Infidel: The Ugly American

He’s no Lear, that’s for sure.

Infidel (1983)
Implemented by Mike Berlyn

Packaging, Documentation, and Extras: Infidel

Infidel folio packaging (MoCAGH)
Infidel grey box packaging (MoCAGH)
Infidel Invisiclues map (MoCAGH)
(Note: For best results, open MoCAGH images in a new tab)
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Infidel
Z-Code Invisiclues (open with an interpreter like Frotz)
Nathan Simpson’s List of Bugs: Infidel


(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 77 (110)
Vocabulary: 613 (697)
Takeable Objects: 57 (60)
Size: 93.6KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 16,620 (14,214)


You wake slowly, sit up in your bunk, look around the tent, and try to ignore the pounding in your head, the cottony taste in your mouth, and the ache in your stomach. The droning of a plane's engine breaks the stillness and you realize that things outside are quiet -- too quiet. You know that this can mean only one thing: your workmen have deserted you. They complained over the last few weeks, grumbling about the small pay and lack of food, and your inability to locate the pyramid. And after what you stupidly did yesterday, trying to make them work on a holy day, their leaving is understandable.

The Professor's map was just an ancient map -- as worthless as an ice cube in the Arctic without an instrument fine enough to accurately measure longitude and latitude. You knew that the site was nearby. You dug, and you ordered the workers to dig, even without the box. As you listen to the plane and rub your aching eyes, you pray they left you supplies enough to find the pyramid and to survive, and that the plane's carrying the long-overdue box.

Copyright 1983 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
INFIDEL is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release 22 / Serial number 830916

Your Tent
(You are in the army cot.)
You are in your tent. Golden rays of the sun filter through the open tent flaps on the southern wall, but no breeze makes its way through. The dry, searing heat in the tent would be bearable if only the air stirred, even a little.
At the foot of the cot is a large, unwieldy trunk. The trunk is closed and locked with a padlock.

This essay spoils the endings of Infidel and An American Tragedy. I am an American, and I sometimes use “us” or “we” in that sense.

American Essay: A Critical Introduction to Infidel

The title of Theodore Dreiser’s corpulent and relentlessly deadpan 1925 novel An American Tragedy implies that American tragedies are distinct and separate from their European (Greek, Shakespearean, etc.) ancestors. Over the years, American artists (and others) have delineated the things that define us (and that we, in turn, define) as exceptional. A few decades later, the American (there it goes again!) Beat Poets would enthuse over the adjective: American night, American wilderness, American River. Tom Petty sang of an “American Girl.” For Paul Simon, it was an “American Tune.” If Dreiser were given to flights of poetic fancy, we might read him as we read the Beats, declaring as they did a new sort of night/wilderness/tragedy/mouthwash that is unspoiled, open, and seemingly inexhaustible.

Those of us familiar with Dreiser know that he is not a writer governed by poetic impulse.

If we are to take Dreiser seriously, though, we must recognize that an Americanized tragedy is an impoverished one. It is a bit like American cheese, or American healthcare. Clyde, the supposed “hero” of An American Tragedy, is a product of American economic, class, and ideological machinery: empty-headed, self-involved, and resentful. The American tragedy, to Dreiser, is not the tragic fall of a person. Rather, it seems the waste and misery of American tragedy is a consequence of negative social forces.

Rather than getting caught up in a bunch of nonsense about Aristotle, I will say that classical tragedy and American tragedy differ in three very important ways:

  1. In classical tragedy, the tragic figure has a reciprocal relationship with society. Their decisions affect the lives of others and vice versa. In American tragedy, society, which is indifferent to the lives of its citizens, affects the tragic figure but cannot be affected by them.
  2. In classical tragedy, the death of the tragic figure brings society together. They grieve and move forward. In American tragedy, the death is just one more ugly thing in an already-ugly world.
  3. In classical tragedy, there is an externally recognizable moral law that either does or should govern the universe. This law can be either religious or arrived at by reason. It is not important. What is important is that the denouement of classical tragedy involves a course correction–society moves, together, in the direction of that recognized good. In American tragedy, there is no “moral arc of the universe”–the death of its protagonists are seldom cathartic. The community does not heal, and death rarely has even a palliative effect.

My father, who taught community college English for 40 years (a rather thankless job), sometimes corrects the news or radio when he hears the word “tragedy.”

“That isn’t a tragedy,” he says. “It’s a bummer.”

Part of a promotional for the 1931 movie adapatation of Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy. The top of the poster is bordered by the film's title. It is written in wide, red capital letters. Below is a colorized photograph of a man and a woman looking into each-other's eyes. The man's face is turned away from us, so we cannot see his expression. The woman looks at him with wide, startled eyes. She wears a pink dress and her black hair is cut short in a very old-fashioned style. In her left hand, she holds a bouquet of recently-picked flowers--the dirt and roots are visible. A pretty far cry from Infidel.

