“Plenty of Synonyms:” Critical Receptions of Trinity (1/2)

A short history of Trinity‘s reception after the fall of Infocom (part one of two).

I had a hard time finding reviews of Trinity written during its life as a commercial product, though I know they must be out there, somewhere. Jimmy Maher has almost certainly seen some, but my searches have fallen short. The little I can glean via Maher and others is this:

  • It sold better than A Mind Forever Voyaging but was hardly a hit.
  • Customers were glad to have puzzles back after the unfamiliar, exploration-focused design of A Mind Forever Voyaging
  • There was no useful template for marketing a game like Trinity which not only had dark elements (like AMFV) but also followed through with a dark ending (unlike AMFV).
  • As I have previously mentioned, Infocom heavily emphasized the historical research that informed Moriarity’s writing and design. We will explore this feature in depth at a later date.

The pro-am interactive fiction scene has been around for decades now, much longer than Infocom existed as either a company or as an Activision imprint. How has Trinity fared critically in the years since?

Stand Before the Aggregator and Tremble

According to the Interactive Fiction Database, an aggregator of player ratings and reviews, Trinity is the twelfth highest-rated interactive fiction game of all time. This makes it the highest-rated Infocom game, with Planetfall the only other Infocom title to reach the top twenty. These ratings have accumulated over nearly two decades (IFDB was established in 2007). The data (ratings and date rated) are there for historical analysis, but I lack the expertise to retrieve it (if you are experienced with such things, get in touch! Thanks to intfiction user Mike Russo, we now have some data to discuss next time). In the meantime, we can consider the results of a recurring poll treating it as a critical “snapshot” of sorts.

Those polls, collectively, make up a series called “The Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time.” These polls, held every four years, are coordinated at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum by Victor Gijsbers, are a helpful window into current tastes. The critical fortunes of Planetfall (a top twenty game according to the IFDB aggregator), for instance, has fared as follows:

  • 2011 poll: 34th place
  • 2015 poll: unranked
  • 2019 poll: unranked
  • 2023 poll: unranked

What can we make of this information? For one thing, we must admit some gaps in our knowledge. Are the same people voting in the poll as those who have rated games at IFDB? That is all but certainly not a one-to-one relationship. Still, it is quite interesting to consider a cumulative a view of IF from 2007 until now contrasted with individual globs of data gathered over periods of months. Can we say something about perceptions of Planetfall/Infocom/parser games changing through the years? Almost certainly, but our time with Planetfall has long passed. Let’s turn back to Trinity.

While Planetfall‘s ratings in the polls have remained predictable, Trinity’s has fluctuated quite a bit:

Trinity has not changed, obviously, but audience reception of it has. Nevertheless, it has enjoyed a staying power that Planetfall has not. What is it about Trinity that has held audiences in thrall across the long years? Perhaps we can examine the reviews preceding each poll for answers.

Trinity: pre-2011

The earliest post-Infocom reviews that I have encountered are nearly thirty years old, hailing from 1994. The publication is the Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games, which was then the premier publication for interactive fiction news and reviews. Graham Nelson’s seminal Curses predates these reviews by only one year, placing these reviews in what Jimmy Maher has called the “dark ages” of interactive fiction (personally, I would call Curses the beginning of the “neo-classical” period, but he’s done far more research on that subject than I have).

As is typical from the period, reviewers note technical features that we now take for granted. Consider this comment by Matthew Amster:

The parser is as brilliant as one would expect from Infocom; it is nearly impossible to produce an unexpected response. Most nouns have plenty of synonyms, and the player is never stumped by how to phrase a command.

Later, he asserts that “Trinity has something for everyone: it’s not too hard for novices but is well-suited for experienced adventurers as well.” Reviewers in the years since have characterized Trinity as difficult, and I think Amster’s characterization reflects the very different expectations of players in the 1990s.

Reviewers in the years since have characterized Trinity as difficult, and I think Amster’s characterization reflects the very different expectations of players in the 1990s.

Spag‘s other reviewer of Trinity, Molley the Mage, likewise found that the puzzles of Trinity were “not so difficult as to seriously impede your progress through the story, which is the real emphasis of the game, but not so easy as to make you feel as though you are wasting your time. A perfectly balanced challenge.” Molley further enthused that “if you play one IF game in your life, you would not go wrong if you make it this one. Highest recommendation.”

