Ballyhoo: Big Top Noir

Ballyhoo’s quietly transformational setting and story.

The Top of Their Game

On October 1, 2021, this website was launched with a brief explanation of my relationship with Infocom games. They were an important part of my childhood, and I wanted to write about them. That wasn’t all, of course. I’m interested in text and narrative as a writer, and I think our experiences with texts can shape our lives. After two years of doing this, I’ve become more aware of past or ongoing conversations about Infocom games, and it’s as good a time as any to restate or reevaluate some of my positions.

Point of clarification #1: why Infocom?

I’ve talked about the personal aspect of Gold Machine in the past, but this isn’t really a personal-feeling blog, is it? My prose is often formal, if not arch, and I have few confessions to make. If Infocom games do have personal meaning to me, that might be part of my motivation, but not necessarily relevant to my method. My childhood harbors many sources of nostalgia: Gary Gygax game manuals, DC Comics, Doctor Who reruns on PBS, Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in my part of the world), and so forth. Why Infocom?

I’ve said more than once that I wanted to apply my training as a reader and author to a new kind of text. I wanted to try something different. Text adventure games seemed a good way to go. Infocom, given my own tastes and experiences, was a natural fit. However, I do want to be clear: Infocom was never the only maker of good text adventure games, nor were they the only company worth writing about. I personally enjoyed many Telarium games despite their shortcomings and may write about them someday.

There is a tendency–a trap, I think–to wedge games into narrow ruts. There is a further anxiety over defining those ruts. The history of narrative video games is not a field of disconnected wallows. Things connect and overlap. People have conversations. Works have conversations. What if we thought of inspiration and influence in terms of epidemiology?

“Hm, Mr. Cook,” you might say, “what an odd tangent. Perhaps you should take another week off.” Let me try to reign myself in. I only mean to say that the 1980s was a time of many, many important developments in the history of narrative gaming. Working exclusively with one author or publisher can sometimes limit one’s understanding. For instance, I might wrongly suggest that Seastalker was unique, unusual, or even singular as a narrative game for children, when in fact Windham Classics released both Treasure Island and Below the Root in the same year.

The further I travel with this blog, the more interested I am in how narrative games evolved. I see Infocom as a vital ingredient, though not the only one. I think it’s hard, as a writer, to give a fair account of Infocom’s output. Their games were often discussed in “grown up” periodicals in “grown up” ways. They had a cultural reach that most publishers could never have achieved. It must be hard for younger readers to appreciate what a rare thing it was for a video game to be affirmed as suitably adult. Video games were, generally speaking, considered a waste of children’s time, to say nothing of grown-ups.

My mother’s father, quite seriously, told me that it would be better to throw my quarters away than it would be to spend them at the arcade. Video games weren’t just a waste of time, they were, in his mind, actively harmful.

I say all this to say: Infocom really was different in important ways. Still, it is very important that I, as a critic, be careful with statements like…

“…Nobody’s Ever Made a Game Like This”

Two years on, Gold Machine is an unusually large collection of writings about text adventure games. There aren’t many big, actively updating sites about the history narrative text games. In our small community, Jason Dyer’s All the Adventures stands out as an outstanding chronicle of less-known games. Gold Machine’s focus is ultimately quite narrow–by choice–but Dyer’s work reveals what a broad and varied market there was for text games in the time of Infocom.

I bring up Jason Dyer because my initial impulse is to say that “Nobody has ever made a game like Ballyhoo!” Now, “nobody ever” is a dangerous game for any writer to play, and I don’t trust myself with such explosive material. For me, “like Ballyhoo” means a seedy post-noir game with rich, evocative text that happens to be in a circus and handles time in a very specific way. We’ll talk about those qualities as a matter of course, but what about Ballyhoo’s setting? What circus games were available in 1986?

