull is not so different from entering a pyramid to loot some priceless relics. Mechanically, there is little difference. In both Infidel and Zork I, the goal is ultimately “solve all the problems and take all the things.” However, Infidel is more self-aware and appears to recognize problems in the treasure hunting genre. The question “what kind of human being” has further implications: what kind of people are we and have we been to enjoy such things pastimes?

I think this is the question that truly bothers Infidel‘s detractors nigh 40 years later: what’s so enjoyable about encroaching upon the lands and constructions of other cultures and taking their stuff? The answer is likely complicated, but we shouldn’t overlook the most obvious answer: when done well, such games are engaging and fun. Likewise, the decoding puzzle that affects nearly all of Infidel‘s gameplay is novel and entertaining (for me, at least). While the game’s feelies do an excellent job of defining the protagonist (perhaps they even are heavy-handed), the game apparently does give some players enough time to forget.

This is an interesting point of tension–the character that we meet in the feelies is loathsome, but–judging by reactions to the game’s conclusion–this American’s moral character eventually vanishes, Zork-style, into the game’s machinery. It is a bit of a shock when he reasserts himself at the close of the game: greedy, self-centered, careless with the cultural riches of others, and, ultimately, dead.

Most games, I would argue (and perhaps will someday), are fantasies of power and/or of mastery. In a power fantasy, the protagonist–and, by extension, the player–dominates other beings real or imagined. Many popular games that feature violence as the primary means of progression are power fantasies. The other type I would call a fantasy of mastery. Mastery fantasies involve domination of environments and puzzles. Despite the dalliances with thief and troll, Zork I, II, and III are fantasies of mastery. In fact, most Infocom games (excluding the mysteries) are stories of player/protagonist mastery.

Infidel and Zork are both mastery games, but the fantastic (and disappointing) conclusion of the Zork trilogy makes its mastery fantasy a reality: the protagonist becomes the “dungeon master.” The real world offers players no such fulfillments. The American cannot become the “desert master,” nor can he overcome the problems created by his privileged bumbling. The Adventurer’s ascendancy is propelled by the twin engines of privilege and skill. The American, on the other hand, goes where his privilege cannot follow. It is a place hostile to gamers and their confidence, a place where competence is not enough. Infidel is a subversion of the mastery genre, yanking out the rug in the game’s final move.

It is telling to once more return to Berlyn’s discussion at the GameSIG conference, if for no other reason than to a remember a time when realized protagonists were unusual and, perhaps, unwelcome. Perhaps we also must be reminded that, unlike contemporary interactive fiction, developers at Infocom were beholden to a large and certainly not specialized audience.

I never claimed the protagonist works in Infidel. I only claim that it had to be tried and so it was. There are a lot of personal reasons for my disgust <I hate the game, myself> over the whole Infidel project, but none of it had to do with the protagonist/ending problems the game has. Let me put it to you this way: Like anyone who produces things or provides a service — you put it out there and you take a chance. You wait for the smoke to clear and then you listen to people like yourselves talking about whether the experiment succeeded or failed and I could have told you it might have gone either way when I was writing it. There was just no way to know.

Today, games have all sorts of characters. Looking back to 1983: what other portrayals of deliberately “bad” protagonists exist? It must be a small number. Enjoyable or not, there was something truly audacious about centering a game from a major studio/publisher around such a massive jerk. More incredible, Infidel is a critique of the treasure hunt game generally, and, by extension, of its most popular (and profitable) franchise: Zork. I think it is something only Mike Berlyn might have done, which is to his credit.

Several games from now, I will discuss Trinity‘s memorable and effective subversion of the mastery game’s familiar structure.

Final thoughts on Infidel

Infidel was one of the games that I played later, and I was (I think) a sophomore in college. Considering my preferred IF genres at the time (fantasy>science fiction>mystery>everything else), Infidel had a low priority. I believe I played it after Moonmist, and that Infidel was, by comparison, much more enjoyable. I also believe that the feelies recreated within the Lost Treasures of Infocom manual were less immersive than the online PDFs and photos that we have today.

I was surprised that the protagonist was such an obviously horrible person. It would be a few years before I would encounter role-playing games that invested heavily in the experience of playing as a bad character (Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, etc.). In those games, however, such roles were shaped by player choice, not assigned by the program.

I remember being surprised by the ending, then immediately recognizing that there was no other way for the game to end. I could not imagine, for instance, the American on his yacht, or humiliating Craige in some way. I suppose this is the only sense in which the conclusion really feels tragic: this character was doomed from the start. There is only one end to the story that would make any sense. That is a key element of the tragic story, isn’t it? Inevitability.

