[2/3] Sorcerer: Evil Lurks Behind the Coal Mine

I went to Bozbarland and all I got was this MALYON scroll.

Note: this article contains open spoilers for Sorcerer, up to and including its ending.

A Tale of Two Packages

Infocom’s famed “Gray Box” packaging format would debut in August of 1984 with Cutthroats. This would leave 1984’s Seastalker and Sorcerer with limited printing runs of their folio editions. As would be the case with most grey box reprints of early Infocom titles, the original mimetic manuals would be replaced with a standardized, game-agnostic manual. For instance, the folio edition manual for Sorcerer was a mocked-up issue of Popular Enchanting:

A Cover of the magazine "Popular Enchanting." The cover photo is of Belboz’ s door at the Circle of Enchanters. There is a door knocker that looks like a gargoyle's head. A wooden sign hangs from the knocker, and it reads, "Gone Fishing--Belboz."

On the left-hand side of the cover, article descriptions are listed:

SPECIAL BOOK EXCERPT"
"Spells and the single sorcerer."

The Power of Positive Conjuring:
Learning with Gnusto!

Coming Next Month:
Should Enchanters in Glass Mazes Throw Spells?
In the folio days, Infocom manuals were disguised as in-universe documents.

Since the grey box edition of Sorcerer already had a manual (the new standardized format), it was rewritten as a mocked-up magazine complete with articles, personals, and letters to the editor. Unfortunately, this humorous new material proved to further imbalance the uneven tone of Sorcerer (more on this next time!). Besides major changes to Popular Enchanting, the grey box additionally replaced the folio edition’s “Infotater,” a highly customized code wheel that served as copy protection.

This device was a large cardboard sleeve decorated with a circle of dungeon doors. Along one side, a notch had been cut out to revel that white wheel within the sleeve. This wheel, which can be turned, has the names of Zorkian creatures (along with five colored dots) printed along the rim of the wheel. Turning the wheel reveals different names. At the same time, two dungeon doors on the sleeve can be opened. One reveals a small picture of the named creature. Behind the other door is a brief description of the creature.

Because the Infotater was so large, it could not fit in the grey box edition of Sorcerer–the text was already tiny and could not be shrunk further. The small booklet that replaced it (containing the same artwork and text) may lack the non-negligible “gee whiz” factor of the code wheel feelie, but it is nice to see the artwork in greater detail.

The cover art of Sorcerer is unusual, both as an Infocom game, but also as a sequel to Enchanter. Enchanter’s cover art, as I’ve previously discussed, was quite lovely. To me, it held rich, thematic significance: a word or letter seems too powerful to be contained by a page or book. Sorcerer‘s cover, on the other hand, is quite literal: a shining silver amulet, radiating magic power, hangs from a silver chain. The cover of the folio box attempts–rather valiantly, I think–to explain what the game’s story is:

BELBOZ, THE MOST POWERFUL OF ALL ENCHANTERS, HAS VANISHED, AND A NEW EVIL THREATENS THE KINGDOM. GAZE NOW INTO THE AMULET OF AGGTHORA AND LET BE REVEALED THE ONE VALOROUS ENOUGH TO RESCUE THE LAND AND EARN THE TITLE OF

SORCERER

Second in the ENCHANTER series of adventurers in the mystic arts

The back cover text (also in capital letters) attempts to further clarify things:

A CRYPTIC DIARY IS ALL THAT REMAINS IN THE SANCTUM OF BELBOZ THE NECROMANCER, GRAND AND POWERFUL LEADER OF THE GUILD OF ENCHANTERS. IT IS FEARED THAT HE IS IN THRALL TO EVIL SORCERY. IF SO, THE FREEDOM OF THE LAND AND THE VERY EXISTENCE OF THE CIRCLE OF ENCHANTERS COULD BE FORFEIT. TO RESCUE THE KNGDOM AND LOCATE YOUR MENTOR IN THE TREACHEROUS MISTS OF TIME, YOU MUST GAIN THE POWERS AND CUNNING OF A TRUE SORCERER.

I haven’t rooted around in the relevant Infocom Cabinet for answers, but I do wonder how the “Amulet of Aggthora” came to earn such a place of privilege in Sorcerer‘s packaging. If the box is to be believed, it plays an important role in what promises to be a rather serious game. This promise of “seriousness” is a subject to which we will return.

It’s Like Waking Up to Find Yourself Waking Up Inside a Story!

