Where do we go from here?
It’s been almost seventeen months since our coverage of Sorcerer here at Gold Machine began. Where does the time go? Not everything I wrote was well received. My assertion that, with Sorcerer, what I called the “Golden Age” of Infocom had ended. At worst, many thought, Sorcerer was a four-star game bracketed by five-star games, which hardly constitutes a failure. Why so serious? One of the consequences of seriously thinking of games as art is that one tends to hold them to certain aesthetic standards, and that one might be disappointed when an episode in an otherwise transcendent series–The Zork Saga–fails to match the heights of its neighbors.
It is only fair to acknowledge its strengths. Steve Meretzky, I have always said, was probably Infocom’s most consistent puzzle crafter, and the puzzles in Sorcerer support that assertion. Two of its puzzles–the glass maze and the coal mine–are among Infocom’s very best: a high distinction, indeed. It offers more play with the delightful magic system of Enchanter, which we fans must have celebrated in unison. Compared with many Infocom games, to say nothing of the works of other publishers–it is truly excellent. And yet, it was the first taste of disappointment, no matter how slight, in the unfortunate ramp-up to Cornerstone’s release. Viewed in total, Sorcerer is the beginning of an uneven-to-bad streak that would bedevil Infocom for the rest of its days. Consider this line-up:
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Seastalker is probably the worst game in the Infocom canon, featuring as it does a sub-plot with a “sympathetic” stalker and “fake nice guy” who comes close to murdering the object of his affection just to teach her a lesson. That’s to say nothing of its wooden writing and cruel, hidden timers. Mike Berlyn’s career as an implementer would end with a whimper, as Cutthroats is generally regarded as a mediocre game with occasionally inscrutable elements like the panoptical McGinty. I have never seen a compelling argument for Suspect’s quality. In fact, I may have never seen an argument, period.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would prove to be Infocom’s last runaway hit, second only to Zork I. It is one of Infocom’s greatest games, buoyed as it is by Steve Meretzky’s innovative leap into modular narrative. Still, it is hard to separate the success of its design from the success of its source material, since Meretzky artfully channeled the characters, settings, and humor of Douglas Adams into something quite new and exciting. It is unmistakably Meretzky, despite emerging faithfully from Adams’s work.
Looking back, it also concealed significant diminishments in Infocom’s sales, as did continued sales of the Zork games. Underneath its rosy surface, 1984 was an anemic year for Infocom, both critically and financially.
1985 and Beyond
As we have recently seen, 1985 was perhaps Infocom’s best year, artistically, with three classic games. Financially, though, it was another story, with the massive flop of the database product Cornerstone. It is tempting to characterize 1985 as Infocom’s supernova event: a final, dazzling burst of productive authorship. It is hard to imagine any game studio releasing three games, consecutively, in one year:
Despite their quality, only Wishbringer would prove to be profitable. I believe that A Mind Forever Voyaging and Spellbreaker were their worst-selling games to date.
From that point on, it was hard to know what one might get from Infocom. Certainly, they still had the best parser in the business, a crack testing team, and top talent, but poor games and unsuccessful experiments bedeviled them. Only two later games would match Infocom in its full glory: Trinity and Plundered Hearts. Some others came very close to transcendent, just barely falling short.
It is a strange ambivalence that I feel about Infocom’s post-Cornerstone years. A company that released so many good games, as Infocom did in 1986 and beyond, would normally be anything but a disappointment, but we had come to expect more and better from Infocom. Infocom was a publisher we spoke of in superlative terms, and good for them was a step down.
…Which Brings Us to Ballyhoo
Ballyhoo was one such good game and authors have always speculated regarding its orgins and production. Its author, Jeff O’Neilll, was, just like Brian Moriarty, a formidable new talent and strong writer. O’Neill is unusual in that he is the only implementer who has chosen not to speak to documentarians and historians like Jason Scott and Jimmy Maher. It’s tempting to make assumptions as to why, but there are many reasons that anyone might refuse. Morale in the wake of Cornerstone‘s failure has been characterized as terrible at best. This time must have been hard for new implementers that had no strong sales during the Golden Age. Amy Briggs, according to Scott’s Get Lamp interview, felt deep disappointment in the commercial failure of Plundered Hearts and blamed herself for it, even though Infocom was hardly a hitmaker by 1987.
While it’s easy to see how new implementers post-1985 might view poor sales as personal failures, I personally don’t think that is the least bit true for either Briggs or O’Neill. Both were obviously talented and capable persons who had the misfortune of working in a challenging environment–commercial prospects and morale were in free fall–with very poor odds of success. The audience for text games was rapidly dwindling. By the time Zork Zero released in 1988, not even Infocom’s most successful franchise could save a game from failure.
Such are the conditions of production for Jeff O’Neill’s debut. Please note that I have no idea what he thought of those experiences or of Ballyhoo in general, but we do know what the situation was at Infocom, thanks to Scott’s interviews. It is tempting, fair or not, to also speculate about the state and power of Infocom’s testing team. This was a group that decided Floyd’s fate in Planetfall, as Steve Meretzky changed the ending at their insistence.
Still, there are odd cases, such as the box puzzle in Spellbreaker, where many players might ask: how did this get through testing? The only defense of that “puzzle” boils down to: “purely at random, I had the right cube at the right time and I tried to do something without any particular motivation to do so.” I haven’t been convinced yet. Surely everyone can agree that it stands out in a game of such exceptional quality as less clued than other puzzles in Spellbreaker.
The question, again, is how did this get through testing? Did Lebling get feedback but choose to stay the course? Perhaps there simply wasn’t space on the disk to add clues. Did the testers not notice in the first place? I have similar questions about Ballyhoo: how did such a talented author release a game that is equally uneven and fantastic? Was it a lack of mentorship? Lack of testing? A failure to trust testers?
We will probably never know, but a critic of Ballyhoo will undoubtedly have a complex reaction to such a flawed and innovative game. As we continue to discuss the trajectory of Infocom’s output, Ballyhoo is emblematic of middle-to-late Infocom. Infocom was still the best, but that was an increasingly wobbly best marked by poor morale and diminishing sales.
Whatever the reasons for his silence, I respect his choices and acknowledge how hard it must have been to work in that rapidly deteriorating Avalon, not just for him, but for everyone who loved Infocom.
With this brief assessment of Infocom’s fortunes complete, we can begin analysis of Ballyhoo in Gold Machine‘s customary way with a critical introduction, discussion of its paratext, and a longer interpretive essay. Only three posts are planned at this time. I hope you’ll join me for the duration!