Metatext and Meaning in Infidel

There is no need to be upset.

A widely-read blog post about Infidel, published some nine years ago, still attracts a new reply or two each year. These correspondents seek someone, anyone, upon whom to vent their frustrations with the ending of Infidel. Replies to a nine-year-old article about a (then) 30-year-old game call us here, today: Valentine’s Day, 2022. It’s fitting, in its own way, to discuss Infidel on a day such as this: it is a game that brings out the jilted lover in some of us.

What Is It We Do Here Again?

As a reminder, a fundamental principle of Gold Machine is that a number of artifacts come together to form the complete “text” of an Infocom game. These include boxes, manuals, “feelies,” and, yes, the game program itself. I think everyone realizes that an Infocom package without a disk is incomplete, but to me, all parts are equally necessary in order to fully “read” the text. If you haven’t read, for instance, the “letter” that comes with Infidel, you haven’t experienced the entire game. This is true even after you’ve completed the game. Perhaps especially then.

Just to head off an argument or two before we look at some pictures: sometimes, the game fails to mention or refer to the materials packaged with the game. This is true, and it’s an unsolved problem in Infidel. But that can only carry one so far. By game’s end, we’ve been shown who this protagonist is, and we have no reason to believe that he might be something else. The game gives us no reason to believe that he is something else. What would be a good reason for wishing that he were something else, beyond the fulfilment of our own fantasies?

Trying to place ourselves in the chair of a 1980s player: why would the program need to remind us about documents resting near at hand, beside the keyboard? We can look them over whenever we like.

A folio and grey box copy of Infidel side by side. The folio is likely an inch larger on each side. Full description of the box is in the text of the article.
The Infidel grey box had big shoes to fill. Source: my closet!

The folio release of Infidel is packaged in a portfolio-style cardboard folder whose outside cover is printed with a grey-and-tan canvas design. This “portfolio” is held shut with two leather straps. A torn photograph and a note (written in red capital letters) have been slid underneath one of the straps. Atop the folio, someone has scrawled “INFIDEL” in large, red, capital letters.

The visual rhetoric of the photograph will feel familiar to many, as it may remind them of a social media “profile picture.” It is a photo of an unsmiling man kneeling close to the camera, which he faces head-on. He is wearing a keffiyeh (a traditional Arabian headdress worn by men) nemes headdress (thanks Sam) and aviator sunglasses. Behind him is a saddled camel and, further away, a large pyramid, all framed by blue sky and vast desert. Somone has marked over the man’s face–perhaps with a red carpenter’s pencil.

It is the first time Infocom has left so little of a protagonist to the imagination. We have a photograph, and a well-lit one, at that. There he is: confident, cheerless, and (given the photograph’s staging) a little vain. Occasionally, in the previously mentioned comments section (or in similar places), someone will wonder aloud: “does the game ever say that the protagonist is male?” They might even continue: “I don’t think there’s anything in the source code about whiteness or maleness.”

Infocom, obviously embarrassed by this oversight, put a large photograph of a white man on the package. The package is part of the text.

(Note: For this reason, I will investigate transcription of Infidel’s documentation into a screen reader-friendly format. I worry that the game’s use of ASCII characters may prove a dead end, though. More information here.)

Finally, there is the note–it also appears to be written with a red carpenter’s pencil. It reads:




I probably should have said at the beginning: I know little of north African culture or history, so I present these representations at face value. Comments from my more knowledgeable readers would be most welcome.

The folio edition of Infidel opens like a folder. The interior is cardboard dyed and textured to look like tan leather. the pockets hold envelopes and papers--what they are cannot be seen.
Opening the Infidel folder reveals different pockets that hold various papers and, of course, the diskette.

Infidel’s Documentation

Inside the portfolio are a number of documents and booklets that contribute to the reader’s experience of the text. In order to remain focused on the story and protagonist of Infidel, I won’t be able to cover all items in equal detail. But don’t worry: a future essay (coming quite soon, in fact) about the grey box format will return to Infidel‘s packaging.

I do not know if the contents of the folder were packed in a way that encouraged a specific reading order. All these years later, I lay everything across my desk and look at it. For our discussion, I will start with the protagonist’s journal (let’s call him the American). It offers a straightforward, linear narrative.

A photo of a page from the American's diary. The paper is a dark cream color, and the handwriting is cursive. It appears to be written in dark pencil.
Infidel’s American can’t even tell himself the truth.

