Thursday, 21 September 2017

Missed Classic: Infidel - Won! (Lost!?) and Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich



A few days ago, I took my first deep dive into Infidel’s hidden pyramid. Powered by a flaming torch and a sense of narcissistic optimism, I discovered a long-buried burial barge, a hidden underground temple containing two chalices, a cube maze with a hidden door, and an Indiana Jones-style weight puzzle to recover four gem clusters. Thus far, after a disappointing start, I am coming to enjoy the game. Mike Berlyn has a good handle on puzzles and has managed to keep the game grounded in a sense of realism. The hieroglyphics have been fun to puzzle through, though a bit inscrutable. More importantly, they have been just understandable enough, with effort, that I could advance through a puzzle or two.

I am reluctant to admit this, but the solution to my “plaster wall” problem was embarrassingly simple: I just had to destroy the wall with my axe. I had avoided this solution in large part because no real archeologist would deliberately destroy priceless artifacts like that, but it appears to be the only way to advance. At least in my mind, I could imagine myself cataloging each of the rooms as I came to them, carefully labeling where I found this treasure or that. But take an ace to a wall? Not really how I’d approach it. It was bad enough that we broke the statue last time, but at least that was an accident...

Destroying priceless artifacts for fun!

If you enjoyed destroying that plaster wall, I have a surprise for you: it’s a two-for-one sale! Just beyond that wall was a short hallway followed by another plaster wall. This second one has some hieroglyphics on it, plus two niches, one to each side of the door. I see the symbol for “mast” in the text (although I can’t make out too much more), so I straddle the mast across the hall by putting the ends in the niches. That works! I think I know where this puzzle is going, so I climb onto the mast before taking the axe to this second piece of priceless history. I was right! As soon as I broke open the wall, a torrent of sand came out and quickly causes the floor to collapse under its weight. I find myself standing on the beam across the hall with a seemingly bottomless pit right below me. I feel especially clever for figuring this out from the text, even as a bottomless pit stretches the realism a bit. I half expect to see a nasty little dwarf run by any second! I try to tie the rope to the mast to see how far the pit goes, but the game tells me not to bother. Okay, then. Should I give Mr. Berlyn credit for guessing I would try that? Or demerits for not putting anything to see down there?

I step through the hole in the wall into a large antechamber, the “Chamber of Eternal Royalty”. The area is three rooms from north to south with my makeshift door roughly in the middle. In both the north and south ends of the room, there are sealed doorways. I design to tackle the northern one first. That door has some more hieroglyphics on it (also containing the “mast” symbol), as well as a “timber lintel” above the door. I had to Google to learn what a “lintel” was and it’s apparently a beam across the top of a door. Since I know the mast is involved somehow, so I experiment and discover that it is exactly the right height to wedge the mast under the doorframe. (Of course, I had to run back to collect the mast from the other hallway. The game lets me reach in and get it without falling into the pit.) Because this game enjoys destroying priceless history, I have to destroy the seals with my axe to open the door. When I do, a large weight comes down but is stopped by the mast. Another puzzle solved with basic carpentry!


This is a lintel, in case you were curious.

Just beyond that door is the burial chamber! Not only is there a huge sarcophagus in the room (the queen, I presume), it has a number of other features that I suspect will be essential to getting it open: two small recesses on the cover, four statues of the same gods that we saw in the X-shared room, plus the statues’ arms are blocking the lid from opening. I play around with these things but cannot find anything to do yet so I head east into an adjoining room.

That room is called the “Treasury” and it has a table with several “discs” protruding from the surface. One of the discs has a scarab on it. Playing around with them, I believe they are some sort of hidden scale: when I press on them, they go up and down. The discs look to be exactly the right size for the gold and silver chalices I found earlier. I actually had to restore and replay this section since I left them upstairs in the Chamber of Ra. There is no way to get the mast out of the doorframe without dying or getting stuck so I expect I’ll have to make sure I do this part last. I put the two chalices on the discs and pick up the scarab, only to die when the ceiling collapses. Did I do them in the wrong order? I try them the other way and the same thing happens. What am I missing? I look more carefully and notice that you can see if the discs are above the table, below the table, or completely flush with it. Since the gold chalice is heavier than the silver one, they never balance. The trick I find is to fill the silver chalice with the water from our canteen. I seem to have exactly enough water for this and it fills it nicely up to the line. With that done, I can safely remove the scarab and head back to the sarcophagus chamber.


I thought a scarab was an ornate dagger. Oops. 