Some other pre-2011 discourse is available. MobyGames user “Ingold” (Jon Ingold, perhaps?) praised the literary qualities of Trinity:

Released in 1986 and set in the context of the Cold War, the player is a tourist in London when nuclear warfare erupts. The player must escape the destruction of London and visit an unorthodox combination of a fantasy world and events from the history of the atomic bomb. Places in the game are based on inspiration from children’s works including “Mary Poppins”, “The Little White Bird” and “Alice in Wonderland”.

The anomalous world of “Trinity”, with its skillful blend of fantasy and reality, proves to be an interesting one. Despite the relatively sparse amount of NPC interaction, the author manages to keep the story of “Trinity” engaging throughout the game’s duration with the settings the player visits. Both fantasy and historical settings are well-constructed through prose and the game has a literary quality. Another notable point about the game is the author’s appropriate and intriguing use of select quotations and narration during gameplay.

Ingold’s assessment reflects fifteen years of craft knowledge as it evolved in the interactive fiction community. Literary features such as setting, tone, and intertextuality are given a place of privilege, while the technical features of Infocom’s platform go unpraised. In fact, the parser once praised in 1994 seems inadequate in 2009. Ingold also notes several undesirable features, craft-wise, that were once accepted and even expected:

Although the puzzles in “Trinity” are generally reasonable, the game still proves incredibly difficult. Unfortunately, this difficulty stems from reasons other than clever puzzle design. One aspect of the game’s difficulty is that it is easy to miss or leave behind critical items at certain points in the game and become irrevocably stuck. The player has a limited inventory capacity in “Trinity”, so it is often difficult to know which items to carry at a given point in the game in order not to become stuck. Certain sequences only allow the player one chance to complete them, which can be fatal if the player has not saved a game recently. Also, while the game’s parser is generally responsible to a good range of player input, some puzzles hinge on finding the right phrase to give to the parser.

Elsewhere, at the IFDB, pre-2011 reviews, like Ingold’s seem to focus on the literary qualities of Trinity. In his review (2007), Matt Kimmel observed:

It also managed, as few games at the time did, to make some social commentary in the process. Overall, a unique and challenging game, and one that will make you think–not just about the puzzles, but about life and the consequences of our actions.

Grunion Guy, meanwhile, recalled:

This is one of the very few Infocom text adventures I solved by myself and without hints way back in the Apple IIe days. That isn’t to say the game isn’t challenging — it is — but that the story is so well written that it kept me coming back and continually thinking about how to get past the next problem.

While only two of nine readers found Tamerlane’s 2009 review (pasted below in its entirety) helpful, it is noteworthy that it focuses exclusively on the story, forgoing any mention of puzzles or gameplay. The reviewer even goes so far as to compare Trinity to a book:

This is a great game. A lot of the later infocom games devolved into jokey, tongue in cheek little things. But Trinity was like a good, serious book with a story that grabbed on to you and made you care. You, the random guy who in the final seconds before a nuclear Armageddon find a door into another dimension – and there you race against time to change reverse history and stop the destruction of the world.

As a final example of pre-2011 reviews, Adventure Classic Gaming rated Trinity four stars out of five (2010). This review reflects a waning appreciation for its story. According to reviewer David Tanguay, “Though there is not much of a story in Trinity, there is a strong ambience. There is no plot to drive you on through the game, just your own curiosity and the challenge of the puzzles.” It is worth noting that, unlike reviewers focused on parser text adventures, Tanguay is likely writing within the broader context of narrative games generally, which would include more story-focused point-and-click adventures. His review credits from the same year include a full motion video Nancy Drew game, for instance.

What can be made of this discourse? For one thing, we see a progression from Nelson’s Inform matching Infocom’s parser (as in Curses) to surpassing it in future years. Trinity goes from being technically impressive generally to merely impressive for its time. Likewise, the evolving discourse reveals different expectations regarding difficulty and cruelty. Its many unwinnable states are hardly worth mentioning in 1994, but craft and audience expectations shift as the interactive fiction scene matures. Greater emphasis is placed on textual qualities.

Likewise, the evolving discourse reveals different expectations regarding difficulty and cruelty. It’s many unwinnable states are hardly worth mentioning in 1994, but craft and audience expectations shift as the interactive fiction scene matures.

Even though I would prefer access to more data, I believe it is safe to infer that the audience for non-commercial interactive fiction had, by 2011, grown in sophistication with regard to craft, both in terms of gameplay. As we will see, assessments of Trinity will rise and fall, but it will remain one of the very few Infocom games that retains its remarkable place of privilege among fans of contemporary IF.


Gold Machine’s assessment of Trinity‘s critical reception over the years will continue.

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