Tuesday 12 September 2017

Missed Classic 45: Infidel - Introduction (1983)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Although I had originally planned to play only the Zork games, I somehow find myself eleven games into playing the entire Infocom canon. I still doubt I’ll be able to finish all of them before we get to Return to Zork, but I hope I will have at least hit the high points. And that’s why I’m sitting down to play Infidel, the first game on the list that I was completely unaware of. Every other game so far I’ve at least started and abandoned twenty or more years ago. This one, and many of the games that are coming up, are completely unknown to me. That is exciting but also a bit intimidating as I do not know what to expect or whether Infocom will continue to retain a high level of quality as we get closer to their inevitable decline and shut down.

I also want to take this time to announce that next week (the week of the 19th) will be a special “Zork Marathon Anniversary” week! Time flies but I’ve been playing Infocom (and pre-Infocom) games for an entire year now. To celebrate, we’ll try to finish Infidel and end with a 1983 wrap-up, including the first three Zork books, plus a special non-Zork bonus post. It’ll be fun and hopefully put me in the right mindset for Sorcerer and Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.

Infidel is Mike Berlyn’s fourth adventure game overall and his second with Infocom after Suspended. This is also Mr. Berlyn’s first game created entirely while at Infocom; according to some design notes that were shared with me by Jason Scott (of Get Lamp fame), he had sketched out much of that game prior to joining the crew from Wheeler St. I do not have to much more to add about this part of Mr. Berlyn’s career at Infocom, but we will continue to track him through Cutthroats (1984) and potentially a brief look at non-adventure Fooblitzky (1985). I am excited to see how Mike’s science fiction / dystopian writing chops will translate to a game that seems quite far from his strengths.

Dr. Livingston, I presume?

Just as with the other games, there are a few “feelies” included as part of the manual including a fake magazine, a short diary, a letter, a map, and a page of “hieroglyphs”. I’ll come to each in turn, but having just read the diary, I am led to an inescapable conclusion: the protagonist is a major ass. Actually, that is probably an understatement but I am hoping to keep my posts family-friendly. Our "hero" appears to be the junior partner in an archeology firm and lives in constant jealousy of his senior partner. He desperately wants an opportunity to prove himself so when a potential client, Miss Ellingsworth, arrives with news about a lost pyramid that her father once searched for, he jumps on it without telling his partner. Around 1920, her father was given a pottery sherd with strange “hieroglyphs” that he somehow managed to decipher. Based on what he learned, he launched an underfunded and ill-fated expedition to locate the pyramid. The trip was a failure and Miss Ellingsworth’s father died, but not before finding a limestone block containing similar “hieroglyphs”. She wants us to find her father’s pyramid and prove that he wasn’t a complete failure. To that end, she provides us all of her father’s notes including his basic hieroglyphics dictionary and the block. I keep almost writing “I” or “us” here because I usually find myself in the head of the character, but this time I am not sure how well I can relate to his specific brand of ambitious pettiness.

Her father’s notes and basic dictionary.

I pause for a second to look over the notes that she provided, also included as “feelies”. The “hieroglyphs” here aren’t Egyptian or much of anything else, they are pure ASCII-art. That is pretty cool since it means we’ll probably encounter some in the game itself. We are also helpfully given an initial “dictionary” of words that Mr. Ellingsworth managed to decipher in 1920. Exactly how this was done isn’t stated, especially as he had only the stone and a small potsherd to work with. (Incidentally, the letter says a pottery “shard” but the technical term is “sherd” or “potsherd”. This is my history-geek coming out for a moment, sorry.) We don’t get a rubbing of the sherd itself so we have no idea what it says that points the way to a pyramid, but I spend a moment to decode the rubbing with the attached key:

“The queen and all queen treasures.”

Never mind that real Egyptian is more complex than a one-to-one word replacement, but I can’t help but notice that the dictionary has symbols that don’t appear on the stone. My guess is that this is a form of copy-protection and we’ll have something else we need to decode before too long. A more obvious form of copy protection is the enclosed map:

“X” marks the spot, of course. 

The map gives the latitude and longitude coordinates for where the jade block was found, presumably where I’ll need to start looking for the actual pyramid. Starcross used a similar idea for copy protection, although in that game there were several possible locations of the alien ship instead of just one.