I often read and hear that, despite their designation as “Interactive Fiction,” Infocom games contain little in the way of actual fiction. I’ve chosen not to quote anyone because it’s a commonplace by now and I certainly understand why players and critics would make such remarks. I do, however, dispute such claims. I think that most commenters mean that Infocom games do not contain elaborate or carefully developed plots.

Fiction as a kind of artistic writing is not merely a container for “plot.” Several elements can contribute to a powerful or satisfying experience with a work of fiction, and they may overshadow plot in specific books, films, or games. For instance, character study or development may be a primary focus in a work of fiction. Likewise, setting is a crucial element in many fictions. Consider, for instance, the grey wasteland of Zork III or any of Trinity‘s memorable locales. It is a mistake to confuse “fiction” and “storytelling,” since the latter is a subset of the former.

If I say that Sorcerer has shortcomings as a work of fiction, I am not saying that it does not have a developed “plot”–that is true of many interactive fictions. Perhaps I mean that it does not have a coherent world (or else it lacks a pleasantly incoherent one). I may mean that, in terms of character, the demon Jeearr is even less developed than that mustache-twirler, Krill. In any case, I do mean that what one often hears called the “bookended” plot (a bit of story at the beginning and ending bookending an open, nonlinear gaming experience) does not match or compliment the bulk of Sorcerer‘s gameplay. For the purposes of today’s plot analysis, I will consider this disconnect between beginning, middle, and end.

The opening of Sorcerer is formally innovative, and even manages to top the excellent first sentence of Enchanter, “It must be the warlock Krill.” In this case, the narrative begins in medias res, without even a title banner.

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.

Meretzky’s deft application of forgetfulness places the player and the protagonist (he’s still the Novice to us, since we knew him way back when) on equal footing. When the Novice dies, he wakes in a cold sweat, safe in his own bed. It is a dream sequence. If this is not the first interactive dream, then it is at least exceptional for its ambiguity and literary character–it serves no gameplay function.

It also makes a promise that the rest of Sorcerer cannot keep. This is not a game concerned with the protagonist’s inner life, nor, I think, with his outer one. Consider the monumental emptiness of his quarters:

Your Quarters
This is your chamber in the Hall of the Guild of Enchanters, with a doorway to the west. A private chamber is a great privilege, especially for an Enchanter as young as yourself, but how many Enchanters can say they defeated the infamous Krill?
Your bed occupies the far corner of the room.

>examine bed
There is nothing on the bed.

There is not a lot to learn about the Novice and little more to learn about his fellow guildmembers. A primary focus is his precocious ascendency (he did defeat Krill at a young age). Even allowing for technical limitations (it was a 108KB game already), it may be telling that the Novice only knows the names of three enchanters. It also feels noteworthy that their descriptions (like the Novice’s own room description) are concerned with rank, prestige, and future prospects.

>who is frobar
Frobar is the most loyal and hard-working member of the Guild. However, he is somewhat dull and lacks imagination. It is doubtful that he would ever succeed Belboz as head of the Circle.

>who is helistar
Helistar is an old and powerful member of the Circle. Although a skilled and experienced magic-user, she is humorless to the point of being grim. Despite this personality flaw, Helistar is the most likely candidate to become the next Guildmaster of the Circle.

>who is belboz
Belboz, your friend and mentor, is the head of the Circle of Enchanters. Recently, he has been acting oddly and seems to have been avoiding you.

[It just doesn’t fit here, but one day I will write something about the scant few women of the Zork universe, including this most-qualified but “humorless” Helistar.]

The novice, happy to have the place to himself, wanders the empty guild hall, searching everyone’s rooms. Upon entering the room of Belboz, the leader of the Circle, the Novice may hear one randomly selected phrase (the source code calls them “PARROTISMS”) spoken by Belboz’s pet parrot (I believe there is a 40% chance each turn that Pollibar will say something.” Here are the possible PARROTISMS:

<ROUTINE I-PARROT ()
       <COND (<AND <IN? ,PARROT ,HERE>
		   <PROB 40>>
	      <TELL CR "\"Squawk! " <PICK-ONE ,PARROTISMS> " Squawk!\"" CR>)>>

<GLOBAL PARROTISMS
	<PLTABLE
	 "Pollibar want a cracker!"
	 "Now where can I hide this key?"
	 "You should never have let down your mindshield, you
doddering old Enchanter."
	 "This tea is cold! Get me another cup."
	 "Where did I leave my spectacles?"
	 "Belboz, the Circle is waiting for you.">>

If the player is lucky, the Novice will manage to hear, “You should never have let down your mindshield, you doddering old Enchanter.” It is entirely possible, however, that the text may never be encountered. This text should probably not have been left to chance. It is, I think, more evocative and compelling than the unfortunately summarized content from the diary of Belboz:

You skim through the pages of the journal, a combination diary and notebook. Most of the notations, written in Belboz's familiar flowing script, deal with meetings of the Circle and business of the Guild.

