Spellbreaker: The Cube on the Box

Now in three (or more) astounding dimensions!

The Meaningfully Divergent Cover Art of Spellbreaker

Spellbreaker was the only game in the Zork saga (Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker) to initially release in the gray box format. The cover art was attractive, albeit a departure from the illustrations for the first two games in the trilogy. Both of those images implied the flatness of the printed word on paper. Enchanter‘s cover features an ornate letter “E” that might have been at home in an illuminated manuscript, while the minimalist and monochromatic amulet pictured on the cover of Sorcerer, complete with identically-shaped bits of magic flying off in all directions, implies a thing rendered rather than a thing itself.

The Spellbreaker package, by contrast, features its subject in what we are meant to perceive as three-dimensional space. A cube rests on a flat, reflective surface with one of its vertices pointed at the audience. The area is filled with varied and complex lighting: hues of green, purple, and blue splash against both the cube and the flat surface below it. A strange symbol adorns one side of the otherwise featureless cube.

It’s a comparatively busy cover. What are we to make of it? It would be naive to ignore the obvious answer: someone thought it would entice people to buy it. Likewise, it would be cynical to stop there. It seems that dimensionality is a central theme or trope of Spellbreaker. The primary treasures of Enchanter and Sorcerer are two dimensional. They are texts on flat surfaces: pages, papers, and so forth. In Spellbreaker, the player collects cubes. Rather than gather bits of writing, the player finds objects to write on. The cover art for Spellbreaker makes sense: in many ways, the story is one of breaking free of or through or beyond the flatness of the written word.

This has implications for posts I’ve previously made about the Enchanter series. I’ve argued, for instance, that Enchanter was ultimately concerned with the transformational power of language. I still think that’s true, but how does that align (or not) with the story of Spellbreaker? I’ll try to return to this question next time.

Metatext and Spellbreaker

In addition to the game and various instructional references, Spellbreaker shipped with a copy of the Frobozz Magic Equipment Catalog, a set of six “enchanter cards,” and an Enchanter’s Guild pin. The catalog does timeline and continuity wonks (Zork continuity was once a going concern) the favor of declaring its year of publication right on its cover. My memory is fuzzy on this point: did Sorcerer specify the year of its occurrence, or did one have to calculate the year based on Belboz’s age? In any case, the catalog indicates that Spellbreaker takes place in 966, just eighteen years after the events of Zork III.

The Catalog is the best of all the Enchanter trilogy browsies. Enchanter‘s “A Brief History of Magic,” whose cover reflects an unwillingness to reconcile the original art to the new page dimensions of the gray box, features an improbably hideous, Pepto-Bismol pink border. That browsie may, in fact, be the absolute worst of all of Infocom’s gray box offerings. That’s to say nothing of the text itself, whose vain strivings toward hilarity typify the post-folio “lord frambozz flatwit bweh heh heh” humor so characteristic of many of Infocom’s rereleases. Therein, continuity fans were confronted with three Ages (two of them sounding quite scientific) that seem nested within an Age of Magic, which would ultimately be followed by… the Age of Science. The text yields a timeline featuring Magic Science, Magic Empiricism, and, yes, actual Science Science.

Enchanter‘s “A Brief History of Magic,” whose cover reflects an unwillingness to reconcile the original art to the new page dimensions of the gray box, features an improbably hideous, Pepto-Bismol pink border.

By contrast, the jokes in Spellbreaker‘s catalog actually land. The text gently lampoons mail-order catalogs of the time (The Sharper Image comes to mind), while also using commercial language to discuss the central crisis of the game: the increasing unreliability of magic. The overall effect is ideal for an in-store browsie: an amusing characterization of the game and its world that generates player curiosity. In-browsie worldbuilding works best when it is evocative and is at its worst when it bombards hapless shoppers with factoids and in-jokes. In spite of the light humor, readers of the Catalog will notice that it is a “Special Crisis Edition.” Many product listings emphasize reliability and even offer alternatives to magic: “If magic fails to protect you, turn to the blades that will.” The Catalog also helpfully explains what a “burin” is, a fact which few other than Dave Lebling are likely to know.

