The Big One: Trinity

Trinity, or It’s Almost Entirely Downhill from Here

I’m just an Internet Person Who Likes Video Games

I made an Inform 7 game not too long ago, and I’m making another one now. They are quite personal, which might be a surprise to readers of this blog. Here, I mostly keep things at arm’s length, attempting to write with the arch incision of a certain sort of online critic. I am seldom–I hope–obnoxious, but perhaps I am often close to the line.

I played a lot of video games when I was young. Games of any kind, really. I just wanted to play games. Games to me weren’t just an entertainment, they were a refuge. I thought that, unlike life, games were fair. If you did things the right way, if you did the right thing, you were rewarded. You could even win. I needed fairness in my life. For a time, that was what Infocom’s games represented to me: fairness.

I needed fairness in my life. For a time, that was what Infocom’s games represented to me: fairness.

Take Zork‘s Adventurer, or the Enchanter: they are mostly the sum of the player’s choices, rather than a collection of impressive qualities or capabilities. The Adventurer rarely performs impressive physical feats. He kills the troll, and, later, dives for the amulet in a frigid lake. Most of the time, though, his power rests solely in his ingenuity. The Enchanter, despite being the most powerful enchanter ever, casts spells the same way that they do at the beginning of their trilogy. Their power is their capacity for problem solving.

In all of everyone’s (and mine, too) discussion of how “anyone” could be the Adventurer, it’s worth noting that, in some senses, “anyone” still applies. The Adventurer has no history. The Adventurer is not defined by his history. The question Zork seemed to ask me was this: “If we boiled away everything that was yours and yet not you, would you know what to do with this?”

Shaft Room
This is a large room, in the middle of which is a small shaft descending through the floor into darkness below. To the west and the north are exits from this room. Constructed over the top of the shaft is a metal framework to which a heavy iron chain is attached.
At the end of the chain is a basket.

To me, that was fairness. That was a fairness I needed to experience somewhere, somehow. I feel I should distinguish a general sense of fairness in one’s life as compared with Jimmy Maher’s concept of “fairness” in game design. I am talking about the former, of course, and Infocom games seemed overwhelmingly fair when compared to real life. So, I loved those games, and many others besides. I have been interested in many sorts of games over the years and remain interested in them today. I spend most of my free time writing my own game or writing and researching for this page, but here are some of the games I’ve played this past year:

  • Resident Evil 4 (remake)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
  • Persona 3 Portable
  • Spellbreaker, Ballyhoo, and Trinity
  • A ton of choice-based (Twine, Dendry, etc.) games from IFDB
  • Baldur’s Gate 3

There are lots of games that I haven’t gotten to, including a couple of Gust’s Atelier games and Like a Dragon: Ishin! I just like playing games. If I hadn’t started writing my own interactive fiction, I think that list would be a lot longer.

This meandering noodle does serve a rhetorical purpose. I’d like to demonstrate that I am not merely a neutral and unbiased critic. I don’t think that such a critic exists, honestly, but disclosure and self-reflection make for strong writing. Let me disclose the obvious: after much reflection, I must admit that there are emotional stakes for me when I write about games. They have always given me something I’ve needed. They’re important to me.

Before I ever thought to be a critic, I was a fan. Like everybody else, I have favorites. There are things I don’t like very much, too. In some cases, I have good reasons, in other cases, I may not. Whether I like or do not like something, I promise that I have been thinking about these Infocom games for forty years or so. I may be wrong, but I am not, for lack of a better phrase, knee-jerking my way through the Infocom canon.

Before I ever thought to be a critic, I was a fan.

Cards on the table: here are my favorite Infocom games. Not necessarily “best,” mind you. Just my favorites, in no order.

  • A Mind Forever Voyaging
  • Suspended
  • Spellbreaker
  • Deadline
  • Plundered Hearts
  • Zork III

Is this a provocative list? Maybe. Deadline certainly is not a widely-held favorite. I really, really love it, though. Zork III is probably not considered the best game out of the Zork trilogy, but I admire its ambition.

Hey Wait. Isn’t This Supposed to Be About Trinity?

Wait. Trinity isn’t on this list. Isn’t this a post about Trinity? No, it’s not, and yes, it is.