It’s always a good idea to search All the Adventures. Querying “circus” doesn’t return any meaningful hints. However, since Jason’s project involves playing games in chronological order, there isn’t much beyond 1982, which is the current focus of his work. Our next step is to check the Interactive Fiction Database, with a tag search: “circus.” There is only one result that predates Ballyhoo: Circus (1982). Perhaps it is safe to say: “Ballyhoo is the first narrative game to be geographically and thematically grounded in a circus. Not an abandoned circus grounds, mind you, but a real, operating circus with performers and animals!”

I am really sticking my neck out. So be it! Please leave any corrections in the comments!

An Actual Circus

Out of the gate, then, Ballyhoo promises a unique narrative experience. In the course of its story, the protagonist will explore all of the expected locales (and a few unexpected ones): the big top, side shows, a menagerie. The mood is one of deflated nostalgia. A memory of innocent pleasures and excitement is defaced by the reality of a cultural institution in decline. The fixtures and buildings seem run down, perhaps even dismal. Employees–even the clowns–seem disenchanted and bitter.

The jokes about one of the sideshow performers, “Tina, 827 pounds of feminine charm,” strike me as backward and insensitive, and yet there is something tragic and heartbreaking about her loneliness.

>wave at tina
She merely sighs wistfully, which creates a gale-force gust, and cranes her wrecking-ball-sized hand over to you.

>hold hand
As you take hold, the fat lady's hand becomes relaxed, its full weight now residing in your arms like a sandbag and making your knees buckle.

>shake hand
Though unable to budge the fat lady's hand, your friendly intentions are nevertheless understood. The fat lady appears quite taken by your kindnesses. She clasps both her hands up to her chins, and stares ahead in teary silence.

We later learn that the owner of the circus has been sabotaging her efforts to lose weight. “The Travelling Circus That Time Forgot” is a dark, miserable place that is frequently exploits or debases its dependents. Those who are strong enough exploit or debase the others. The feelies–some of Infocom’s very best–establish the darkly ironic gulf between nostalgic expectation and embittered reality. The sure-handed prose of new implementer Jeff O’Neill deftly evokes the marketing discourse of bygone days. The artwork, which imitates the early 20th-century practice of colorizing photographs with pastels, immediately evokes feelings of sentimentality and remembrance.

Not since the days of Lillian Leitzel have circus-goers been so entranced by a trapeze artiste. With her sequined tutu and halo of blonde hair. Glorious Gloria Golotov embodies the glamour and daring of the big top. Gloria dazzles audiences with an extraordinary repertoire of aerial splits. somersaults. and pirouettes. culminating in the stunning death-whirl made famous by Leitzel in the 1920’s.

Glorious Gloria. Queen of the Air… Captivates Crowds with her Courage and Flair… Weaving her Wondrous Aerial Spell… Glorious Gloria… Artiste Nonpareil!

We would have to go back to Deadline and The Witness to find such an emphasis on tone in an Infocom feelie. O’Neill’s dexterous prose capably subverts the expectations set by Ballyhoo‘s packed-in materials.

Over at the Midway: The Plot of Ballyhoo

The protagonist of Ballyhoo, who has always craved glory and applause, lingers after a performance of “The Traveling Circus That Time Forgot.” She (yes, finally! a confirmed she!) soon discovers that the manager’s daughter has been kidnapped. Ballyhoo is ostensibly a “Mystery,” sharing that category with Deadline, The Witness, and Suspect. For reasons we’ll explore next time, that connection often feels tenuous. Nevertheless, the location and condition of a little girl is the protagonist’s mystery to solve.

Unlike it’s fellow Mystery games, Ballyhoo involves solving old-fashioned puzzles like other Zorkian adventures. It isn’t always clear how the puzzles connect to the high-level goal of solving a mystery. The truth is, they often–usually?–don’t. For instance, at one point the protagonist frightens an elephant. Why? In typical adventure game logic the answer is simply: “there is a mouse and an elephant.”

>get mouse
You grasp the slick, narrow tail and lift, feeling the rodent's buzzing metabolism vibrate at your fingertips.

>show it to elephant
The mouse itself is in a fright. It squirms across the back of your hand, and then dangles once again from your grip.