There is one interesting entry toward the end of the book. Belboz refers to an ancient and evil force known simply as Jeearr, a demon whose powers could endanger the Circle and possibly the entire kingdom. He has decided to conduct some dangerous exploratory experiments, operating alone to shield the Circle from the perils involved.

The last three entries are strange and frightening -- written in a hand quite different from that of Belboz, and in a language totally unfamiliar to you.

Finally, this front “bookend” would be incompletely described–or so one would think–without treatment of the “Amulet of Agghtora” that graces the cover of both folio and grey box editions of Sorcerer. In Belboz’s desk–with his journal and Infotater–is a tiny box.

>examine box
There is writing on the lid of the box.

"    MAGIC AMULET

The closer this amulet is to
its owner, the brighter it may
glow. Ideal for leaving with
your loved ones if you go on
a long and hazardous journey.

This amulet is sensitized to
-> BELBOZ THE NECROMANCER

Another fine product of the
Frobozz Magic Amulet Company."

"Squawk! This tea is cold! Get me another cup. Squawk!"

If we players are thorough, we may go so far as to look up the amulet in the guild’s copy of The Encyclopedia Frobozzica.

>look up amulet
The Amulet of Aggthora was a legendary jewel renowned for its powers of augury.

Had Belboz planned to go on a long and hazardous journey? His journal doesn’t say so. Perhaps he had one made just in case. It feels, in this rather ominous opening–important enough to bring along. Wherever Belboz may be, he is far away.

>get amulet
You are now wearing the magic amulet.

>examine it
A blue jewel hangs from a long golden chain. The jewel is dark.

This opening bookend concludes as the Novice casts a spell to reach Belboz’s location. Ominously–and, in my opinion, rather thrillingly–the Novice appears in the same location as his dream:

>AIMFIZ belboz
As you cast the spell, the moldy scroll vanishes!

After a momentary dizziness, you realize that your location has changed, although Belboz is not in sight...

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.

The “Wide” Part of Sorcerer: The Middle of the Middle

I don’t want to spend too much time on the map or throughline of Sorcerer‘s middle game (I mean this in Graham Nelson’s sense) here, as next week’s essay will cover it in detail. I think this discussion ought to at least recognize what it is and assess its performance as the meat of the beginning-middle-end sandwich. The short answer is, I think, “poor.” There are no signs of either Belboz or the potentially world-ending demon Jeearr. In fact, there is no sense of urgency or danger beyond that which is situational.

Unless I have missed something, this world does not deteriorate with time in the way that Enchanter’s castle does. The passage of time hangs off of Sorcerer like a vestigial tail. The Novice sleeps, but dreams have no importance. The Novice drinks a potion to head off hunger and thirst. Rather ridiculously, it wears off–unlike Planetfall or Enchanter, time serves no thematic significance in Sorcerer.

To summarize the throughline as briefly as possible: the Novice must visit varied locales, collecting scrolls and potions that allow him to pass through a coal mine with the spells needed to complete the endgame. Such abandoned (and therefore Zorkian) locales include a military fort, an amusement park, a (different) royal maze, the aforementioned coal mine, and… an appliance store. The world feels fitting for a game called “Zork V,” but feels mismatched with its ominous beginning, to say nothing of its possible endings.

Evil Lurks behind the Coal Mine: The End of Sorcerer

At the conclusion of the Novice’s Zorkian romp, he arrives–almost unexpectedly–at the endgame. In fact, the only indicators that the end approaches are metatextual–the player score is one sign, and the fact that the coal mine is a one-way trip is another. The climactic end to the middle game–the rightfully celebrated “GOLMAC” puzzle–has nothing to do with the plot of Sorcerer. The hazards are environmental, and there is no indication that Jeearr has ever been inside the mine.

The player, likely still exhilarated by their time travelling experience, may be surprised by their reward:

>d
You fly out of the chute and land just at the edge of some water...

Lagoon Shore
This is a narrow beach between a small cove to the east and tall cliffs to the west. The shore curves to the southeast and northeast. A metal chute leads up into the cliff.

