Spellbreaker: Endgame

When I was an Adventurer, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became an Enchanter, I put away childish things.

Spellbreaker (1985)
Dave Lebling

Play and read along with game and source files (Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog)
Packaging, copy protection, etc. (MoCAGH archive)
Packaging, copy protection, etc. (Infodoc archive)
Internet Archive query: “spellbreaker”
HTML Invisiclues
Archival (Z5) Invisiclues
Map (Infodoc archive)

Opening Crawl

An Interactive Fantasy
Copyright (c) 1985 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
SPELLBREAKER is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release 87 / Serial number 860904

Council Chamber
You are in the Council Chamber of the ancient Guild Hall at Borphee. To the south is the entry of the Guild Hall. There is a meeting of the guildmasters going on. You are standing among a group of about ten sorcerers, each the master of an Enchanters Guild chapter somewhere in the land.

A Critical Introduction to Spellbreaker

I visited the Interactive Fiction Database this morning in hopes of finding support for a theory I might express here. I hoped to argue that Spellbreaker, once considered the least of the three games in Infocom’s famed “Enchanter” trilogy, was now widely considered the best of all. I would guess that it is, at least, a contender. My plan was to look at archived versions of this page, which shows the aggregate rankings of all games with the “infocom” tag. Why archived versions? The aggregator considers all rankings between the inception of IFDB (or thereabouts) and today. Since the IFDB tracks the times of individual ratings, the data is likely there, though I don’t have it presently.

For now, the only compelling time-relevant data that I can find comes from Victor Gijsbers’s poll “Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time,” whose results are radically different–at least when it comes to Infocom games–from the rankings of the IFDB aggregator. That poll features only a few Infocom titles. While the aggregator ranks Enchanter and Sorcerer higher than Spellbreaker, those games don’t even appear in the 2019 poll. Only Spellbreaker can be found there. Clearly, something has changed over the years, but what? For reference, here are the other ones that made the list ordered from highest ranking to lowest:

  • Trinity (Moriarty)
  • A Mind Forever Voyaging (Meretzky)
  • Wishbringer (Moriarty)
  • Spellbreaker (Lebling)
  • Suspended (Berlyn)
  • Zork I (Blank, Lebling)
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Meretzky, Adams)

Interestingly, Spellbreaker did not place in similar polls held in 2011 and 2015. It’s curious that only Zork I and Spellbreaker, the beginning and concluding “bookends” of the six-game series that I call the “Zork Saga” have made the cut. I hope that we all know by now what is special about Zork I, which was a pop culture phenomenon that burst free of the narrow discourse of the video game press, spilling into the New York Times at a time when everyone still read newspapers. It is historic, and no longer needs to be loved and enjoyed (though many still do) to be relevant, just as nobody need love the Battle of Hastings. It was more than a game; it was an event, an occasion.

[Zork] is historic, and no longer needs to be loved and enjoyed (though many still do) to be relevant, just as nobody need love the Battle of Hastings.

Spellbreaker can stake no such claim. Released in 1985, it was the conclusion to a series of games that was no longer anticipated by a great number of people. Oh, how the mighty had fallen! If Infocom received any sort of attention in the wider world of national news, it was as the star of a cautionary tale about Cornerstone and sticking to one’s last. That’s not to say that Infocom no longer garnered interest in technology and gaming circles, which it absolutely did, but the gaming world no longer belonged to text.

Spellbreaker was, in its day, in the company of A Mind Forever Voyaging as the two worst-selling games that Infocom had produced so far. Now they are in esteemed company as two of Infocom’s best-loved titles. While I have done my best to detail the merits of AMFV, it is time to sing of Spellbreaker, which I have come to praise rather than bury.

Do You Like Hard Games?

Perhaps Infocom’s chief marketing bungle–considering Spellbreaker not as a text but as a commercial product–was promoting Spellbreaker as a nigh-unbeatable game. In those days, the additional purchase of an Invisiclues hint booklet added ten dollars to a game already priced at a premium ($49.99 in 1980s money). While it’s hardly scientific to say so, I was personally unwilling to buy an “impossible” game with my weekly allowance of five dollars. “Harder than Zork I, Zork II, Enchanter, and Sorcerer” must have been an incredibly niche proposition.

By the time Infocom announced the release of Spellbreaker in the New Zork Times, they had begun to pull their punches a bit, but I suspect many of us longtime fans were annoyed (or worse) by the decision to gate the conclusion of a six-game series behind a difficulty level that none of the other games had reached.

