Enchanter dramatizes the exuberant spectacle of making and playing text adventure games.
In a previous post, I made a rather grand statement and left it dangling from a low branch. I had hoped to tempt you and your fellow readers. I had hoped to provoke you. “What’s all this,” I wanted someone to say, “why can’t you just talk about the door puzzle like a normal person?” This was the bait that I laid on the ground:
This is a game about the transformational power of language.
I meant it, too. In Enchanter, all power is derived from words, be they written, spoken, or read. The primary gameplay loop consists of finding pieces of writing, reading them, archiving them, and using them to find more pieces of writing. Enchanter is a text adventure about reading and writing text, which we play by reading and writing (typing) text.
Over the course of Enchanter, the Novice writes a book.
There is more to consider. Enchanter gamifies activities common to interactive fiction audiences (not protagonists). It presents the act of linguistic translation as a crucial problem-solving activity. It both elevates and lampoons Zork in terms of a new kind of canon formation. Enchanter features deceptively familiar fantasy tropes as a way to employ metafictive ambush tactics without alienating the reader.
Naturally, authors Marc Blank and Dave Lebling make an appearance. Enchanter, is, in a way, a story about their (and Infocom’s) waxing creative and commercial powers, about Infocom’s potent mixture of magic (technology) and text.
Interactive Media and Canon Formation
It is a common thing to say: Zork is “canonical.” Even I have said it. Perhaps it is so common that we no longer consider what it might mean. In the humanities, to invoke “the canon” is likely to invite controversy. After all, a survey of literary history (this is the humanities discipline I know best) will reveal that most so-called canonical authors are white and male. Questions arise as to who, historically, has designated authors as canonical, and it must be admitted: until very recently, such people were white men. A history of canonicity in the humanities is, in a very real way, a history of power.
Things do not seem so tricky with 1980s computer games–that was not so long ago, after all. Still, it has to be said that then-contemporary male audiences did not enjoy, for instance, playing as a woman and further rejected Plundered Hearts at the sales counter. Infocom’s lone attempt at having a woman write a game for women must have seemed, at the time, like a colossal commercial and artistic failure. At least there is a happy ending in this case: Plundered Hearts enjoys considerable goodwill among today’s audiences. It was out, and now it’s in.
I have taken my time getting here: given the strangeness and frequent unfairness of canon formation, what does it mean to call Zork “canonical?” Generally, when I think of canon, I think of works that nobody likes to read. However, scholars and students nevertheless read them because they’re important for one reason or another. I think (forgive me if you like Wycherly) that Restoration comedies like The Country Wife fall into that category. They’re works that I would never choose to read in my spare time, but I had to read such things for my 1996 English and Philosophy BA. Canonicity, therefore, is not just a characteristic. It is, in some situations, a motivation.
Perhaps that is why people who still play or write about Zork today do so: it is canon, so one must. Perhaps the line of thinking is that a “serious” IF person ought to play Zork, and possibly all of the other 32 “canonical” Infocom games. I’m not sure I can endorse that assertion, though. Let’s consider just a few of the sorts of people who are legitimately “serious” about interactive fiction. This listing is not exhaustive:
- The Reviewer of Contemporary IF: a person who posts reviews online at sites like IFDB.org. They work in a modern idiom and utilize modern gaming technology. One goal (not necessarily the only goal) of such reviews is to reach a recommendation as to whether one ought to play or not play a game, then assign it a quantitative rating. These reviews constitute a valuable element of community discourse, and constantly referring to games from the 1980s would not often make them more useful or valuable.
- The Contemporary Author of IF: While I suppose there is always value in knowing the history of one’s craft, not every work benefits from historical awareness or conversation with older works. Besides, the world of contemporary IF is bursting with high quality work of a more recent vintage. There are plenty of instructive IF texts available. Playing “Zork” does not make one a more “serious” author. At the same time, an author’s influences can imply a sort of canonicity.
