[1/3] Introducing Sorcerer: Now With 20% More Zork

What would happen if auteur studio Infocom gave Zork to another Implementor?

Sorcerer (1984)
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)

Specifications

(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)

Opening Crawl

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.

Completely OK

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.

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:

  • Sorcerer
  • Seastalker
  • Cutthroats
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • Suspect

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.

Coming Soon

Join us next week for a discussion of story in Sorcerer and in Infocom’s IF in general: Gold Machine’s first theory essay!

Support Gold Machine on Patreon

11 thoughts on “[1/3] Introducing Sorcerer: Now With 20% More Zork

  1. “Golden Age” is an interestingly slippery kinda concept. Classically, as in Hesiod, it applies mainly to origins — halcyon days of nostalgic remembrance from which we have all declined. That’s how it’s functioning here, even though it’s not part of your explicit definition, because creative origins are often an outpouring of creative innovation, again virtually by definition. But it’s not always that way: The commonly-accepted Golden Age Of Hip-Hop, which is where I first encountered the term and formed my assumptions about it, begins about 12 years after its origins, and while the Golden Age Of Television used to refer to the late 1940s through the mid 1950s, now it’s long referred to the rise of the Prestige Drama from the 2000s to… well, there’s no consensus on later boundary or if it’s even over, but it’s a time period when if anything television declined and became less central to cultural life than it had been SINCE the mid-50s. Meanwhile, Golden Age Comics aren’t actually all that treasured except as historical curios, and the real Golden Age that is always getting harkened back to is what is known as the Silver Age. There it seems to be the collectors and antiquarians more than the nostalgists and artists naming the eras.

    For me, I think a broadly-defined Golden Age for a medium or genre ought to have a deep crate with a high baseline. Like, you can see the vintage something came out, and knowing just that and the type of thing it is, presume that you’re in good hands. (I feel that way about, for instance, the rich vein of film noir from the 40s to the 50s. But that’s to personal taste.) That, plus yeah, restless innovation, innovation that usually ends up staking out the boundaries of the typical understanding of the medium or genre upon which all further elaborations rest. I don’t think this framework really works for such a narrow slice as “the catalogue of one studio,” though, which is never going to have too deep a crate. I do think a lot of Infocom’s best and most distinctive and influential and innovative work still lies ahead, though! Their “Silver Age” in the comic-books sense. I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the golden age of IF as a whole was the early 80s. Commercially most certainly, but creatively… it was at least the golden age of the scavenger-hunt text adventure, if you’re into those!

    I’m not sure if “video games” as a whole has a “golden age”… certainly not one that can be casually referred to in conversation and trust people know vaguely when you’re talking about. I guess it would probably start in the mid 80s, but I don’t know when it would end. Or maybe it’s just the entire 1990s.

    1. I appreciate–and perhaps prefer–your approach, which is as horizontal as mine is narrow. The problem would-be systematizers such as myself have is this: ultimately critical and audience consensus are the final say, no matter what buckets I can dream up. I think that’s as it should be, so all of the usages you mention are right.

      I have never heard anyone mention a golden period in Infocom’s history which may mean that 1) there isn’t one or 2) I’m free to call it anything so long as I can justify it.

      Jimmy Maher and others call the 80’s the “commercial era” of interactive fiction, but I think that’s missing the uniquely Infocom situation: a young, new media company doing innovative work. Constantly topping itself. A fun and irreverent corporate culture. This is a late 90’s/early aughts story set in the early 80’s. For a time, each successive game did something novel and/or interesting. This time ended, as such times do.

      So far as video games in general go, that is hard. There are market trends that dominate certain periods (I can’t believe Nintendo more or less committed to making only 3D games for the entire N64 generation), but that would miss important cultural elements. I’m not sure where I’d begin.

      It likely has something to do with arcades. I wanted to play Space Invaders at home because I had played it at the bowling alley. Likewise Pong, Likewise Breakout. There’s probably also something to be said about public and private spaces, about the social implications of both.

      I would say that Nintendo was probably the first widely-owned platform (I assume that due to cost and accessibility there were more NES units in North America than there were micros) to offer experiences that arcades could or would not (Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Dragon Quest, etc). Maybe there’s a thread in there somewhere.

      Great food for thought! My first encounter with the phrase was with comic books, so I perceive it as a time of ascendancy and creative breakthroughs, but not necessarily a genre’s peak period.

      1. I think if you’re willing to get granular with games history, you can have Golden Ages absurdly stacked back-to-back-to-back or even frequently overlapping, just Golden Ages of different things that need to be understood as golden emerging successes through different paradigms. Same with like music genres, where the Golden Age of Funk ends as the Golden Age of Synthpop rises. There’s always something good happening, it’s just a matter of perspective and taste.

        Periodization of art is a fundamentally silly endeavor, but I love it and can’t keep myself from it anyway.

  2. While there was surely a hard core of dedicated Infocom fans eagerly awaiting each new title, it’s important to remember that Infocom’s back catalog sold much better than was the norm. Contrary to the usual model of pushing the game of the year, such games as Zork I and Planetfall stayed on the best-seller lists for years. No one knows in what order the “typical” player would have encountered the games.
    The price wars of 1983 that were so bad for the computer companies were really good for home computer ownership. The cohort of new computer owners that started subscribing to computer magazines saw beautiful Infocom ads showing an impressive array of existing games representing several genres. Other than the Roman numerals of the Zork titles, there was no suggestion of a chronological order.
    I can only assume that many thousands of Infocom customers weren’t disappointed by Sorcerer’s failure to innovate, but were rather blown away by the new experience.
    And maybe, just maybe, innovation is a tad overrated. No one ever bothered to fix the bugs in Infidel, but Sorcerer kept getting new releases for three years.