The journal is a generous six pages–full-size and handwritten–on dark paper. The paper is somewhat fragile. Ink would soak through it easily, and a pencil’s eraser might tear it quickly. I recall using notebooks made of this sort of paper in grade school before we graduated to spiral notebooks.

It doesn’t take long for the American to reveal himself as a small person in many senses. He is a kind of “stupid Iago,” filled with boundless ressentiment and inexplicably confident in his abilities. When we first meet him, we hear of the injuries visited upon him by his employer Craige who, perhaps unthinkably, treats him like an employee:

July 8
I think I’m on to something big. Really big. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for, the chance to prove to everyone that I’m not just someone’s errand boy.

After the way Craige treated me on that ridiculous safari, I developed a distaste for him. Everyone jumped when he spoke–the great white hunter, puffed up and dressed the part. I knew everything he knew abour running a safari and he still treated me like dirt. Even his client, Joshua Rankins, thought Craige was someone really special, someone who had seen everything, been everywhere, was always in control of the situation.

…God, how I learned to despise him.

When the American has a chance to poach an opportunity meant for Craige–an undiscovered pyramid–he leaps for it, lying to an elderly–and lonely, I believe–woman in exchange for a lead on the priceless archeological find.

It soon becomes clear that the American doesn’t really understand Craige’s job or what it entails. “It’s been one disaster after another, but none of it is really my fault!” He is incapable of leading people and has never made an effort to understand the culture of his crew. Things come to a postcolonial head when the American assumes (rather than trying to find out) that the crew are lying about their religious holy day and assaults their leader:

I marched out to into the desert to confront Abdul. I asked him to stop this foolishness and get back to work. Abdul looked very offended! I pushed him, demanding he order to the men to work. He didn’t push me back, but he did say, “You shall regret that, sacriligious dog!”

Terrific! Looks like I blew it. How was I to know it really was a holiday?

If it seems so far that the American has no redeeming qualities, that may well be because he doesn’t. At least, none that we can see yet. He can’t even make himself appear competent in his own journal. People have tried to argue that he is a tragic figure because of his fatal flaw, but really, which one might that be? Resentment? Greed? Racism? Incapable of accepting responsibility? Dishonesty? Lack of empathy? Deluded sense of his own competence? Etc.

The map for the 1920 Ellingsworth expedition, as well as notes for deciphering hieroglyphics. Everything is hand-drawn in brown ink. The paper is thin and looks quite weathered.
Maps and notes from the 1920 Ellingsworth expedition.

Easy as Taking Maps From an Old Lady

As has already been said: the American hoodwinks an elderly woman into giving him items from her father’s 1920 expedition to Egypt. He was close to finding a new pyramid when he died of heat stroke. These items include a small limestone cube, Ellingsworth’s (the father’s) notes–including some translated “hieroglyphs” (presented as ASCII characters)–and a map leading to a possible site for the pyramid. The paper feels old. It’s thin and has a rather stiff crinkle to it, and it’s writing and figures are presented in sepia ink. It prominently features the year 1920, which may remind the player of two things: first, that they are relics of a failed expedition and second, that they belong to someone else.

A letter intended for Rose Ellingsworth. It is on crisp, hotel stationary and is written in the same hand as the journal. Nearby is an addressed envelope with an "Egypt" stamp.
Long con, long letter.

Completing the picture is the American’s letter to Rose Ellingsworth, the woman who gave him the relics from the 1920 expedition. The American worries (quite reasonably) that she may attempt to contact Craige if he doesn’t keep her up to date. It’s a nice bit of ephemera, written on stationary from the “Hotel Americain” and including a stamped, addressed envelope.

The first two pages of the letter have two notable features. The first is that it serves as an example of the American’s knack for unsolicited fibbery, but also of the extent of his vanity’s ravenousness.

I guess it’s true what they say about us all being brothers under the skin. Notwithstanding the archaeological importance of the find and the profits it may accrue, the greatest treasure I’ll bring back from this journey is the wealth of understanding I’ve gained through our brisk cultural exchange of customs and ideas. The other night, for instance, I treated the fellows to their first omelettes…

….Such is the spirit of camaraderie and good fellowship here in camp that the boys voluntarily continued digging on the off chance that we might locate the pyramid without the aid of scientific instrumentation. This steadfastness in the face of adversity is truly heartwarming, and I’ve rewarded the crew by giving them today off.