It seems that one cannot talk about Trinity without contending with the legacy and reception of Trinity. This is different from, say, writing about Zork, which has the fact of its own historicity. I have said before that–not everyone liked this–in a certain sense it doesn’t matter if one likes Zork. It is beyond likability. Sometimes somebody will write a review asserting that Zork is a bad game, or that it has aged badly. What does that prove? It is a phenomenon as much as it is a text, and phenomena are resilient when it comes to media criticism.

Infocom’s other great games, however, must sing for their supper. Or, perhaps better still, find someone to sing on their behalf. My father knows, in a very general way, what Zork is, but would be lost when it comes to Trinity or Deadline. In such a rarefied, specialized space, the critic’s role in media conversations can be pivotal, provided that the right critic appears at the right time, and that they are concerned with the right content.

Even though I quote Jimmy Maher often, someone will occasionally ask me whether I have read his piece on this or that. Of course I have. I have read everything he has written about Infocom more than once. I think A Mind Forever Voyaging is every bit as good as I say it is, but I also felt, nine years after Maher’s own three-part series, that AMFV deserved more than faint praise. I thought, in fact, that it deserved what I guess I would call the “Trinity treatment.” I didn’t have the kind of historical material that Maher had for Trinity, so I instead dove into the “new” Republicanism of the Reagan years, as well as questioning some widely-held assumptions about the influence and legacy of 1980s parser games. It’s media criticism, because that’s what I know how to do. I don’t really do history, mainly because Maher has already done it, and secondarily because that isn’t who I am. I don’t have “new history” to disclose; history is history.

I don’t really do history, mainly because Maher has already done it, and secondarily because that isn’t who I am. I don’t have “new history” to disclose; history is history.

Still, distinguishing between those games hardly mattered to me in 1986. I owned a Commodore 64 computer with a 1541 disk drive. I couldn’t play A Mind Forever Voyaging or Trinity, as they were 128k games. All I really knew about them was what I could read in The New Zork Times newsletter. In both cases–their releases were less than a year apart–Infocom asserted a new ambition toward literary seriousness that went far beyond the boilerplate “get inside a story” ad copy they’d been using for years.

There is a hard line to toe here. I celebrate the aspirational nature of both of these games. I think it is fine–great, even–to speak of one’s art as an artist might, whatever that might mean case-by-case. And yet, I think that if one must tell the audience that they are serious, or else that they are attempting to do something serious, then they have failed in some way. Perhaps they have no confidence in their work and are unwilling to let it speak for itself. Perhaps, on the other hand, they have no confidence in their audience.

A Mind Forever Voyaging dipped a toe in those dangerous waters, and its NZT launch announcement attempted to situate it among works like “such great works of science fiction as 1984 or Brave New World.” However, half of that article was concerned with the novelty of the “Interactive Fiction Plus” designation that made its debut with AMFV. This is hardly “can a computer game make you cry?” material:

Thus, large projects, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, are now entirely within our capabilities. Unlike the new Whopper®, or New Coke®, this revolutionary gaming technology promises to please the tastes of even the most discriminating player, allowing for more of just about everything (game bugs being no exception).

The “seriousness” of AMFV was complicated by Infocom’s ad copy, which said things like “Roll Over, Orwell.” Elsewhere, a press release asserts:

With its highly literary focus, A Mind Forever Voyaging is a departure from other Infocom stories. Instead of being puzzle-oriented, the story involves you in a highly-detailed… chilling world of the future.

Messages regarding AMFV‘s tone and ambitions were mixed. I think this is all to the good, as it leaves the reader room to make of the game what they will.

Whatever the cause, Infocom was far more consistent in its presentation of Brian Moriarty’s Trinity, which was set before potential customers as a serious game about things that have happened, or else things that are likely to happen. In fact, most of the content about Trinity in its respective New Zork Times launch issue is concerned with the historical rigor of its production. Moriarty’s research trip to New Mexico is covered in greater detail than the game itself. How many games in that time were as concerned with the conditions of their production, with themselves? This is an interesting and unusual authorial approach, then or now, and worthy of future discussion.

I’m interested in finding a link between historicity and artistic merit, which is something Infocom (and some highly visible critics) appear to have accepted as a truth that goes without saying. There’s a lot to think about, here!

How many games in that time were as concerned with the conditions of their production, with themselves?