My newly collected scarab fits nicely in one of the recesses on the sarcophagus lid. Unfortunately, I do not have anything else that fits in the other recess, no any clear way to open the sarcophagus. I suppose I could try my axe again, but solving the puzzle seems like the best approach. The four gem clusters, matching the four gods on the lid, seemed like a good guess but they don’t do anything either. I give up here to puzzle out the door at the southern end of the antechamber.

The southern door kills me immediately: as soon as I open it, the left and right walls come together and crush me like an archeologist sandwich. I have to restore back again to before solving the northern room to have the mast available and yes, I can put it between the walls to block me from being crushed. Is that a record for number of puzzles solved by a single object? It feels like it must be. With that, I can enter the so-called “Chamber of Rebirth”. This one has a bunch of Egyptian decorations surrounding a slab with four circular holes. I check through my inventory and find that the gem clusters fit the holes nicely but I had to find the right order. I had to experiment to get it since it wasn’t the order that we found them in the X-shaped room: diamond, ruby, opal, then emerald. Once done, the slab opens to reveal a spatula (really!) and a book. Examining the spatula gives me the hint that it is used to open books and turn pages so I do as it asks and use it to read the book. I think it says to put the scarab in the big hole and the book in the small hole-- probably back in the Burial Room.


True fact: ancient Egyptians used spatulas.

I grab the book and leave the southern annex, taking my mast after I pass. The walls around the door slam shut, just like before, but this time I’m not caught in the middle. I play through the northern room and the treasury again to get the scarab. Just like instructed, I put the scarab and the book in the correct recesses on the sarcophagus and I hear a click! I try to lift the cover, but the four statues on the corners are still blocking the lid. Now, I can turn then but when I get to the fourth one, they all snap back again. It’s clear I need to use the right order and this is where the strange “@” symbols in the X-room come into play: you put them in the order of the count of at-symbols. With that done, statues release the lid and I can finally open the cover...

And I die. The walls collapses, burying us. “You will never get out of this pyramid alive.”

But it’s not another puzzle to be solved, it’s actually the end. I “Won!” with 400 out of 400 possible points. The best ending in this game is that you die.

MOTHER F***KER.


I’m glad no one spoiled me on this, but seriously: F**K YOU, Infocom.

Time played: 1 hr 25 min
Total time: 5 hr 40 min



Several days pass…

I needed to step away for a bit after playing this game, to try to find something intelligent to say about a game that bent expectations to the breaking point. I also hope that some time will let me give a fair score, even if the game didn’t play fair with us. I can appreciate that there was an artistic point being made here and that Mike Berlyn was trying to push the envelope of adventure games. I can appreciate it, but I still cannot like it.

Perhaps the nicest way to put it is that this game might be a “dark mirror” of Zork (and to a lesser extent, Planetfall). Mike Berlyn was clearly playing with Zork tropes and references: the initial aboveground section until you find the location of a secret treasure-filled labyrinth is straight from Zork I. The town of “El Menhir” references a location in Zork II. For all that exploring and stealing the treasures of the Great Underground Empire was a good thing in those games, this game paints them as quest by a narcissistic thrill-seeker who wants nothing more than to loot the treasures of an ancient world for his own glory. Enchanter painted the Zork protagonist as a comical figure, but here he’s an anti-hero or even a straight-up villain. The final death scene may even be a response to Planetfall's optimistic closing moments, replacing the unexpected survival of a key character with an equally unexpected death of the main character. Planetfall ended with a surprise sign of relief, while Infidel ended with a surprise cry of anguish... and, in my case, vulgarity.

While I can appreciate that there’s some artistry here, it doesn’t work as a game. We might remember that we started off playing as an asshole (I was upset about it at the time), but by the time we were several hours in, I had become fully engrossed in the puzzles and had internalized the character. He wasn’t that abusive treasure-seeker that deserved his comeuppance, he was me. I worked with him through trap after trap, decoded dozens of ASCII art hieroglyphics, and was trilled each time I managed to progress a bit farther in the game. To then have the opening narrative pulled back at the last moment like this, throwing out all of the attachment that I had gained for the character… it was a big “f**k you”.

Let’s figure out a final rating.


I pity the fool… who plays this game unspoiled.

Final Rating

Puzzles and Solvability - Ignoring the story and ending for a moment, the puzzles in this game are fairly well done, difficult but not too difficult. Impressively, they managed to stay very “real world” with Raiders of the Lost Ark-style traps that are mostly within the realm of possibility. There was no magic here, no grues, or anything that couldn’t have fit in the real world (except perhaps one bottomless pit) and so building puzzles was much harder. Add to that the metagame with the hieroglyphics and you have some difficult but fun entertainment. My score: 5.