This is written, naturally, just after the American has shoved his crew’s foreman on a holy day. The rest of the letter, while funny, does far less work in terms of character development. Over the course of the letter, the American becomes more and more affected by drugs slipped into his drink. His language and rhetoric–even his handwriting–grow increasingly erratic. Presumably, he has passed out at the letter’s abrupt end (the game begins when he wakes up). It doesn’t move my article along, but I cannot help but share a passage:

My my don’t I feel strange tonight I wonder what’s come over me but wait!!!!! there was something very important I meant to tell you about this waistland Oh yes now I remember Did you ever stop to think that T.S. Eliot’s name is an anagram for “toilets?” I think I now understand what he was trying to tell us all, Rosetta…

As the game begins, the player must have a clear idea of who this protagonist is, the kind of “you” the game’s narrator addresses. I do not believe–I speak for myself, of course–that I need to be reminded every fifty turns or so of the game. If anything, I feel Infidel’s documentation plays things heavier than necessary. We get it, already. More on this in a minute.

The In-game text of Infidel

There is very little story to be found in the game itself. The American awakes with a hangover of sorts in an empty camp. The workers, who have had enough of the American’s disrespectful bullying, have left, carrying off whatever goods they can. It is not long before the navigation device appears in the desert, and the American quickly makes their way–alone–into a heretofore undiscovered pyramid.

>put cube in hole
The ancient stones beneath your feet shake and tremble as they move the sands. You leap out of the way and manage to avoid being sucked down into the vortex. Through the sands, an entrance down into the pyramid is revealed. The entire experience sends a jolt of adrenaline through your body as your lips form a sneer. You've found it. And without any help from those idiots.
Chamber of Ra
You are standing in the Chamber of Ra, a tribute to the Sun God. Even though the only natural light enters through the opening above, the room is brilliantly lit as though the walls themselves generated light. The room slopes inward and the walls meet at an open point, over your head. The heat of the desert filters down through the opening and, as the air slowly circulates, the deep, long-dead musty odors from the depths of the pyramid assault your senses. Four staircases descend from here: a steep one to the north, a winding one to the south, a wide one to the east, and a narrow one to the west. In the center of the room is a large red sandstone altar mounted solidly in the floor.
Lying on the floor, partially covered with dust, is a small pink alabaster jar.
Leaning against the altar is a bronze torch.

There isn’t much of a narrative in-game. The American, it turns out, is good at something after all. He is a good treasure-hunter, a good Adventurer. In other words: he is a good at being an adventure game protagonist. Who can name some 1983 (and earlier) protagonists with well-developed personalities? Or personalities at all? In Zork, it is the parser who has a personality, and it performs for the player.

What about Zork‘s Adventurer, on the other hand? I have written page after page trying to figure him out. Both the Adventurer and the American are graverobbers, but their motivations are quite different. Still, they are alike in that their motivations are usually subsumed within the player’s motivation to win, win, win. On a few rare occasions, the American does remind us of his objectives, but surely, we haven’t grown confused over them.

Fore Cabin
You are in the forward cabin aboard the barge. The cabin is bare with none of the luxuries you expected to see. You close your eyes for a moment, picturing the barge you'll someday own, the yacht fully rigged and crewed. You open your eyes and shake your head, anxious to make your dream reality. There's a doorway to the east leading out onto the deck.

Consideration of the American as a “good” adventurer will soon be the subject of its own essay, but for now I will simply say that, mechanically, the American and the Adventurer are not terribly different.

I think that’s what really gets under people’s skin about Infidel: the unexamined moral implications of “treasure hunts” and “adventures” in those days.

In any case, the ending certainly does bring us up short. I was surprised by its directness, even as I expected a disaster of some sort:

>open sarcophagus
You lift the cover with great care, and in an instant you see all your dreams come true. The interior of the sarcophagus is lined with gold, inset with jewels, glistening in your torchlight. The riches and their dazzling beauty overwhelm you. You take a deep breath, amazed that all of this is yours. You tremble with excitement, then realize the ground beneath your feet is trembling, too.
As a knife cuts through butter, this realization cuts through your mind, makes your hands shake and cold sweat appear on your forehead. The Burial Chamber is collapsing, the walls closing in. You will never get out of this pyramid alive. You earned this treasure. But it cost you your life.
And as you sit there, gazing into the glistening wealth of the inner sarcophagus, you can't help but feel a little empty, a little foolish. If someone were on the other side of the quickly-collapsing wall, they could have dug you out. If only you'd treated the workers better. If only you'd cut Craige in on the find. If only you'd hired a reliable guide.
Well, someday, someone will discover your bones here. And then you will get your fame.
Your score is 400 out of a possible 400, in 547 moves.
This score gives you the rank of a master adventurer.