At the bottom of the lagoon, the Novice finds a grue suit that will, rather conveniently, allow them to pass a bunch of mutant grues (they are impervious to light). This is one of Infocom’s few unfortunate and anticlimactic attempts to implement visible grues:

Grue Lair
This is a low, shadowy cave leading east to west. The rocky walls are scarred with deep claw marks.
A pack of grues fills the room! The grues, contrary to all conventional wisdom, aren't bothered by your light in the least. They must be mutated grues, no longer fearing light! They seem to be ignoring you, aside from a few suspicious gurgles in your direction.

>examine grue
You see nothing special about the pack of mutated grues.

Yikes.

Beyond the grues lies a cave with three doors and a host of devices. As is the case with the mutant grue lair, Sorcerer seems to have a hard time finding its way back to it’s opening’s limited sense of urgency or atmosphere.

Mammoth Cavern
This cavern is of extraordinary size, but nevertheless crowded with powerful-looking machinery. You recognize a breeder for producing millions of the mutated grues you just passed. Other devices seem designed to aid the forces of evil while sapping magic powers of Enchanters everywhere.

At the far end of the cavern are three closed doors: a black marble door leading to the northwest, a shiny silver door heading due west, and a door of bleached white wood to the southwest.

Does the game give the player (or the Novice) a reason to try a specific door? The white door is the “correct” one–the others lead to eternal torment for the opener, but I am not sure that there is a reason for picking it. Is white Jeearr’s favorite color? Furthermore, there’s no clear motive for Jeearr expending magical resources in this way. How many people will make it through the coal mine and pass the grues in order to face the doors? Why give such a resourceful person a 33% chance of success?

The “wrong” door choices are worth quoting–they do at least suggest that the stakes are higher in this new, final area. The black door:

>open black door
As the door opens, hundreds of slime-covered tentacles stream out and drag you across the threshold...

Chamber of Living Death
The very walls of this room seem to soak up all light, so it seems as though you're floating in the center of an infinite void.
Hideous parasites descend upon you and tear the flesh from your bones, gnaw the eyes from your sockets, and feast upon your very brain tissue. Amazingly, you do not die, and your body regenerates itself as you await the next attack...

The silver door:

>open silver door
The door blows open, knocking you to the ground. You are pulled through the open doorway by an unseen force...

Hall of Eternal Pain
This room is filled with blinding light that stabs at your eyes.
Disembodied forces suck the very thoughts from your mind, savoring each moment and growing stronger. Every second is an agonizing torment, as though thousands of raging fires were exploding in your skull, filling you with a pain greater than you could ever imagine.

These uglinesses do affect the tone, but they also feel haphazard. Those of you who listen to Gold Microphone know that “learning by dying” does not bother me, but this feels like a bit much. Yes, in Enchanter, the player mus{t be ready to GONDAR the DRAGON and CLEESH the BEING, but those actions do in fact involve “learning.” I don’t know, at the end of Sorcerer, why white is better than silver or black.

[If you cast VEZZA, you may eventually get a vision of the white door, but that doesn’t explain why it is the right door.]

This brings Sorcerer to its second formal innovation (the first being the dream sequence at the beginning): “good” and “bad” endings in an adventure (non-mystery) game. There are some interesting implications, despite the fact that Sorcerer seems to have completely given up on atmosphere:

>open white
The door creaks slowly open. Within, you see someone lying as though asleep. You feel yourself drawn into the room...

Belboz's Hideout
An acrid stench fills this small room, which is obviously a control center for the evil experiments in the cavern outside.
Hanging on the wall is a heavy dagger, its handle encrusted with diamonds.
Belboz is lying here, motionless but not asleep. He seems to be in some sort of trance.

>examine belboz
You see nothing special about Belboz.

The “best” ending is, in my opinion, the least dramatic. It is a good outcome or consequence for all our interactions but perhaps it is not a satisfying fiction (in my broad sense of the term). Experiencing the failures is valuable (perhaps essential) since otherwise the stakes are not clear.

Failure #1–Exorcising Belboz but becoming Jeearr’s new host:

>swanzo belboz
A wispy translucent shape rises from the body of Belboz. It speaks in a voice so deep that your whole body seems to hear it. "Foolish Charlatan! I am forced to flee that weak, old body -- I shall take your own, instead! Already I have sucked all knowledge, all secrets from that ancient Enchanter. Now begins an epoch of evil transcending even your worst nightmares; a reign of terror that will last a thousand thousand years!" The shape blows toward you on a cold wind.