With this in hand, our character admits in his diary that he just wants the “glory” of finding the new pyramid and to show-up his partner for all his supposed mistreatments. He doesn’t bother to tell anyone that he is leaving, he just gets a visa and books a trip to Egypt. Oh, but if you think he’s an ass now, just wait. It gets worse. He hires a group of Egyptian laborers to help with the excavation, but on the way to the site their “navigation box” (a GPS? Maybe a Loran?) falls off the jeep and they radio back to Cairo for another. Some of the food that they brought was spoiled and the laborers are unhappy. Rather than wait for the navigation box to come or return back to the city for more supplies, he forces the men to dig in the desert everyday for three weeks without a clear idea of where they should be looking. And when his guide got angry for their fool’s errand, he hit him. After a fourth week with no progress, no leads, and no GPS, “our” character forces the workers to continue digging during a religious holiday. No one is happy but he closes out his diary saying that one of the workers just came by to drop off some kumiss (a drink made from fermented milk) and it looks like all is forgiven. He settles down to write a letter to his benefactor.

The final page of the undelivered letter.

The letter is… trippy. It starts with a formal and optimistic account of their challenges in Egypt, but before long it meanders into unsettled rants as the handwriting gets worse and worse. I thought at first that this was our character descending into madness but only after re-reading the journal and the letter now, it’s clear that the kumiss was drugged and we’re seeing (in real time!) the drug affecting his system. As his final lines twist off the page, our character slips into unconsciousness as we start to play the game.

First, I want to get something out of the way: I know that there is a twist ending to the game. Someone mentioned it in a comment a few weeks ago, but I don’t actually know what the twist is. Knowing Mr. Berlyn’s sci-fi background in both his books and his games to date, I’m going to guess that this will be the classic “sci-fi Egyptian” plotline ala Stargate and that the “twist” will be us flying off into space or something. I hope I’m wrong, but since I know there is a twist, how could I not try to guess it? Maybe M. Night Shyamalan played this as a 13-year old and was inspired by its brilliant twist-plotting to pattern his career off of it?

The plane, boss, the plane!

We wake up in a cot in a tent. There’s a supply chest, but it’s been padlocked and I don’t have the key. We can hear an airplane above, probably delivering the long-awaited navigation box. Of course, it would arrive a day too late! I head outside and look around, but it’s pretty clear that “we” are not quite right in the head. I examine a nearby excavation hole and get this response:

> examine hole 
Never mind that -- Here’s a better problem: You dig a hole 52 feet by 20 feet by .105 yards. It takes you 5 hours, 11 minutes, and 2 seconds. You sweat off 30 grams of water per hour. And your best friend just ran off with the rent money. Now: How much sand is in the hole you dug?

I don’t know that I like this at all. I mean, it’s funny in a way but it further removes “us” from being the protagonist of the game. I am barely over playing a jerk, but a jerk who is hallucinating might be a bridge too far. From a game design standpoint, I do not think it’s a good idea for immersion. That said, I think you are supposed to think that the answer is 12.13 cubic yards of sand but it’s a riddle: the answer is: there is no sand in the hole you just dug. It’s a hole, stupid!

As I explore the camp site, the airplane far overhead drops off a package with a parachute. We have no difficulty opening the crate and pulling out the navigation box. It has only a single button which, when pressed, tells me my latitude and longitude. Right now, I am at 24° 11’ 7’’ N, 32° 12’ 37’’ E. Ah yes, non-decimal latitude and longitude used to be a thing. The nice thing about living in the future is that we can actually check out this stuff, pulling up images from Google Maps in seconds when a tiny company in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1980s may have struggled with the same.

That doesn’t look quite right...

Sorry for the little diversion, but I could not help myself but to check. It seems that the site in the game is on the wrong side of the Nile, approximately 45 miles west of Aswan. I do not know much about ancient Egypt, but Aswan is the location of the “First Cataract”, a natural boundary that made river travel upstream impassible. This became something of a natural border for Upper Egypt throughout a long period of history, although the ancient Egyptians would eventually progress past this barrier and conquer much further up the Nile. I hope someone more versed in Egyptian history can provide some context. In any event, while there was temple-building this far south, all of the pyramids that we think of when we think of Ancient Egypt were much further north. (Incidentally, “El Menhir”, the name of the staging town in the manual, does not appear to be a real place. Aswan would have been an ideal staging-ground for this expedition with a population over 200k in the 1980s and plenty of infrastructure. While I am at it, I could also complain that “menhirs” are Western European and that similar Egyptian monuments are called “obelisks”, but I give that one a pass since I suspect it’s intended to be a reference to Zork II.)

I explore the rest of the camp and pick up whatever I can find:
  • By the communal fire pit, I find a matchbook and an empty package of cigarettes. The pack has shiny foil which might come in handy somehow.
  • In the supply tent, I find a left-behind axe and shovel.
  • In the workers’ tent, I discover a knapsack containing a canteen and a rope. There’s also a note from the workers saying, essentially, that they hope I am dead and if I am not that they hope I die before I make it back to civilization. Nice! They also locked up the things that I treasure in my trunk but kept the key. 
  • To the west of the camp is the Nile river and crocodiles, but I can also fill the canteen. 
  • Surrounding the camp in all directions except west is endless desert. Not much to see or collect, although I can use the navigation box in each location to find out its position.
While I am exploring, I start to get hungry and thirsty. Darn. This makes the third game in a row to have a hunger and thirst mechanic and this is one of the things I like least about these games. I drink some of the water from the canteen and look around for some food, but there’s none in the camp.