The scene is the only apparently tragic one in either the game or in the documentation. I say “apparently” because, yes, the scene is presented as his moment of tragic recognition, but he still doesn’t see the flaws in his makeup, only his tactical errors.

Interestingly, a perfect score in Zork I also grants a rank of “master adventurer.”

Coming Soon

I cannot say more about American as Master Adventurer because that would spoil the fun of next week’s post. For now, I reassert two points. First, the game’s documentation gives a very clear sense of the American’s character. The game, more subtly, illuminates his character, too. I do not believe that the game fails to talk about the documentation–the game is busy saying something else. Once more for the people in the back: both game and documentation are needed for a complete understanding of Infidel.

Join me next week as we greet old friends and new and contemplate a tale of two master adventurers.

12 thoughts on “Metatext and Meaning in Infidel

  1. I’ve never seen any estimated piracy figures, but it’s a traditional joke that none of us saw any computer game manuals in the ’80s. How much of the hate can be blamed on piracy?

    I first played Infidel, along with most of the Infocom games, in 1996 or 1997. I did read the included material before playing, and I didn’t really object to playing a jerk. The ending was okay. What I find frustrating is the poor implementation. This is such a buggy game, with game-breaking bugs in several of the critical puzzles and basic items. Many games will fall apart if you poke at them, but Infidel breaks down when you’re just trying to win!

    1. That’s a good point. If memory serves, Infocom games required no special utilities or skill to copy. I am not sure how airtight the copy protection documents are. One could definitely get by without the starter hieroglyphs. Not sure if finding the pyramid would go as smoothly without the map, though.

      I guess we’ll never know, but to answer your question: probably a lot.

      Infocom games were, for the most part, the only games that I bought with my limited funds. (There were rare exceptions like Ultima III and Pool of Radiance). Everything else was cracked. My friends and I spent hours on a game called Impossible Mission (as just one example), but I’m not sure we ever knew what we were trying to do.

      I did notice that Infidel had a large number of bugs on your page. It had few releases, so nothing ever got fixed, apparently. My recent playthrough was mostly trouble-free, which must come down to luck.

  2. “If memory serves, Infocom games required no special utilities or skill to copy.”

    I don’t know how many, but at least some of the early Macintosh versions required you to insert the original floppy to start the game. There were programs that could make working copies, and I believe it was removed from later releases.

    I remember making backup copies of the floppies, and then spending some time with ResEdit replacing the resource fork (and thus the interpreter) on them with the ones from later games. I think that removed the copy protection from a few of them, though my main reason, as I recall it, was that the newer interpreters could save to double-sided (800 KB) floppies and allowed you to change the font size.

    1. Hm. Maybe so. Perhaps I mean that my friends and I didn’t have to ask someone’s big brother to make a copy, so something like quick byte (c64 tool) could handle it. I don’t remember needing to deal with custom FATs & such, though maybe I’m flat-out wrong about all of it.

      By 1984, I wasn’t playing pirated Infocom games anymore, mainly because of the packaging in 2 senses. 1) Things like feelies and books were powerful copy protection in those days and 2) I felt like I was missing out without owning all the stuff.

  3. Hi there. Never played the game, but that’s not a keffiyeh in the box art photo. it’s clearly a nemes or headdress worn by pharaohs. Colors look just like the famous one worn by King Tutankhamen.

  4. I think you are referring to my remarks on Digital Antiquarian about whether the game does or does not ever specify the race or sex of the player, and I don’t appreciate the implication that I was not aware of the game packaging or feelies. (My mother played this game when I was a kid and we still have that “folio” somewhere around the house, plus I have that “Masterpieces” CD or whatever it was called where there were PDFs of everything.) I was deliberately considering only the game text. I’m not sure Infocom was “embarrassed” about an “oversight” when the packaging was designed — they are usually at pains to make the player character an AFGNCAAP and Infidel follows in that vein, even if maybe it stretches plausibility in this case.