- The Academic: This is a type that is beginning to emerge in greater numbers. I hope that trend will continue. The academic type writes about IF in a way that analytically blends the game’s text with its unique opportunities for player agency. From a textual perspective, critical practices from other disciplines such as visual art (photography, sculpture, painting, etc., etc.), literature (poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, etc.), music, as well as hybrid forms (like songwriting and illustrated narrative) may be be applied in concert with new approaches to critiquing interactive media. Working with non-academics, this type has a unique opportunity to promote formation of a more self-critical and just canon for IF specifically, and games generally. In other disciplines, academics are the primary contributors to canon formation.
- The Historian: The historian privileges a game’s history as essential to understanding and interpreting the game. Gaming history is a well-enjoyed type of discourse, perhaps because its specialists are careful researchers and strong writers. Perhaps I, as a person of a certain age (then again, perhaps every generation is this way), enjoy finding new ways to love what I already love. The existence of a detailed, historical account of a game implies its canonicity in most cases.
- The Reader (player): The reader is just as important as any other type. It is their experience that all other types attempt to speak to or otherwise assess. The reviewer gives advice to the player. The author creates media for them to experience. In many cases, the players speak from a work’s initial cultural context–this is vital information for the academic. Canon formation begins as a conversation between readers and other types.
This is not a contest, and I do not suggest a hierarchy of importance. Healthy artistic discourse requires all of these perspectives, and many more besides. It is important to consider these roles and activities now, because it is not clear who, if anyone, will do what I am doing in fifty years. Or, as a more widely-read example, what Jimmy Maher does. Without specialists, how will the critical and material history of gaming survive the people who write about it? I am not concerned about the validation of an Academy. Instead, I recognize that one first needs an institution in order to have institutional knowledge.
Is Zork canon IF? Is it a canon game? People are very interested in its history. Does a well-documented history make it a canon game? It seems so, but that may not be enough. Imagine, for instance, that there were nothing new to say about Infocom’s history. We all know about Al Vezza’s mismanagement of Infocom’s Business Projects division, driven as he was by a strange vanity seasoned with fears that games were not a “legitimate” business. Does anyone need to write about that again? If not, will Zork fall out of our canonical graces? This is where the academic and the historian shine. After all, there are all sorts of history. Certainly, there is the material history of Infocom, the things that it did, the products that it made, the people who worked there, its business reality. What about a history of influence? Zork I, II, III, and IV (Enchanter) indicate signs of Lebling’s interests in Dungeon & Dragons and fantasy literature. A historian or academic might write a historical account of the influence of Dungeons & Dragons on interactive media.
That history, of course, would be incomplete without a discussion of Zork and Enchanter.
I have talked about it here: what about the consumer microcomputer revolution, which allowed working class families and poor school districts to own computers for the first time? Zork never could have sold in the numbers it did without newly affordable technology. That is another kind of history. Because we never run out of cultural or artistic history, we will never run out of things to say about Zork.
Of course, we could say that about any work of art, so inexhaustibility does not guarantee canon status. So far as I can tell, these questions are not settled yet, but I will venture a rather circular statement: whether Zork is “canon” or not, it certainly seems productive to behave as if it is. It certainly is productive to write as if it is. I think, also, that the influence of Infocom is underestimated. In many circles, it is treated as a historical curiosity and a dead end in the evolution of interactive media. I find this a limited and overly mechanical point of view. I ask these questions:
- Before point and click games, let alone action-adventure games, where did the most mature and most well-known model of environmental interaction in a granular sense come from?
- Before there were conversation trees in role-playing games, where did the most mature and well-known model of NPC communication come from?
- What were the most mature and well-known models for worldbuilding? Especially in terms of smaller maps?
One thing that I would hope, long-term, is that academics and experts in the history of game design and interactivity (I lack the expertise) will write more about of the structural design of Infocom games and less about their puzzles and interfaces.
I worry that this has been a bit of a shaggy dog story, but an important question for Gold Machine is this: what makes a game a “classic?” Is that different from “canonical?” Finally, which one is Zork (and Enchanter)?