Is Infidel a Tragedy? If so, What Kind?

Infidel is not what I would call a well-loved game, even though its primary mechanic–translating hieroglyphics–was novel and rewarding. While deaths are frequent, all but one are rather weightless and easily ameliorated by frequent saving of the kind required by 1980s adventure games.

It can’t be the packaging, either. Infidel‘s folio is a typically generous affair with several interesting and convincing items bundled inside.

No, what really seems to bother audiences–then and now–is the personality and fate of its protagonist, best summarized by an uncharacteristically dismissive Jimmy Maher: “We’re left with just a petty little person doing petty little things, and hoisted from his own petty little petard in consequence.” While many game reviewers of the 1980s saw Infidel as an aberration, many well-regarded critics of the next millennium damn it with faint praise, as if overcoming the momentum of convention is not sometimes an end in itself.

I have not already named the point of contention: the protagonist of Infidel, a lying, self-interested, colonizing jerk, dies at the end.

While I will save the details for next time, Infidel, rather incredibly, seems to take on the shape of neither classical nor American tragedy. Even though I often see it characterized as a tragedy, Infidel is most certainly a bummer. A bummer for whom? It was a bummer for those players and fans (I believe that there would be no literary readings of Infidel for over a decade) who hoped to once again realize their digitized fantasies of power and mastery. I’ll say this now: there are an uncountable number of games that congratulate players on their skill and character. It is rather ungenerous to insist that Infidel must do so, as well.

It is important to note that there were many fans of Infidel in its day, even if their voices were neither the loudest nor the most numerous. I was one such person. Perhaps some of you were, too.

Infidel: Are You not Entertained?

Infidel, then, is a bummer, and an innovative and transformational bummer at that. In many ways, it finishes the job that Zork III failed to do. Infidel is an exhaustive takedown of the treasure hunt oeuvre and of adventure gaming’s exaltation of self-interested desecration and looting. Like the comical Adventurer appearing in Enchanter, the protagonist of Infidel is not only a critique of games and their tropes. He is a critique of the adventure gaming audience, of us.

It is a shame that Infidel could not find a sufficiently numerous and tolerant audience. Berlyn’s work on Infidel was perceived–both internally and externally–as a botch. Infocom would not make many other attempts at characterization beyond the Zorkian self-insert model. Plundered Hearts, another game that dared to feature a specific person as a protagonist, was a colossal failure financially. It is not a power fantasy or a fantasy of mastery, either. So far as other negative or ambivalent endings go, I can only think of Trinity, which remains a highly qualified fantasy of mastery (we’ll get our chance to argue over that, so stick around!). Perhaps more important: the protagonist of Trinity, unlike that of Infidel, is not responsible for the game’s outcome. Rather, they are a sympathetic and hapless victim of circumstance.

Fan responses left Berlyn cowed and probably bitter. After an incredible and innovative start at Infocom (Suspended, Infidel), he sputtered out with the middling Cutthroats and the rather incomprehensible Fooblitzky.

So far as more contemporary audiences go, Infidel is rated just above the rather criminally underrated Deadline at the Interactive Fiction Database, where they both languish in the bottom half of the Infocom canon along with Seastalker, Journey, and The Witness. There are only two reader reviews (four and five stars), so we may never know why our silent peers prefer Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

>get knapsack

Since nearly all characterization of the protagonist occurs in Infidel‘s feelies, examining them should be especially productive. In next week’s essay, I’ll assess his character and discuss him in terms of Infidel‘s controversial ending. In the third and final essay, I’ll return to those old, Zorkian questions of colonization, fallen civilizations, and the ethical implications of treasure hunting looting.

Disagree? I imagine some of you must. Get in touch!

8 thoughts on “Infidel: The Ugly American

  1. I don’t remember even reflecting on the characterization of the protagonist in Infidel when I first played it. Maybe I would have if there had been a playable section describing the events of the evening before the game begins, but as it is… Once the game started, no matter what it said, I was just being me.

    I think the ending had been at least mildly spoiled for me in advance (I didn’t get to play it until the release of the Lost Treasures of Infocom), because I don’t remember reflecting much on that either. So I don’t think any of that colored my perception of the game. I just didn’t find it particularly memorable. After the innovations of the games that came before it, mechanically it does feel like a bit of a step backwards.

    But I don’t know what it could have done differently. In a way, I respect it for staying grounded in a – mostly – believable reality (with the caveat that I know little to nothing about ancient Egypt), with no reanimated mummies, curses or ancient mystic cults in sight.