Interface and Inventory - There isn’t much I can add to what I’ve said many times about the Infocom parser. This game avoided many of the glitches that I found in Enchanter, although the knapsack was an unwelcome addition with extra turns spent just manipulating inventory. And while I was complimenting the realism a moment ago, I did spent the majority of the game carrying around a seven-foot long ship’s mast with no apparent difficulty. My score: 4.

Story and Setting - Where to begin? The story was the least effective part of this game, serving as an unwelcome distraction at the beginning and a colossal middle-finger at the end. There was no progression with this character. The setting was done well with many Egyptian allusions which I suspect made more sense to someone steeped in Egyptian history and myths, but I do not know how much faith I can put into someone’s research when they can’t even bother to look up the correct location of the Nile on a map. My score: 2.



Ancient Egyptian for "Burma Shave"


Sound and Graphics - The perpetual use of ASCII art for the hieroglyphics, and to have those be an integral part of the meta-puzzle of the game, was great. Not quite a point, but worthy of a round-up pity point. My score: 1.

Environment and Atmosphere - Meandering through an ancient pyramid and temple was a ton of fun and a lot of effort was put into getting the details right, or at least believable. While the game was empty, devoid of even a grue to keep me company, that fit to the setting that Mike Berlyn was trying to build. For all that I did not like the story, the environment that he built was well-done. I just wish that it had contributed more to the story. My score: 5.

Dialog and Acting - The prose was, as usual, fantastic and Mike Berlyn’s style came out in the room descriptions and puzzles. The initial section where my character seemed to be going insane (remember the strange response when I tried to look into a hole?) was pretty much forgotten about by the time we made it into the pyramid, which is a good thing. Without any NPCs to interact with, I don’t think I can go too high here. My score: 4.

Final tally: (5+4+2+1+5+4)/.6 = 35! I am going to use my discretion points to subtract 2 points because no matter how technically good it was, I cannot recommend a game that screws with its players like this. The ending soiled what could have been an otherwise great addition to the Infocom canon. Even more so than Suspended, this is the first Infocom game that I came out disliking. I want to love Mr. Berlyn’s games, but I suspect they are not for me.



With a score of 33, that places this game just above Suspended and Zork II. I would recommend either of those games before this one, but it’s really just the framing and ending that makes me so down on this game. Ignoring that, this is a competent adventure with a great code breaking meta-puzzle, something that I’ve never seen in an adventure game before. Maybe taken in that light, this game doesn’t suck as much. I can’t wait to see what Mike Berlyn does when he has a decent framing. The third time will be a charm, right?

The average guess was 36 which implies that most readers either expected me to like this more or were unaware of the ending. (I was really hoping for the surprise to be aliens.) Ilmari managed to guess the lowest score and get it right on the nose. Congratulations! You’ll have to give yourselves CAPs after the next mainline game.

Up next for the Zork Marathon, I’m going to take a cold shower and try to convince myself to keep playing. I hope the first set of Infocom gamebooks will be a palate cleanser because I’m fried after this one.

17 comments:

  1. The ending of the Infidel has definitely raised much outcry and strong emotions since the day it was published. If you haven't read it already, you might be interested of the following transcript of an online discussion, where Mike Berlyn, among other things, explains to his fans what he wanted to accomplish with the game. As a context, you just need to know that Scorpia, who works as the chairperson of the discussion, was a famous reviewer of Computer Gaming World, who loved all the games of Infocom - except Infidel, which he disliked pretty much for the same reasons as you and which she then refused to review in CGW.

    http://www.skepticfiles.org/cowtext/advent~1/berlynco.htm

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    1. Thanks for the interview! That provides a lot more context. One thing I noticed was this line: "That's the word. And I want very much to make them an unsterile experience. It's what I work for and it's
      my goal. Otherwise, why not just read Tom Swifts and Nancy Drews and the Hardy Boys?"

      Jim Lawrence, the co-author of Seastalker and Moonmist, had also been an established author before coming on board with Infocom. He was best known for ghostwriting Tom Swift, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew books. A coincidence? No. I think this was Mr. Berlyn taking a swipe at his fellow author and co-worker. (And perhaps a swipe that wasn't generally understood; I do not know how many people knew that Jim was the ghostwriter for those books.)

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    2. Having played Seastalker and read a transcript of Moonmist, this info does not surprise me at all.