You feel an overwhelming sense of oppression as the demon seizes control of your mind and body. The monster reaches into the recesses of your mind, adding your hard-earned magic powers to its own. As it settles comfortably into your skull, the demon grants you a vision of the future. You see the enslaved people of the land toiling to erect great idols to Jeearr. Parents offer up their own children upon these altars, as the rivers of the land fill with blood. And YOU embody Jeearr; you are cursed by ten thousand generations of victims; your face adorns the idols. And worst of all, you remain awake and aware, a witness to horror, never sleeping, and never, ever to escape.

Your score is -99 of a possible 400, in 608 moves. This puts you in the class of Menace to Society.

Failure #2–Killing Belboz in order to vanquish Jeearr:

>get dagger
Taken.

>vardik me
A feeling of warmth and protection fills your mind.

>kill belboz with dagger
You stab the knife time and again into Belboz, who writhes in pain, eyes bulging outward. Sickened and dizzy, you stagger back.

A wispy translucent shape rises from the corpse of Belboz. It speaks in a voice so deep that your whole body seems to hear it. "Foolish Charlatan! I am forced to flee that weak, old body -- I shall take your own, instead! Already I have sucked all knowledge, all secrets from that ancient Enchanter. Now begins an epoch of evil transcending even your worst nightmares; a reign of terror that will last a thousand thousand years!" The shape blows toward you on a cold wind.

Jeearr surrounds you like a cloud and begins to contract. Suddenly, it strikes your invisible protection and recoils as if burned. "No!" it cries. "Such a guileless Enchanter developing a mind shield?" The cloud is thinner, the voice fainter. "It cannot be! I cannot survive ... without a host." The demon roils in agony, then thins and dissipates. There is a final scream of pain, then silence.

Jeearr is vanquished; the kingdom is saved. But you - you are stranded in a land unknown, and your closest friend, the greatest Enchanter of his age, lies dead by your own hand. Kneeling by his blood-soaked corpse, you beg for another chance...

Your score is 375 of a possible 400, in 614 moves. This puts you in the class of Sorcerer.

By contrast, the win state feels less substantial. Belboz is fine, Jeearr is vanquished, and the Novice–not “humorless” Helistar–will succeed Belboz as Leader of the Circle of Enchanters.

In Sorcerer‘s case, the sum of the parts is, in fact, greater than the whole. There are many fine puzzles, and the magic system remains a delight, but things don’t come together in a wholly satisfying way. There are dark circumstances and a darker entity that could have imbued Sorcerer with suspense, anticipation, and perhaps even dread, but such forces are never brought to bear. In Enchanter, it makes sense why the villain is where he is, doing what he is doing. Further, it makes sense that the protagonist is making his way there, that he is gathering the items he will need once he is there. That setting is marked by Krill’s presence–his influence is everywhere!

In Sorcerer, the opposite is true. The player only knows Jeearr is involved because it is mentioned once in a diary. There are, so far as I know, no signs of it beyond the mutated grues outside its lair. The pre-climax middle game has two goals, neither of which can be associated with Jeearr or Belboz: navigate a glass maze (there’s no reason to do so beyond the fact that it is there) and animate a large wall carving (again, there’s no clear motive for doing so). Even making allowances for “lol video games,” few actions in Sorcerer have in-game motivations. Zork I, that famously “storyless” puzzlefest, does more with motivation than Sorcerer does.

While I think it’s true that old interactive fiction games are light on plot, critics often understate the significance of other craft elements of fiction: characterization, setting, pacing, prose, and so forth. Sorcerer excels as a collection of puzzles but suffers in terms of fictional craft. In that sense, it is a step back from not only Enchanter but Meretzky’s own Planetfall. I wonder how much that has to do with the concept of “Zork-ness.” Is any open, big-mapped game with disparate locations, techno-fantastical mashups, and recurring gags “Zorkian?” More important, are Zork games absolved of craft considerations by virtue of their Zork?

I’ll have more to say next time when I examine Sorcerer‘s middle game in detail in hopes of determining whether some games deserve a “Zork pass” when it comes to matters of craft.

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One thought on “[2/3] Sorcerer: Evil Lurks Behind the Coal Mine

  1. You see in the first couple images the sticker on the packaging that says “Disk in Enchanter package”. Yeah, too bad it didn’t say that when I got the trilogy for christmas and I thought the disk was missing. (It was actually on the back of the Enchanter disk. You’d never see it unless you removed the Enchanter disk and looked). Well, it almost ruined christmas.

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