The Nile river, near where this game takes place.

I give up on finding the key and eventually try the “direct” approach: I take an axe to the lock. Surprisingly, that works! There’s some dried beef in there which I eat eagerly but I’ll need to find more food as the game progresses. I also find the material from the packaging including the jade cube, the map, and an inspection sticker. I put everything in the knapsack. I should comment on that because it’s a new feature: it seems that I can only carry a few things in-hand, but I have a much larger inventory capacity in the sack. Every time I put the sack down, it opens up to see my stuff. I always just assumed that I had a backpack or something playing Zork but this makes it explicit. Perhaps annoying explicit, but explicit. (Filling the canteen, for example, takes far too many commands: First, drop the knapsack, get the canteen, open it, fill it, close it, replace it in the knapsack, and then wear it. That’s six commands to do one simple task.)

With nothing else I can find in the camp, I head out to search for the location on my map: 24° 11’ 3” N, 32° 12’ 43” E. In each location, I push the button and I have no problem finding the location just to the east of our campsite. I dig there several times with the shovel to reveal the top point of a long lost pyramid! There’s some hieroglyphics there and a small square depression.

Our first in-game hieroglyphics!

Using the basic dictionary that was provided with the game, it says “Through this entrance sits the entrance to”. That doesn’t seem complete… but then I remember the cube which says “the queen and all queen treasures.” They go together! I pop in the cube and the top of the pyramid opens up, allowing me to enter.

I descend into the pyramid below, finding myself in the Chamber of Ra, a temple at the top of the pyramid with four staircases down, one in each direction. There’s also an altar here as well as a bronze torch and a jar of a strange liquid. I quickly work out that I can dip the torch in the liquid to coat it, then light it with a match. That gets me a nice light source for further explorations! I immediately head off the the north… and die. The stairs were too steep and I fall and kill myself. That’s… a bit of an anti-climax. With that however, I’m going to end this first session. I found the pyramid and can start to explore.

Our greatest challenge lies ahead-- and downward.

Inventory: knapsack, ancient map, inspection sticker, matchbook, cigarette pack, canteen (with water), rope, broken lock, shovel, pickaxe, navigation box, torch (lit)
Time played: 50 min

Thus far, other than the jarring opening and backstory, I am enjoying the adventure. The game’s mastery of Egyptian geography is suspect and it doesn’t feel like it takes place in the 1980s, but we’ll see what happens once I actually get into the pyramid exploration.

Don’t forget that this is an introductory post so you can guess a score. Mike’s first Infocom game was Suspended which scored 31 points. Future Mike Berlyn games we have already covered include the 1986 re-release of Oo-Topos (37 points), Tass Times in Tonetown (47 points) and Altered Destiny (38 points). He also had a smaller role in Les Manley (30 points). Keep in mind that the latter games were graphical and this one is text-only, albeit with some ASCII-art.


  1. I've been looking forward to this greatly!

    I suspect Infocom was going for a more "realistic" implementation of the "real world" with the multi-step processes of using the canteen and knapsack. Personally, I recall feeling that "realism" to just be fiddly and mildly annoying.

    1. A good policy for a text adventure designer is that if you want to make your game so realistic that there are knapsacks you have to open up etc., you should make the processes automatic so that the player don't have to waste their time writing such trivialities.

    2. Agreed. You can keep the realism by just having the description of 'fill canteen' mention all the steps.

  2. I was somewhat underwhelmed by Infidel. I won't say much about the twist, but I found it the most memorable part of the whole game, which isn't saying much. The game itself is pretty traditional puzzle solving, with largely forgettable puzzles. I'll guess 33.

    Oh, and if you are planning on doing Fooblitzky, will you be covering also Cornerstone?

    1. I haven't made any plans for either, yet. I'm fairly overwhelmed by how many games I have already. I'd like to briefly take a look at both, but neither fit the context of this blog very well. (The former is something like a board game while the latter is an early attempt at a natural language database.)

  3. 35!

    Also, unrelated to this post but I figure people will see it here: https://www.teepublic.com/t-shirt/639602-sierra (it's a t-shirt with the 90s sierra logo on it! a steal at a mere $14)

  4. You lit your torch with a patch? (Sorry, typo alert. I just thought it was a particularly almost-sensible one.)