    1. “Once the game started, no matter what it said, I was just being me.” A shortcoming of the game’s text is that it only occasionally calls our attention to the personality of the protagonist. Be that as it may, it has always been a fundamental assumption of this project that many sources are essential to understanding the “text” of an Infocom game. In Infidel’s case, that means that the journal and the letter are not merely “extras,” they are indispensable.

      I’m surprised that I never got any pushback over this assertion. The IF community is, in large part, a community of programmers (no offense intended). Didn’t it begin as a reverse engineering project? The answers to most questions lie in code, or platform characteristics, or whatnot. Or in puzzles, of course, because sometimes good programming can present as an elegant solution to a problem. While people enjoy Infocom’s packaging, I don’t think many would call it “essential” (except as copy protection).

      I always use this as an example because I think it’s straightforward. Many extremely intelligent people believe that Deadline is unfair because the player must SEARCH NEAR THE HOLES. Why, they ask, would anyone, ever in a million years, SEARCH NEAR anything? The answer, as I am fond of pointing out, is that it’s in the manual. Which is part of the text. And really, where else would you search near anything? Perhaps the teacup in the library? Deadline without a manual is an incomplete text. Likewise, the materials shipped with Infidel were crucial to the overall experience.

      “After the innovations of the games that came before it, mechanically it does feel like a bit of a step backwards.” I think a lot depends on your interest in the hieroglyphics. The game (the gamey game part of it) puts all of its eggs in that basket. I’ve seen Jimmy Maher and others–maybe the Eaten by a Grue folks mentioned it too–say that the puzzles can be solved without deciphering the ‘glyphs. I don’t think that would be a lot of fun, though. Without the decoding exercise, I’m not sure the gameplay would have held my interest.

      As a last thought on innovation: from a history of video games perspective, Infidel’s characterization seems quite groundbreaking. I can’t think of other narrative game developers that attempted anything similar at the time–including Infocom.

      It’s not a game I want to play again (like Enchanter for instance), but I do recognize it as a gutsy troublemaker. It’s a shame Mike Berlyn’s career at Infocom took a nosedive; you don’t like Cutthroats more than Infidel, do you?

  2. “In Infidel’s case, that means that the journal and the letter are not merely “extras,” they are indispensable.”

    I probably didn’t spend enough time reading those. That they’re hand-written makes sense, but I find them hard to read (I have the same problem with the Grail Diary in LucasArts’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and the Lost Treasures manual probably isn’t as inspiring as the original packaging.

    “I think a lot depends on your interest in the hieroglyphics.”

    I nice enough idea, but quite my cup of tea I’m afraid.

    “you don’t like Cutthroats more than Infidel, do you?”

    There’s no clear-cut answer to that question, really. I do have the original box for that one, so it – unfairly – gets points for that.

    I did enjoy the first part of it, when you’re still on the island. It was fun walking around, chatting with the locals and trying not to raise suspicion. Other than Infocom, the only adventure game I had played with other characters walking around was The Hobbit on the ZX Spectrum, and if you’ve ever played that one you know what a glorious mess that one could be. The Infocom NPCs may have been on rails, but at least they acted somewhat believably.

    By comparison, exploring the ship wrecks wasn’t nearly as interesting, and that disappointed me since the cover art made it seem that this would be the main focus of the game. Having to replay that section to make sure you had the right equipment wasn’t very fun either.

    Looking at the leaked source code it seems that things were cut (possibly for space) from the final game, but I don’t know if they would have made it better. I can’t quite make out what it was supposed to do. It seems you were meant to keep watch during the night, making sure the boat didn’t hit any obstacles, and it looks like McGinty could – at least in some circumstance – actively try to sabotage the expedition by tossing your equipment overboard.

    1. That makes sense. If the ‘glyphs aren’t enjoyable then the game is likely boring–it would be for me, anyway.

      Oddly, I have two copies of Infidel, one folio and one grey box. I don’t like it *that* much, but I found a very cheap folio that I couldn’t pass by.

      Since I liked Infidel, Cutthroats was a disappointment for me. I liked the idea of the game, but the execution bothered me. I never understood how I was supposed to know what gear to buy, and it seemed harsh to have game-changing consequences for carrying pocket-sized booklets or pieces of paper. Everything felt very random. Does the game ever tell you that McGinty is trouble? Or do you only know after he ruins the game?

      The multiple wrecks thing had potential but having to replay the whole beginning each time made it less enjoyable.

      Cutthroats was only the second Infocom game I didn’t like, the first being Seastalker (I know I come down pretty hard on The Witness, but it had good atmosphere and very strong feelies/documentation).

      I had the Commodore 64 version of the Hobbit. I remember NPCs just randomly wandering in and out all the time! It came with the novel though, which was nice. A good feelie.

