What would happen if auteur studio Infocom gave Zork to another Implementor?
Implemented by Steve Meretzky
Packaging, Documentation, and Extras: Sorcerer
Sorcerer folio packaging (MoCAGH)
Sorcerer grey box packaging (MoCAGH)
Sorcerer Invisiclues map (MoCAGH)
(Note: For best results, open MoCAGH images in new tab)
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Sorcerer
Nathan Simpson’s Bug List: Sorcerer
New! Screen-reader documentation for Sorcerer (IDP)
New! Infocom’s Invisiclues online (courtesy of IDP and Parchment)
Extra! Play transcript (Includes all Encyclopedia Frobozzica entries)
(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: 84 (110)
Vocabulary: 1013 (697)
Takeable Objects: 36 (60)
Size: 108.6KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 17,193 (14,214)
You are in a strange location, but you cannot remember how you got here. Everything is hazy, as though viewed through a gauze... Twisted Forest You are on a path through a blighted forest. The trees are sickly, and there is no undergrowth at all. One tree here looks climbable. The path, which ends here, continues to the northeast. A hellhound is racing straight toward you, its open jaws displaying rows of razor-sharp teeth.
This essay does not contain spoilers.
Sorcerer, a game that has–on paper–everything going for it, is frequently characterized as a Perfectly Serviceable™ adventure game. Its puzzles are fair and reasonably clued, and two of them are among Infocom’s very best. It affords an opportunity to return to the hijinks and hilarity of the Zork universe, and what’s not to like about that? It uses the beloved magic system from Enchanter, which, I have argued, is uniquely able to take advantage of parser-based gameplay. Moreover, Sorcerer was authored by Steve Meretzky, that formidable new talent behind Planetfall.
And yet Sorcerer is the sagging middle entry in the Enchanter trilogy and a frequent recipient of less-than-energetic praise. Even by Infocom standards, there is little to propel the protagonist forward. While many qualities might contribute to a sense of Zork-ness, Sorcerer often seems satisfied with wisecracks and aimlessness as its primary worldbuilding pillars. Since I have written so much about the Zork trilogy, you might rightfully guess that I think that a Zorkian atmosphere involves more than just “bloit” this, Flathead that.
It seems a good time to ask you, dear reader: when do you believe that Infocom’s golden age ended? I suppose it depends on how one defines a “golden age.” I’ll offer two characteristics of an artistic golden age:
- A period in which an entity (culture, civilization, organization, person, etc.) experiences a time of unmatched innovation and creative output.
- A period in which an
entity’s best days lie ahead.(EDIT July 10, 2023: Let’s say instead that the best days are at hand, and all that follows will be decline.)
As I have often said, Gold Machine is not a historical survey of Infocom’s games, personnel, or business ventures. Jimmy Maher has covered that ground well. However, it would be obtuse of me to ignore certain business realities at the time of Sorcerer‘s release. For instance, Al Vezza replaced Joel Berez as Infocom’s CEO in January 1984, primarily to secure financing (loans) for Infocom’s Business Products Division. In other words, 1984 was the year that, from a leadership and investment perspective, Infocom became a business software company who also made games. Cornerstone–Infocom’s relational database product–will get an article of its own here, but for now it is enough to say that it siphoned off any funds that might have been otherwise used for research and innovation in the gaming space. Remember that technological sophistication was a crucial element of Infocom’s early success: both its parser and virtual machine technologies were far beyond the capabilities of their competitors.
All Good Things: Sorcerer
Business realities aside, there are good reasons to argue that Infocom’s golden age ended at the close of 1983. Sorcerer, as competent as it is, is the first Infocom game that does not, in some way or another, attempt to move the medium forward. It is a mechanically excellent game, and it features Infocom’s industry-best parser, but we players–perhaps unfairly–had come to expect a revolution in each new box. Even the frequently disappointing The Witness featured highly evocative prose; it attempted to reach new heights with its noir atmosphere.
Sorcerer is not a bad game, then, but it does mark the end of a golden age of innovation and creative ascendancy at Infocom. It also reflects a fateful moment for the Zork universe. Sorcerer is, in a sense, Zork V, after all. In some senses, it is more concerned with the history of its game world than Zorks I-III ever were. Then again, perhaps those early games do not worry about history because they are history. It is fun, for instance, to look up items in the Encyclopedia Frobozzica:
>examine encyclopedia The volume lies open to an entry about the Glass Maze of King Duncanthrax. According to the article, Duncanthrax built the Glass Maze on a whim, to amuse his friends and torture his enemies. A labyrinth of 27 cubicles, it was full of devilish pitfalls and was located near his castle, Egreth. You could probably read about all sorts of other interesting people, places, and things by looking them up in the encyclopedia.
Sorcerer represents the moment in which the vague past of the Great Underground Empire, with its colonial nostalgia and abstract political history, reforms as an assortment of mechanical specificities, formal names, and an increasingly corpulent timeline of dates. Is a maze of “27 cubicles” an essentially Zorkian construction? From 1984 on, Zork would become increasingly and insistently self-referential, as in the case of its “Frobozz Magic x Company” jokes (ACME jokes without the charm of a Roadrunner or a Wile E. Coyote). The Zork games would be re-released in grey box format (another 1984 development) with all new browsies that failed to capture the ambivalent ambiance of the original trilogy.
Sorcerer: What Have You Done For Me Lately?
Sorcerer, then, was a good game from a company that had led us to expect ambitious, transformational games. If any other publisher had released it (with Infocom’s packaging), I’m sure magazines all would have clamored to name it a game of the year finalist. 1984 would, in fact, be a time to challenge customer expectations of Infocom. Consider this list of releases:
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
There are a handful of “completionists only” games on that list. The release of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Infocom’s second-biggest game (in terms of sales), is a standout amidst forgotten (if not infamous) games like Seastalker. Cornerstone‘s release in January of 1985–one year after Sorcerer–certainly cements the notion that Infocom’s best and most innovative days were behind them. While more great games would follow–Trinity, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and others–a period of uninterrupted ascendancy had ended.
This release marks the beginning of a new phase of the Gold Machine project. While Infocom games were once innovative technically, future titles often reflect a stagnation brought on by a corporate failure to reinvest in technology and research. Some forthcoming releases are regarded by many as bad. Sorcerer is an excellent game by comparison, but, as I have already said once: ignoring its context would be either misleading or obtuse.
Join us next week for a discussion of story in Sorcerer and in Infocom’s IF in general: Gold Machine’s first theory essay!