Enchanter, rather audaciously, seems to declare Zork both canonical and classical. It further asserts that interactive fiction, with its focus on words and text, is a new, groundbreaking, and sophisticated medium. It refers to itself, it refers to its history, and it refers to its authors. Enchanter, in other words, is as subversive as Zork III would have liked to be. Underneath it’s tropey surface, Enchanter is a prolonged work of metafiction, and it is likely Interactive Fiction’s first (correct me in the comments if you can think of something else).
Metafiction and the power of the written Word
As I have already said, Enchanter is a text game about text games. It’s worth discussing this assertion in detail. In my first, introductory post, I summarized Enchanter‘s magic system. The Novice has a book of spells. This is the source of his power. Over the course of the game, he finds new spells, which he adds to the book. Thus, his power is measured by the amount of text he has collected and archived. Problems are solved by invoking the words in the text, and his reward is typically another scroll, which he adds to the book. Here’s a summary of Enchanter‘s gameplay loop:
- Novice finds a jeweled egg (a Zork reference). It is mechanically complex (just as Zork‘s egg is), and difficult (impossible?) to open manually.
- Novice casts REZROV (open even enchanted or locked objects) on the egg.
- The egg’s internal mechanisms are bladed, and shred what appears to be a scroll inside the egg.
- The Novice finds a KREBF (repair willful damage) scroll in a forest. He uses the GNUSTO (write a magic spell into a spell book) spell to archive KREBF in his spell book.
- The Novice casts the KREBF spell on the shredded scroll from the egg, and it is reformed as the ZIFMIA (magically summon a being) scroll.
- He archives ZIFMIA, hopefully realizing that he can ZIFMIA the Adventurer from Zork I.
- …and so on.
The gameplay consists almost entirely of finding text, archiving text, and reciting text. Krill, the Novice’s nemesis, is only described in terms of his spoken words. The game, even when asked, will not describe him in physical terms.
Krill is not a pretty sight! Enough said.
It’s a rather provocative choice of words, given the current discussion. The text cares only for his words. From the same scene:
In a voice as deep as the great caverns of the earth, he speaks: "Fool! Parlor magician! You dare to defile my chamber with your worm-like presence. I shall not waste words with you. Goodbye, spell-monger!"
"A fine spell, wizard-worm, but your luck has ended!"
"I am through playing games, carnival-clown! You shall return to your Circle, but I am afraid that all the little pieces will prove hard to reassemble!"
Krill recoils as he hears the first words of the guncho spell. For a few seconds he continues with the spell he was casting, trying to finish before you. He fumbles some syllables!
As an added bonus:
>zifmia Krill The warlock Krill appears before you, staring in astonishment. "Who is it that disturbs my slumber? Oh, it is only you, secondary-school sorcerer!" He points a finger and chants a spell. You are cast into the endless void!
In this game, power is measured in terms of text. At the game’s end, Krill “fumbles some syllables,” and this is his undoing. In the world of Enchanter, a villain is only as good as his words. In Enchanter–and in IF generally–the world is changed by words, by language.
The Self-Referential Nature of eNCHANTER
I have said that Enchanter declares Zork canonical, but how would that work?
In the first place, Enchanter invites the player to reinterpret and critique Zork by offering up the “cartoonish figure” (one of the Novice’s dreams) of the Adventurer as an object of ridicule and parody.
I’m sure most agree that the Adventurer’s behavior in Enchanter is humorous, but what does his characterization mean? Does it change our understanding of Zork I? I do not yet intend to answer these questions. The important point is that Enchanter asks them. It encourages us to reevaluate our experiences with Zork while it simultaneously amuses us.
By calling our attention to Zork‘s material and critical history, Enchanter makes perhaps the most convincing argument possible for Zork‘s canonicity. Enchanter doesn’t say that Zork is canonical. Rather, it behaves as if Zork is canonical. The text assumes that Zork is a canonical work, that its history and interpretation are significant.