The fact that Trinity isn’t one of my favorite Infocom games in no way means that I’m going to dump on it for ten thousand words. It was one of my twenty nominees for “the best interactive fiction of all time.” Even if I do not like it as much as some of you might, I certainly do respect it.

I don’t know how long this series will take. More than three posts, I am sure. I’ll write until I’m done, and I hope that you’ll come along for the ride–no matter what your favorite Infocom game is.


Cold war anxiety, duck and cover, and adventure games! Join me on yet another trip back to the fabulous 1980s.

6 thoughts on “The Big One: Trinity

  1. Eagerly looking forward to it! And speaking of Moriarty’s games, you had previously mentioned BZ in the context of Spellbreaker, and while I do agree with you regarding the idea of “watering down” that ending, it doesn’t sort of have to if you consider it happening in some kind of “alternate universe” or some crap. 🙂 I also just coincidentally read the CRPG Addict’s playthrough of it ( and he had so much fun just playing it, even thinking about puzzles offline (!) that I did want to bring that up as a something to be remembered when analyzing these things from a more academic perspective. Fun and engaging is important too!

    1. I hope I haven’t given the impression that I don’t care about fun. I think this specific post shows that I play and enjoy a wide variety of games. The bad news is that I hate the mechanics in Beyond Zork! I say this as a person who plays tons of CRPG and JRPG games, and has even run desktop RPG games. When I first played it more than 30 years ago, I expected to love it! I didn’t really care about Zork in a literary sense. Even then, I strongly disliked the systems, which mostly function outside combat as ways to unknowingly get the player into unwinnable states. They are keys to invisible doors.

      I think there are a couple instances where you only get one chance to raise a stat. I just didn’t enjoy that.

      Maher has a similar thought in his own writings about it.

      With only a couple of exceptions, every game I’ve praised I first loved as a player. I do consider Beyond Zork a worthwhile experiment, and that plus Moriarty’s writing lifts it above Zork Zero.

      1. In Beyond Zork there’s more than one chance to increase all your stats. Endurance increases gradually throughout the game and most of the others have three things you can do or eat/drink; Strength has only two that I know of (other than the amulet which is temporary).

  2. I don’t want to get too far into this, because I will have to write about it eventually, but having multiple chances isn’t easier than having one if you have to find them all. Which I believe is the case with some of the prerolled characters.

    Needing an unknown amount of something to reach an unknown threshold isn’t a great mechanic, in my opinion. Both Jimmy Maher and I got locked out of winning (his was compassion, mine was either the moss or spenseweed). We have played every Infocom game more than once, including Beyond Zork.

    There’s no way to know if you’re locked out of winning, because you never know what you need until you have it. And sure, getting locked out of winning in an Infocom game! What else is new? However, I find it crueler than famously cruel puzzles like the tool for Marvin in HHGtG. At least you know what you need for that situation. In this case, you really have no idea whether you’re close, whether the goal is reachable, etc.

    I played it last year. It’s the only Infocom game that I consider mechanically unsound. Now, people do enjoy it, lots of people in fact. That’s great! I had a bad time with it. I don’t know why anyone would assume I play games just to come down on them. I praise most of them. Enthusiastically.

    1. I’m not defending BZ over much; it can be aggravating. And I’ve never played with a prerolled character, but neither have I fine-tuned a custom one, I usually just spread the points around evenly and called it a day. But you can get enough compassion during the story to complete it even if you put no points into it at all; the thing you use the spenseweed for has an alternate solution (although it might be possible for the wand you need to be randomly placed in an area you can’t reach until after you would need it; I don’t know if there’s any safeguards against things like that); and I’m not sure what you mean about the moss, unless you meant you couldn’t get up the stack of boxes in the wine cellar (requires dexterity), which is at least very near the beginning of the game. But I take your point about not knowing how much more of a given stat you would need for certain actions and therefore what to do to fix the situation.

      1. I’ll have to take detailed notes before writing about it, even though mechanics don’t interest me as a writer. The thing about this project, which has proven to be quite massive, is that I need to spend the most time on the games I don’t like. If I loved the game, I could just say I love it and leave it at that. Nobody would care.

        E: even if I said that loved Seastalker, nobody would ask me to provide in-depth analysis or give highly specific playthrough information, or else challenge my reasoning.

        I think Jimmy Maher has gone into a fair bit of detail, and I largely agree with his take. Until I get there myself, I’ll defer to him.

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