Things are different now, of course. For one thing, nobody pays for Infocom games anymore. Well, some might, but one couldn’t buy Spellbreaker today except as a collectible at collectible prices. The Invisiclues, too, are widely available. Now that money is no longer a concern, it is perhaps easier to appreciate what Spellbreaker is as opposed to resenting what it is not.

What is it? It’s hard, yes, but nearly all of the puzzles are very reasonably clued. It’s a (mostly) fair game that makes sense. It benefits from the advances that Infocom had recently made with regard to modularity. The player is tasked with collecting objects in order to open new geographies that often feel separate and connected all at once. One could make a reductionist argument that these objects–white cubes–are really just keys that gate areas, but the subjective experience of play is quite different from that. For one thing, Lebling’s succinct prose and surreal imagery make every so-called “door” feel entirely unique. This is, more than either Sorcerer or Enchanter, an insistently magical world where even the most mundane settings are connected by otherworldly strangeness.

Lebling’s succinct prose and surreal imagery make every so-called “door” feel entirely unique. This is, more than either Sorcerer or Enchanter, an insistently magical world where even the most mundane settings are connected by otherworldly strangeness.

It is, in this sense, as literary as A Mind Forever Voyaging. While that game is concerned with heady ethical and epistemological problems, Spellbreaker is surprisingly beautiful. At times, it is downright poetic. Consider, for instance, this bizarre scene in which light no longer protects the Novice (this is what I have always called him) from our age-old enemies, the grues:

Dark Room
This room is totally black, so black that you see nothing when you look around it. All light is absorbed by the substance of the place. You can tell it is physical, because you can feel your feet touching the floor, but your eyes tell you nothing.

As you leave, the "rock" cube reappears in your hand.

Dark Cave
This is a large cave with a rough floor. You can tell little about the surroundings, because your frotz spell doesn't seem to be working normally here and produces only a wan and sickly glow. The light coming from the zipper has been reduced to a thin, barely glowing stream of tiny blobs that drips, spurts and sputters uselessly to the ground. There it collects into a small pile which is slowly disappearing, perhaps by evaporation.

You make your way carefully in the almost non-existent light down to an area filled with dim shapes. They move about purposefully, making horrible gurgling noises. The floor is rough and jumbled near the walls, so you haven't been noticed yet.

Grue Cave
This is a large underground chamber filled with nightmarish, barely visible shapes. There is very dim light issuing from somewhere near the center of the room.

The shapes are coming closer. They have noticed the zipper.

They approach you warily, avoiding the tiny drips of light. They grab you, overwhelm you, and devour you, grunting, gurgling, and snapping at each other as they fight over the best parts.

    ****  You have died  ****

Spellbreaker is a game of often overlooked virtues. While the puzzles are, in fact, usually exceptional, they tend to eclipse discussion of Lebling’s prose. Moreover, I hardly ever see Spellbreaker mentioned as the last game in a six-game series. The ending–which is undoubtedly notable–is framed as an ending to the Enchanter Trilogy, and not as a mirror to, say, Zork III when it is undoubtedly both.

Coming Soon

I’ll spend the next two posts covering what I consider absent significances in the discourse surrounding Spellbreaker, particularly the story of both individual game and the Zork Saga. It’s also worth taking brief note of the continuing and unfortunate tendency toward tonal incoherence between Zork gray box packaging and the text of the games themselves.

What’s that? You’re wishing that I would spend time on Spellbreaker‘s famous puzzles? Look no further than Gold Machine’s complete playthrough (with commentary) of Spellbreaker, including maps, game saves, and transcripts. It includes some very excellent and insightful comments from other users. Check it out!

2 thoughts on “Spellbreaker: Endgame

  1. I can’t find the exact quote, but I’m pretty sure Graham Nelson is on the record as calling Spellbreaker his favorite Infocom game.

    I can say I had to use Invisiclues too much to entirely enjoy it, but I played it in the early 90s, and I’m not sure what I’d think of it now. (The only fortunate thing is using Invisiclues means I should mostly not remember puzzle solutions when I finally get to the game, so I can approach it fresh.)

    1. re: GN. I don’t think he says so specifically, but he followed the “let’s play” thread over at intfic, praising it highly. His comments are definitely worth a look, but I’d stay away if you’re planning a replay. It explicitly spoils every puzzle!

      I only needed help with one puzzle, but that’s mainly because I didn’t mind waiting for inspiration to strike. It took me a long time to complete.

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