The appearance of the Adventurer is not the only way that Enchanter calls attention to its own legacy as a Zork game. There are paintings of Lord Dimwit Flathead and the Wizard of Frobozz. The village is, while above ground, as desolate as any part of the Great Underground Empire is. The jeweled egg is a new take on a Zork I puzzle.
Like most works of metafiction, Enchanter‘s self-referentiality extends to dramatizing the author(s) in the midst of the creative act:
>zifmia implementors The implementers of the world, Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, appear before you, looking quite as confused as yourself. They speak: Dave: "What's happening here?" Marc: "Uh, I dunno. YOU wrote this code, not me." Dave: "Hmm. Another day, another bug. Let's see here..." They disappear a moment later. Dave's voice: "That should do it."
As programmers, they fittingly characterize the player’s behavior as a software bug.
**** You have died ****
Perhaps Enchanter‘s most artful act of self-reference is the notorious “sacrifice” at the temple. It is, I am confident, the only case in which Infocom implemented the exact same scene in two different games. I would liken it to a called shot in pool: from faraway Zork III, Marc Blank declared that “Zork IV” would feature a specific dramatic moment. Here is the scene from Zork III:
Scenic Vista You are in a small chamber carved in the rock, with the sole exit to the north. Mounted on one wall is a table labelled "Scenic Vista," whose featureless surface is angled toward you. One might believe that the table was used to indicate points of interest in the view from this spot, like those found in many parks. On the other hand, your surroundings are far from spacious and by no stretch of the imagination could this spot be considered scenic. An indicator above the table reads "III". Mounted on one wall is a flaming torch, which fills the room with a flickering light. The indicator above the table flickers briefly, then changes to "IV". >touch table You touch the table and are instantly transported to another place! Sacrificial Altar This is the interior of a huge temple of primitive construction. A few flickering torches cast a sallow illumination over the altar, which is still drenched with the blood of human sacrifice. Behind the altar is an enormous statue of a demon which seems to reach towards you with dripping fangs and razor-sharp talons. A low noise begins behind you, and you turn to see hundreds of hunched and hairy shapes. A guttural chant issues from their throats. Near you stands a figure draped in a robe of deepest black, brandishing a huge sword. The chant grows louder as the robed figure approaches the altar. The large figure spots you and approaches menacingly. He reaches into his cloak and pulls out a great, glowing dagger. He pulls you onto the altar, and with a murmur of approval from the throng, he slices you neatly across your abdomen. **** You have died ****
Like the royalty of long-passed days, Zork III names its successor. Conversely, with this scene, Enchanter lays claim to its canonical ancestry. It marks itself as heir to a culturally significant legacy (these were the days when the New York Times wrote glowing articles about Infocom’s growing body of work).
This degree of gaming intertextuality is highly unusual. It is quite common to see variations and callbacks. In many Resident Evil games, for instance, the endgame occurs in or near a laboratory. Those aren’t the same laboratories, though. Instead, these different locations underscore certain recurring themes in the franchise.
Having described this scene, it is worthwhile to return to Zork and the Adventurer. After all, this is a scene that the Adventurer cannot survive, and it reinforces the idea that the Adventurer is a bit of an ineffectual bumbler. I have to wonder, though: which Adventurer does Enchanter mock? Does he hail from Zork I, Zork II, or Zork III? You may recall my essay on the implications of Deadline‘s use of linear time in a world of independently scheduled events. I argued that the world of Deadline, unlike that of Zork, existed in an indeterminate or quantum state and that it could be described by the many worlds interpretation. I still believe that’s true. While there might be multiple attempts and deaths leading to a successful playthrough of Zork, the world itself is largely static and, therefore, determinate.