Wide-eyed, the bull elephant takes one giant lumbering step backward. Its massive chains jingle as the bull begins rocking with slow-motion nervousness from side to side.

With upraised tusks and flailing trunk, the elephant backs you off.

>show it to elephant
A humid stream of air from the elephant's trunk blasts your face. The field mouse wriggles from your grip and scurries across the sawdust under Hannibal.

Time passes...

Loudly trumpeting its frustration, Hannibal of the Jungle thunders out of the tent, shearing its massive chain with a dull thud. The raging bull stampedes through a fence to the southwest.

Frightening the elephant opens a new area. Now, 1986 adventure gamers would know that this would be a worthwhile experiment, but it feels haphazard here. What sticks with the reader–with me, at least–is the care and thoughtfulness of O’Neill’s prose. Elsewhere, we have likely read his succinct, effective description of Hannibal.

>examine elephant
Behind two soulful eyes, gleaming white tusks, and lush palm-like ears stands the huge gray elephantine bulk that is Hannibal of the Jungle.

To my knowledge, Ballyhoo is the only Infocom game to use the word “soulful” [edit: Andrew Plotkin pointed out that O’Neill used it again in Nord and Bert couldn’t make head or tail of it.]

Along the way, we learn that the kidnapper is an underpaid and mistreated employee. While Ballyhoo never urges its characters to sieze the means of production, there is an ongoing tension between the respect granted Harvard MBA Munrab and the cramped dinginess of the performers’ lived experience. Ballyhoo is one of the rare Infocom games that seems deliberate in its treatment of social conditions in the world of its story.

The ending initially feels weightless after a game’s worth of skilled prose describing socially and culturally wrought conditions (spacing retained for emphasis):

You take a couple of tentative steps across the wire. You are now almost close enough to reach out and touch Mahler, and the effect of the music is to utterly relax the great ape. He lets loose the girl like a rag doll ... falling ... falling ... falling ... deep into the safety of the net!

The cheers of joy and relief from the group encircling the net interrupt Mahler's listening pleasure. With a stomp, he bounces you off your perch and on your way down, you catch the wire with your hand, thus saving two lives in the same move. You dangle here as the crowd below continues their self-congratulation and rejoicing.

Left Hanging
You're hanging from the high wire.

[What do you want to drop?]

>let go
Your sweaty hands slip off the wire.

The story of your evening's heroic deeds must have just been passed among the circus people below, because you feel the sudden pressure of your shoulders sinking deeply into the safety net and with a rousing chorus of "Hip hip hooray!" you are flung back high into the air, where you view the smiling upturned faces of your circle of boosters.

You float back down and on the second blast-off -- "Hip hip hooray!" -- you pass out, not so much from the acceleration as from the sheer exhilaration of having saved The Traveling Circus That Time Forgot, Inc.

Your score is 200 of a possible 200, in 1216 turns.

What would render the protagonist unconscious? And have they saved the circus? It seems as impossible as saving one’s childhood. Nevertheless, she has lived her fantasy–perhaps it truly feels that way to her. Nevertheless, one can still find things to admire. A room is named “Left Hanging,” for instance. There is a strange joy in entering “let go” as the winning move.

Ballyhoo is uneven. The puzzles often feel as if they are only there for their own sake. The story sometimes moves in lurches. Yet, its unique setting, polished feelies, and evocative writing set it apart. There is, I think, no other game like it.


I have avoided talking about it, but Ballyhoo is the first “grown up” game by Infocom in which the player can specify a male or female gender for its protagonist (no, we aren’t going to talk about Seastalker). Stay tuned for Ballyhoo: Gender and Time!

3 thoughts on “Ballyhoo: Big Top Noir

  1. i remember playing this game back on the day and liking it.

    But what confirms that the character is a she?

    I always thought of it being ambiguous

    1. Ballyhoo doesn’t confirm that the protagonist is a she. The player does. There is no way to progress without choosing. So the significance is that certainty is possible.

  2. oh. now i vaguely remember. you must punch a hole in a circus ticket or something like that with a male or female choice

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