In the Light: The Enchanter Trilogy

As below, so above.

Where Was I?

As a reminder, the goal of these past several posts has been to characterize the Zork and Enchanter trilogies as a single, unified group of games I refer to as the “Zork Saga”. I have based my argument on what I consider shared narrative and aesthetic features:

  • Geographies that reflect the heroes’ development in terms of power and character.
  • Humor that is typically quip-based, with occasional forays into farce or satire (note that I refer to the games as-released, and not to their 1984 reissues when applicable).
  • Terse language, sometimes poetic in its concision.
  • Concerned with power in many forms: cultural, colonial, individual, organizational, etc.

Now that we have returned to the Enchanter games–this digression began with Spellbreaker, remember–we can start examining the two trilogies in contrast:

  • A world that narrows as it deepens (Zork) vs. one that widens aboveground (Enchanter).
  • Individual power (Zork) versus organizational or even bureaucratic power (Enchanter).
  • Motivations: the Adventurer (protagonist of the Zork Trilogy) is motivated by ambition. The Novice (protagonist of the Enchanter trilogy), on the other hand, is out to save the world, if not the whole of creation.
  • Rising stakes. Zork can be reductively read as a story about territorial disputes. The Enchanter games, on the other hand, all deal with global (or greater) threats.
  • Nemeses: the Adventurer faces a human enemy in each game. The Novice, on the other hand, deals with the increasingly inhuman.
  • End-state: at the conclusion of each trilogy, the protagonists have entered into a new relationship with the world around them, and that relationship is defined by power. The Adventurer comes into power, while the Novice passes out of it.

Bringing It All Back Home

Structurally and thematically, I suggest that we view the Zork and Enchanter trilogies as a matched set. Take the geographies of each series, for instance. The geography of Zork, as I have said, narrows and descends. By the time the Adventurer faces the Dungeon Master, he has traveled far from the civilization represented by the white house. This protagonist has traversed the mostly empty map of a failed civilization before reaching its heart: a treasure room surrounded by a lake of fire. Its problems are local: the shipwrights at Accardi-by-the-Sea, for instance, probably won’t know the difference.

This character becomes more and more singular, passing from civilization beyond the unpassable mountains into a colonial outland (or should it be inland). In the end, he is only or purely an individual: so much so, in fact, that his predecessor must leave for parts unknown. There can be, as another franchise insists, only one.

As you gleefully 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.

The Novice, on the other hand, begins an outsider, an aspirant:

He recites a short spell and you appear. Belboz approaches, transfixing you with his gaze, and hands you the document. The other Enchanters await his decree. "These words, written ages ago, can have only one meaning. You, a novice Enchanter with but a few simple spells in your Book, must seek out Krill, explore the Castle he has overthrown, and learn his secrets. Only then may his vast evil be lessened or, with good fortune, destroyed."

The Circle rises and intones a richly woven spell, whose many textures imbue the small, darkened chamber with warmth and hope. There is a surge of power; you are Sent.

The novice’s journey, by contrast, is one into circles of greater influence, power, and prestige. This applies to the Circle of Enchanters, certainly, but the opening of Spellbreaker reveals a protagonist looked to by the world’s trade guilds as the person expected to resolve the problem of the world’s failing magic. There are no government functionaries there, no president of Quendor and certainly no Emperor Flathead.

An Interactive Fantasy
Copyright (c) 1985 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
SPELLBREAKER is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release 87 / Serial number 860904

Council Chamber
You are in the Council Chamber of the ancient Guild Hall at Borphee. To the south is the entry of the Guild Hall. There is a meeting of the guildmasters going on. You are standing among a group of about ten sorcerers, each the master of an Enchanters Guild chapter somewhere in the land.

In a sense, it really is as if the Enchanter Trilogy holds a mirror to the Zork Trilogy. This is, in my opinion, an exciting and productive way to read these games. Zork is concerned with fallen empires, colonial failure, and the struggle of the individual. The Enchanter games, on the other hand, are concerned with “civilization.” The Novice not only grows in magical power; he grows in political and worldly power. What are we to make of these treatments of power? Zork questions–even if it loses its nerve at times–the assumed values of the “treasure hunt” genre of games. The Enchanter Trilogy likewise interrogates the use of “magical” power in computer games. Indeed, Krill (Enchanter) is an evil warlock. Jee’arr (Sorcerer) is a demon who rightly believes that possessing the most powerful member of the Circle of Enchanters will empower it to take over the world. Spellbreaker‘s nemesis, the shadow, exists only as a consequence of the Novice’s magical power.

The Problem of Sorcerer

In terms of reader responses, there is no doubt that my writing on Sorcerer is the least-loved of anything posted here at Gold Machine. I don’t think it’s productive to revisit those old controversies now, but I do think that, in spite of perceived issues, it does fulfil key obligations to the wider text of the Zork Saga. Most of my concerns are with tone, which can be ascribed to the absent voices of Marc Blank and/or Dave Lebling. This does set Sorcerer apart in terms of its humor, which tilts distinctively toward the zany.

Nevertheless, it does conform in crucial ways. The geography, for instance, expands outward, and most of it is above ground. The nemesis escalates from human warlock to supernatural demon. While brief, the Novice’s place in the bureaucratic structure of the Accardi-by-the-Sea Circle is observed, and its locus of power is described in detail. While the treatment itself may not satisfy everyone, the use of ruined locales–the highway, Fort Griffspotter, and the like–effectively holds a mirror to the below-ground wastes of the Zork Trilogy.

Most important, both Zork II and Sorcerer deal with wizards and demons. Their powers and goals are different, but players must nevertheless overcome them. In both cases, the player becomes or replaces the wizard. The Adventurer wields the Wizard of Frobozz’s wand, while the Novice replaces Belboz as Guildmaster.

Back to Spellbreaker

I think we are able to discuss Spellbreaker once more, and I hope this lengthy digression has been productive. The final question is this: how does it serve as a conclusion to the six games of the Zork saga? To the Enchanter games specifically? I’ve read at least one critic that has suggested that Spellbreaker, by virtue of its puzzles and prose, stands above and beyond the Zork games, that we do it a disservice by thinking of it in terms of those other works.

I ask this: how does one go beyond transcendence? Mustn’t there be something to transcend? Spellbreaker was a commercially courageous game for Infocom, one that was unapologetically difficult and had–perhaps we have grown hardened to such things–a completely shocking ending. It was so shocking and subversive in fact that the next game with the name “Zork” in its title would rush to strip it of its teeth, to render it inert.

But that has nothing to do with these six games, or even this series of posts, concerned as they are with a group of transformational games with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

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