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.
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.
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
- 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.
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!
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.