    1. While you may be a person who made such remarks, I have seen them all over and have even received such inquiries here.

      Deliberately ignoring the feelies is a philosophical choice, but I have never seen an argument for doing so. You must have looked at them to find the pyramid’s coordinates. How did you decide which parts were “canon” and which were not?

      I think it is overly generous to credit Infocom with a consciously inclusive “AFGNCAAP” character. It is usually safer to assume that, in the case of unstated identity, the protagonist falls to a cultural “default” state. In the US, that would be white, male, etc.

      In fact, games and packaging usually do leave a clue somewhere. Zork and Enchanter trilogies have male protagonists, for instance. Heteronormative language in Planetfall’s browsie (even ignoring the cover art) implies maleness.

      I don’t believe Infocom was embarrassed. That wasn’t a serious comment.

      Sorry if you feel singled out, but I assure you this comes up fairly often. “In similar places” as I say.

      (edited for grammar)

  5. I don’t think it’s fair to claim that Zork has a male protagonist. Enchanter’s Invisiclues go to pains to describe “Some ZORK player, most likely”, implying a clear multiple-worlds scenario; I do think Blank and Lebling really did make a conscious effort to unspecify the Zork player, even if there’s one trip-up in Zork III.

    But I think later games made different choice. Infocom does have explicitly male protagonists in many later games. This is an issue they attempted to rectify with Moonmist (mediocrely) and Plundered Hearts (which is really lovely).

    1. I’ll stick to my guns on this one. Dimwit Flathead refers to the protag as male in Zork III: “There he will stay for the rest of his life.” Out of the early Infocom games, I’m only confident in saying that gender is not assumed in Suspended, since estrangement from the body is a central theme. I will admit that Starcross has neither an argument for or against, but I feel that assumptions have to be considered in terms of cultural norms at the time (both for audiences and for creators).

  6. Possibly a bit late, but I’d like to comment on the note in particular.

    It begins “FIAMAN ALLAH”, which is an Arabic phrase used when leaving someone, especially if the other person is undertaking a journey.

    It literally means “I leave you in the protection of Allah” and given the rest of the note, the writer is being as sarcastic as etiquette will allow. Specifically “Only Allah can protect you from your fool dream; my fellow assistants and I certainly cannot!” (The spacing is usually Fi Amanallah, but given the note-writer was clearly furious with the Infidel, we should probably be grateful there’s any space at all. Or perhaps it indicates that the writer thinks the American so incompetent at Arabic that “Allah” is the only Arabic word he would recognise, thus the emphasis on that component of the phrase. The latter would also explain why the rest of the note is written in player-convenient English but the greeting is not).

    That sarcasm, properly understood, would also have avoided one problem many players had. It’s hard to complain that the player must eventually lose, because the warning to that effect is right there on the box, before the player even bought the game, let alone started it. After all, if only Allah can save the American, and the player is not Allah…

    The reference in the letter to Rose about “the profits that may accrue” makes me think that the American may have been rather casual about wanting to make money from excavating the pyramid. A century ago, the line between archaeologist, relic trader and tomb raider was much more blurred than today, and this was true regardless of the part of the Western world the archaeologist called home. Local people, at least some of the time, resented the “relic trader” and “tomb raider” aspects, and sometimes wrote about them. Hardly surprising given that some of the Infidel’s counterparts were, in the era this was set, using dynamite on the pyramid of Khufu!

    Those omelettes – were they plain omelettes, or ones with little inclusions? Such as, perchance, ham? (Muslims consider ham to be haram – forbidden, and it’s the sort of thing I can imagine the American blundering into doing).

    Even that day off. He gave the crew Sunday off. A big deal to a Christian, but a Muslim would probably have preferred to be given Friday or Saturday off instead.

    Just in case that wasn’t a clear enough reason for the American’s assistants to consider him an infidel, disrupting the religious ceremony. This could have been a ritual connected with the fact that they were on a dangerous journey, or to act as a corrective for any curses the American may have bestowed upon it with his blundering. That would explain why they were especially bothered by the American disrupting it (especially with his choice of disruption), and why they moved away to complete the ritual instead of continuing it where they were (or, indeed, going to work). Likely, neither would have formed part of the American’s briefing, because such event-based rituals have historically not been granted their true importance.

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