In-browsie worldbuilding works best when it is evocative and at its worst when it bombards hapless shoppers with factoids and in-jokes.

The collectible enchanter cards serve as copy protection, and they are reminiscent of baseball cards. An image of a famous enchanter adorns one side of a card, while a brief text summary of his (they are all male) career occupies the other. Listen, I don’t want to be any less fun than I’ve already been, so I’ll just say that I don’t think they’re very funny. I don’t think Double Fanucci is inherently funny (or even synthetically funny), which is a significant, recurring gag in these cards. The information provided is used to pass a copy protection challenge. They are certainly superior to A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s code wheel on that front. This content is wildly out of step with Spellbreaker‘s tone, though they do afford more dates for students of Zork continuity.

However, I am not a student of Zork continuity.

A Brief Synopsis of Spellbreaker

The previous games in the Enchanter series (let’s add Zork III to the pile while we’re at it) all featured compelling openings, and Spellbreaker does not disappoint in this regard. Play begins in the midst of a meeting between guild masters from across the region. These leaders represent various trade guilds as well as chapters of the Guild of Enchanters. It seems that the magic that trade guilds rely on is no longer working. An argument escalates, but before the scene culminates in physical confrontation, a mysterious, shadowy figure turns everyone in the guild hall into an amphibian. Everyone except the protagonist, of course, who chases him out into the busy streets of Accardi-by-the-Sea.

However, I am not a student of Zork continuity.

When the shadow disappears into a puff of acrid smoke, the Novice (that’s what we’ve always called him) finds that it left behind a white, featureless cube. The player also realizes that a new spell is in the Novice’s spell book: “The blorple spell (explore an object’s mystic connections).” Finding cubes and BLORPLing them is a goal, new to Spellbreaker, that surpasses the old objective of finding new spells. By using the BLORPLE spell on these white cubes, new geographies are introduced to the game world. Unlike the world maps of Sorcerer and Enchanter, Spellbreaker‘s map is not beholden to a contiguous representation of space. This returns us to the previously mentioned characteristic of dimensionality: the map of Spellbreaker is not “flat.” Its connections are often contextual rather than literal.

An example of the garish pink used in the Enchanter browsie. It is a very loud and unnatural color.
Oh, boy.

As the Novice traverses the spaces within and without these cubes, the goal of catching the Shadow seems to take second place to the objective of collecting all of the cubes. While I will discuss this in detail next time, it is enough to say for now that Spellbreaker is in many ways the brilliant inversion that Zork III really ought to have been. Gathering every cube leads to a confrontation with the Shadow, a meeting that culminates in what I consider Infocom’s greatest ending (I’m sure many of you prefer Trinity, which is a reasonable opinion). It’s a shame that Infocom would endeavor to defang it just two years later, but that is a story for another day.


What does Spellbreaker have to do with the Zork Trilogy? What doesn’t it have to do with Zork: Nemesis? Such is my commitment that I will revisit all of the point and click Zork games in preparation for a final look at Spellbreaker and the Zork saga!

If I can get them running, of course.

I apologize for the delays. My Inform 7 work in progress has been in testing again, and that process burns up a lot of my creative energy. This can’t go on forever; Spring Thing isn’t far away! I can’t talk much about it until after Spring Thing is over, but I will document my experiences as a new Inform 7 author when that time comes.

2 thoughts on “Spellbreaker: The Cube on the Box

  1. “I will revisit all of the point and click Zork games in preparation.”

    I can’t wait for Drew’s structuralist analysis of Return to Zork:

    ‘When Boos repeatedly utters the words “Want some rye? ‘Course ya do!” he is of course alluding to The Catcher in the Rye, references to which appear throughout the game, from the bedraggled plant at the start which represents Holden’s journey to maturity to Canuk’s appearance as a duck which symbolises his fixation on the ducks in the Central Park lagoon…’

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