Still, it remained in my mind a lesser game elevated by its metatext and subversive structure. I wouldn’t give Infidel a lot of thought until 2015 or so, when I learned how poorly it was received in its day. This surprised me, so I began thinking about it in the wider context of the Infocom canon. It does seem to chide us a bit for all our thoughtless pillaging, but there’s more at work than that. I find that Infidel invites us to interrogate the nature of our preferred entertainments. It may be the first North American video game to do so (as always, I welcome counterexamples).

For instance: what does it mean that I, an avid player of (J)RPG games, prefer titles in which most problems are solved through violence? Problematizing the media we consume can be a productive activity, provided we don’t mistake its end-goal for shame.

Next Time on Gold Machine

The sequel to Enchanter? Already? It’s true. Get ready for Zork V: Sorcerer.

10 thoughts on “Are You Not Entertained: Last Thoughts on Infidel

  1. I also find that mastery is a major appeal of much IF – dunno if you’ve played Hadean Lands, but the way that game remembers how you’ve previously solved puzzles, so that by the end a simple “w” can fire off hundreds of actions and solve half a dozen subsidiary puzzles, feels amazing. I’m curious why you think the mysteries don’t qualify as games of mastery, though? I haven’t played them, but the way you are able to use your increasing knowledge of events and NPC actions to navigate a complex socio-temporal map seems like it would scratch a similar itch.

    More on point, it’s interesting that Infidel, as you say, recapitulates the environment-mastery tropes of Zork and other adventure games, but even as a Master Adventurer a futile death is still your inevitable fate. Per your article, this critiques colonialism and typical player behavior, but also points towards the limitations of the (Western?) assumption that skill and control of one’s environment allow you to be successful.

    1. I like Deadline very much, though I seem to be part of a minority. In fact, it is one of my favorites.

      Even though it feels right to say so, I have no strong argument for excluding mysteries. The concept of a “fantasy of mastery” is something I have only begun to think about, and I believe my usage is novel. I think one reason for my exclusion of the mysteries is that even though the player does gather and synthesize secret knowledge then bring it to bear, it is a different experience in crucial ways. Some have observed that, in a way, the player is not the protagonist of Deadline. He is an intruder and an outsider. This status never really changes. He does not conquer the geography of the game, which is very different from Enchanter and Infidel. There, as well as in Hadean Lands, the protagonist enters barred areas, uncovers their secrets, and takes whatever there is to take. The detective, on the other hand, goes home at the end of the game. He has been in someone else’s house all along.

      I have been thinking about writing a bit of theory. There are mountains of craft theory, but how much has been dedicated to reading? I may write more on the subject, if it won’t disturb my audience too much.

  2. Because I’m me I gotta bring up The Prisoner as prior example for basically all self-reflexive interrogation in games. But I think you’re right that up until 1983 there really isn’t a game that openly conceptualizes its protagonist as a villain. As always, great work unpacking this game, the first but not the last stab at directly saying something thematic in the Infocom catalog.

    1. True story: I was reading your latest yesterday and thought: I really need to play the prisoner. Then I thought: I wonder if Art will bring it up in a comment?

      You have convinced me to play it. If I can think of something smart to say about it, maybe I’ll take a break from the Infocom catalog and write a thing.

  3. I can think of one earlier example of an evil protagonist – “Crush, Crumble and Chomp!” (1981) by Epyx. While the kaiju films it is based on usually begin by depicting an incident that causes the monster to seek revenge on civilization for its sins, allowing the monster to be somewhat morally grey, there’s no such framing story in the game, possibly due to technical limitations of the time. The player actively chooses to inflict mayhem on a city.

  4. I thought of The Prisoner too! Not the general meta-ness, but the specific scene where you (the protagonist) are thrown into a Milgram-like interrogation chamber. (Is this what you meant by “self-reflexive interrogation?)

    You (the player) temporarily switch to the POV of the interrogator, giving the protagonist electric shocks and trying to extract information, information, information. It was a very clear “you are the bad guy” scene.

  5. It always seemed clear to me that the Infidel was going to die no matter what he did. His fate was sealed when his workers abandoned him to his fate in the desert. I remember when I was first playing the game shortly after it was released I spent quite a bit of time exploring the camp/desert/Nile river areas looking for a way to escape and get back to civilization but to no avail. It would have been interesting and perhaps better artistically if Berlyn had allowed for this: a “losing” ending where you crawl back to Cairo penniless and in disgrace, but at least alive. You “win” by conquering the pyramid, but die in the process.

    1. That might have been a fate worse than death for the American and his fragile ego!

      I often see people insist that having an ending where the American can walk away from the sarcophagus at the last minute and keep all the treasures should have been an option, which I find bizarre. The American actually winding up on his yacht seems unthinkable to me, ridiculous.

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