    1. You’re right, of course, to bring up these consumer realities of the early eighties.

      At the same time, I have decided to play these games in order because I think that doing so might yield a bit of perspective re: the catalog, technical innovation, and the conversations that these games had with one another. Even if consumers did not know the release order, the implementers (and the management team) operated in an evolving business and creative context shaped by Infocom releases and their reception.

      I also have to hope–vainly, perhaps–that I can say something about these games that sales numbers have not yet said. Art and commerce are not always in lockstep.

      Do you think that Infocom closed because it was incapable of making games that consumers would buy? I have always held that they starved themselves of R&D funding and personnel. From my perspective, innovation mattered even in 1984. To me, Blank, Lebling, Berez and company were brilliant people who, given the right circumstances, could have gone as far as EA or Activision.

      I personally enjoyed Sorcerer in its day–I don’t think I could have resisted any Infocom game based on Enchanter’s magic system–but it does not measure up to Enchanter or Spellbreaker for me. Reading (and listening) to other critics, I feel I’m not an outlier. I think the map is usually blamed. I personally think that it’s hard–harder than it looks–to make a good Zork game. The magic smoke keeps getting out, I suppose.

  3. Sorcerer is a game I’ll probably always remember more for its puzzles (some of which are excellent) than for its setting. It’s as if it’s more a collection of parts – good parts, mind you – than an interesting place to explore. In Enchanter, even the parts that didn’t have any obvious puzzles still felt interesting.

    You’d think Spellbreaker would be even worse in that respect, and to some extent I guess it is… but the ruins, the temple, the prison cell, the grue lair, … somehow I have a much clearer image of these in my head than of anything I saw in Sorcerer.

    1. “Sorcerer is a game I’ll probably always remember more for its puzzles”
      Yes, same here. Meretzky was a very reliable puzzlecrafter and Sorcerer is filled with consistently good problems. The map is less good–the protag basically stumbles into Jeearr at the end.

      Spellbreaker is an interesting counterpoint. I think the random locales work better because the cubes have been scattered about. While I dislike the artificial “puzzle place” nature of a few locations, I think the game has so many great, memorable moments that it doesn’t really matter.

      Of course, how, where, and why the cubes were scattered in the first place remains a mystery to me, but fortunately I don’t have to write about Spellbreaker. That’s seven games (plus Cornerstone) away.

  4. Well, I have to differ with any views which denigrate Sorcerer; its main weakness is the abrupt endgame, a weakness shared with many other Infocom games.

    I didn’t play Sorcerer on original release, but it’s a blast and I’ve replayed it a lot since getting Lost Treasures.

    Part of it *is* Meretsky’s decision to create a systematized mythology. The Encyclopedia *is* an innovation.

    The timing puzzles in Sorcerer are at their best (timing puzzles are usually frustrating, but I solved all of Sorcerer’s without help). The tone is distinctive yet clearly Zorkian.

    In a way, Sorcerer’s innovations are all *polish*. The Witness had polish in some ways, mostly the luxurious quantities of “noirish” text and the detailed events if you don’t work on the main problem — but Sorcerer had polish in other ways, and ways which are much more influential to the future genre.

    Specifically, polish in the puzzles. If Zork II had puzzles which were incomprehensible, and Enchanter had puzzles which were solvable but somewhat mindbending, Sorcerer hits the right note nearly every time for me; each puzzle failure hints in the right direction, in a way which doesn’t reliably happen in earlier games.

    As a 1980s Infocom player, I was also playing the games in random order, so remembering that Infocom’s back catalog was constantly in print is very important. Infocom basically only operated for 10 years: the 1980s. Their Golden Age was… really the entire 10 years. It’s too short to be separated out into pieces much.

    1. I’m surprised you’d say so. While most people like Sorcerer better than I do, the general consensus seems to be that it is a middling title among the original six games in the Zork universe.

      I personally dislike Meretzky’s mythology, which I consider a retcon (as said elsewhere). By the time we get to Zork Zero, there are mountains of trivial dates, exhausting Double Fanucci references, and out and out silliness. I think the humor of the first four games is very well calibrated, and I don’t think turning the universe into “Zorkfall” was good for the series, even if Mike Dornbrook determined that comedy games sold well. Today, that hardly matters, but the character of the world still does.

      While I do think Meretzky was the most consistent puzzle-maker at Infocom, the best puzzles of Sorcerer really have nothing to do with Meretzky’s own mythology (Duncanthrax’s fancy maze led to a chimney and a scroll? a maze only a bat can traverse?) or the limited plot. It’s a game with strong puzzles and Blank & Lebling’s fabulous magic system, but it falls short as an extension of the Zork saga.

      1. I’m one of those who really enjoyed the mythology and loved wandering around the huge map of Zork Zero. We’re out there!

      2. I’ve never doubted it. The Eaten by a Grue folks seemed to enjoy it. Given their general dislike of Zork and player hassles (that clown nose!), I was surprised that Kay and Carrington were so kind to it. Just not the read I’ve gotten from them over the years. Oh, well, they are the experts on their own tastes, so who am I to question them?

        So far as Meretzky’s mythology goes: more people have pushed back at this first piece on Sorcerer than they have any other article since Gold Machine began! Few/nobody have/has argued with my third Sorcerer post, in which I make my case against it. Perhaps I’m just that good. Perhaps, on the other hand, everyone had already wandered off, disgusted.

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