I think Enchanter invites us to think about Zorkian worldlines in a different sense, and it relies on what I will call player idiosyncrasies. While the world of Zork is static, its audience is not. The hundreds of thousands of players of Zork, while all doing similar things, did them in different orders. They interpreted the text of Zork in their own, idiosyncratic ways. They either finished the game or did not, either solved a given puzzle or did not. They either thought about puzzles in the shower or did not. They blew themselves up in the Smelly Room or did not. They talked to their friends about it or did not. They either got hints or did not. A seemingly limitless number of distinctions, of either/or states, exists in terms of audience.
There is a different sort of indeterminable condition present even in a determinate world like Zork‘s. It is not a quantum system simulated by its software. Rather, because player interaction is essential to the experience of Zork and, moreover, because the specific interactions and behaviors of players are indeterminate, Zork time can be described by a worldline interpretation of its own. “Which Zork?” is the wrong question. The more important question is “Whose Zork? Whose Adventurer?”
It is a mistake to think of Enchanter‘s Adventurer as a lampoon of the series generally. Since we already have authors and scholars/historians in the mix, it is time to incorporate the audience in this discussion. After all, this is not the Adventurer who bargained with a demon and vanquished the Wizard of Frobozz, nor is it the somber fellow who walked the Land of Shadow. This Adventurer is a critique of a certain type of player and of a certain type of gameplay. He is funny, not because the Adventurer is by nature funny, but because we have likely played this way ourselves, goofing off with the parser and picking up every item lying around.
If my argument does not convince, consider the presence of the map/GUNCHO puzzle. It looks like a map that a player might draw: lines connecting locations. Mapping, of course, is a core gameplay mechanic for players, not protagonists. The puzzle’s frame of reference is a metagame, player-performed action. Through gameplay and characterization, the player is inseparable from the text of Enchanter.
This particular Adventurer may have jumped in the lake with his Lantern or some such thing, and, at one point or another, he is all of us. Somehow, in Enchanter‘s modestly-sized map, Lebling and Blank have crowded us, themselves, and an initial foray into canon formation together in a structure that is built with text, owes its interactivity to text, and is ultimately completed via text. Enchanter is bursting with joy, drunk with laughter, and incredibly pleased with itself and the promises of interactive text. Many of us, I am sure, regard Enchanter in similarly affectionate terms.
Final Thoughts on Enchanter
I believe that I have two favorite Infocom games, and I like them for similar reasons. In their day, they each made promises about the future of video games, promises worth making and keeping. One is A Mind Forever Voyaging, which seems forever doomed to bob along a very limited stream of discourse consisting largely of unfavorable comparisons with Trinity. I suppose that is where our critical obsessions with lists and aggregators drive us. We are driven to compare incomparable things. Perhaps we would compare chickpeas and coffee grinders, if only someone would make games of them.
A Mind Forever Voyaging was a uniquely aspirational game. It asserted that interaction could be its own reward. Rather idealistically, it claimed that one need not find keys or treasures for exploration to be meaningful. It demonstrated that games–however inelegantly–could be tools of social critique, that games were more than amusements, that they could be understood as objects of cultural significance. A Mind Forever Voyaging is, in its own way, a historic moment in the history of video games. It is audaciously ambitious, and, I fear, more prescient than critics of the aughts and teens could recognize.
I love Enchanter in a similar way. I love its reach. It is, perhaps more than any other Infocom game, a work of pure joy. It is filled with the joy of creation, the joy of interaction, and the joy of the company of its Zorkian brethren. It sings with the unlimited potential of text, and we players repay it with text of our own. It is a game that joyously enters into conversations with itself, and, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, it announces the possibilities of a new artistic medium. It was, at its time, the most compelling and fresh example of gating progress on a varied map behind the protagonist’s abilities (see later: Metroid). In the early 1980s, it seemed like there was nothing that IF couldn’t do. We were right in thinking so.
I think Enchanter was the first Infocom game that I completed. The timeline is a little muddy, because I usually had multiple games going at a time (I would switch games whenever I got stuck, and I got stuck a lot). Despite being very intimate with the game, I can still return to it and experience its exuberance and wonder. Whatever the critical judgement may be, it will remain a part of my own canon.