  3. These questions of genre are interesting ones, and I think intersect with audience expectations in potentially-significant ways. I’m not well-informed on the history of tragedy by any means, but my sense is that audiences almost always know what they’re getting — to stick with the examples you raise, in the classical theatrical tradition the division of comedy vs. tragedy and the attendant storytelling formalisms and tropes should have left no doubt in contemporary audiences’ minds, and certainly Dreiser wants to make sure you know what you’re getting into.

    (Sidenote: I was once trying to remember Dr. Seuss’s real name, and confidently said to my friends that it was Theodore Dreiser. Close but no cigar, though it did lead to entertaining speculation on the content of such books as The Cat Procures An Abortion For His Mistress).

    This makes sense, because part of what makes tragedy dramatically interesting is looking for how the seeds of a character’s fall are revealed, which allows the reader/audience to experience catharsis when the recognition scene/climax is reached. But if you’re not aware of the shape of the story going into it, you won’t experience that sense of the tragic ending neatly fitting what’s come before, because you might have been keying in on the wrong details. Of course a sufficiently perceptive reader/audience would be able to readjust their expectations as they go, but for early players of IF who’d never experienced such a thing before and might have been more inclined to focus on the puzzles rather than the (not very subtly-conveyed) villainy of the protagonist, I think it’s forgivable that many folks found Infidel’s ending an unsatisfying gut-punch — or at least, to me it’s more forgivable than the negative reaction to Plundered Hearts, because I *really* have a hard time putting myself in a headspace where I wouldn’t like Plundered Hearts.

    Anyway I knew about the ending to Infidel going in — which I think is true for most modern players? — and I did read the feelies, which really do make very clear that the main character is an asshole who’s richly deserving of comeuppance. As a result, I didn’t have much of the stereotypical “I’m the PC” feeling, and as a result the game actually seemed less like a tragedy to me than a dark comedy, with a schmuck main character running around putting in enormous effort (and save-and-reloading his way through several anticipatory deaths) before his foolishness dooms him in a supremely-ironic, but eminently-predictable, twist. Viewed in that light it’s a fairly entertaining experience, and as I’m sure you’ll get into in future instalments, Infidel also explodes a lot of the colonialism/Orientalist looting that goes underinterrogated in most other IF, which is also pretty satisfying to a more modern audience.

    Looking forward to the next couple articles!

    1. “The Cat Procures An Abortion For His Mistress:” I am sure that any momentary embarrassment was worth the jokes that followed!

      I think one of the struggle points for audiences would have been the lack of tragic “scaffolding.” Within such a structure, a player might feel that they are participating in something worthwhile, but our protagonist doesn’t measure up. He is not even an anti-hero. Moreover, there is no larger social apparatus for the drama to inhabit–isn’t tragedy ultimately a social phenomenon?

      I think your reading of it as darkly comic is probably closer to Berlyn’s intent than the alternatives.

      I admire Infidel more for its audacity than for its deftness. I do understand why customers might have been bothered, but I feel Infidel’s experiment was necessary and inevitable. I still occasionally encounter people who think Infidel can and should be “fixed.” Some of them, even after all these years, sound angry.

      I appreciate your thoughtful take!

  4. “Does the game ever tell you that McGinty is trouble?”

    I know both Johnny and Pete will tell you that they don’t like him if you ask. (The Weasel thinks he’s ok, though.) I don’t remember if there’s anything else.

  5. I have the folio of Infidel.

    If you’re looking at my other comments, you’ll see that I got stuck at Starcross on the copy protection (couldn’t figure out how to get the coordinates off the map), on Suspended with the map bug in the FC computers, and so on….

    …well, in Infidel, on original playthrough in the 1980s, I *never found the underground temple/tomb*. I actually spent the game trying to find a way to escape the camp, since it was clear I had been left to starve and die, and that seemed like it was worth avoiding. Of course, the game doesn’t let you do that.

    The game gets a lot better if you can actually successfully dig into the temple, as I discovered decades later with the walkthrough…. once I made it into the temple I actually reached the end of the game on the first try.

    You may notice a recurring theme here. I love Wishbringer (the only Infocom game I ever completed without hints) and Zork I because they let me in at the beginning. Many of the other games in the canon had an obstacle early on which blocked the entire game. This is the equivalent of having an extremely off-putting opening chapter in a book: many readers will never get past it.

    I like the darkly-comic interpretation, but I feel that the game needed more early-game hints that the player character should obessively search for the temple even though that’s a completely self-destructive thing to do. Nowadays we’d have the game constantly nudging you to go dig up the temple/tomb, in the way that The Witness nudges you to sit down on the chair — Stu Galley was better at this particular technical craft aspect than Mike Berlyn was.

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