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    3. I have located two 1960s Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books which I have confirmed were written by Mr. Lawrence. (He edited many and did revisions on many others, but I found ones that he was the primary writer for.) I plan on reading them for flavor before I play Seastalker... maybe November?

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  2. While I've never completed this game myself, I did have the ending spoiled several years ago. (Which may, admittedly, be releated to why I never finished it.) Despite that, I've always thought it was interesting for its willingness to have an unconventional ending.

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  3. Heh, congrats. Yeah, I think they're going for an arty, narrative ending, which is definitely set up in the documentation by the character being such an asshole.

    But since it's a piece of interactive entertainment they totally miss that you might not enjoy playing the game as said asshole and then receiving HIS comeuppance as YOUR reward.

    My hope is that you detour to The Lurking Horror, which has some cute Zork nods and is seasonably appropriate...

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    1. I do plan to review "The Lurking Horror", but I'm not going to be able to do so for this Halloween. (Instead, I think you'll be seeing Sorcerer and Sherlock Holmes from me come pumpkin-time.)

      Since "Lurking Horror" is 1987, it may take me a while to get there, but even if I start to skip games (a real possibility), it's one that I desperately want to play.

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  4. Even if the game won't congratulate you on finishing, I will. Well done.

    Reading more about Infidel online, my take is that the best word for it is "polarizing." People either react like you did to the ending (Scorpia in particular had nearly the same response you did, and for the same reasons), or they were impressed by and enjoyed it. I freely admit I'm in the latter camp, although I absolutely see the reasons for being in the former. The final line of the game, and the thrilling chill I felt when reading it, remains in my memory to this day. Only two other Infocom games' endings stuck with me like this - Zork III was one; the other is one you've not yet played.

    Query: if the ending had been your character gleefully scarfing up all the treasure and exiting the pyramid in triumph, gloating to himself about his success and ticking off a list of all the things he could buy and do with this plundered wealth, would that have felt a better conclusion? (I ask because, going by other reports on-line, the game DID originally have that ending - while also having built up the protagonist as the villain he is - and Infocom's testing crew objected. So Berlyn went back to the game and delivered the ending we now have. If *neither* ending sits well, then the misstep seems to have been making the protagonist an ass to begin with.)

    You'll likely be happy to hear that Infocom never tried casting the player as a villain or anti-hero again. So you won't need to worry about this coming up again during your marathon. Infidel sold the least out of all of their games then published to date. They took a chance on something new, saw the public's reaction, and stepped back.

    I'm glad that post-Infocom interactive fiction has, with the benefit of many years' collective work and experience, since delivered examples of genuinely *enjoyable* "play as a villain" games. For anyone here interested in tackling a more recent and seminal example of such work, I recommend Varicella (on the Interactive Fiction Database at http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=ywwlr3tpxnktjasd). This isn't a spoiler - the game makes very clear up front that the character you control is a bad guy. What makes this work, in my opinion, is that everyone else or nearly everyone else around you is a villain too (and arguably worse than you). Mike Berlyn left his "play as a villain" game devoid of any other NPCs. Varicella pits the protagonist against a whole *cast* of similarly evil NPCs to outwit.

    (Note that Varicella is also *very hard*. It's one of those games where things happen whether or not you're involved, and the overall meta-challenge is learning enough on different playthroughs to finally put together a winning run. The game wears this on its sleeve. If that sounds intriguing, I recommend giving it a go.)

    Sorcerer should prove a good palate-cleanser. I look forward to your tackling it!

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    1. I'm not opposed to playing villains, but I did like this game less because of the way the ending panned out.

      I reviewed "Seas of Blood" a few months ago where you play as a fairly evil pirate. (Even more evil in the book than in the game because in the book the pirate is also a slaver...). That game didn't give me the gut reaction this one did.

      Another favorite of mine as a kid was "Bugsy", a game where you play as a mob-boss rabbit. (An idea stolen, no doubt, from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.) Never got to far, but that might have been a more cartoony version of "evil"

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    2. I often enjoy playing villians as a 'second' playthrough when I play games that give me a choice(RPGs specifically), assuming I like the game enough to want to play again in a few years.

      As you mentioned in the post, this game had the problem of mentioning you're playing an a-hole at the start, then just letting you play the game for hours and forgetting the personality of the protagonist before letting the a-hole die.

      It would likely have worked better if there were people to interact with, and your guy was constantly being the kind of guy you'd want to see get his comeuppance.

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  5. "While I can appreciate that there’s some artistry here, it doesn’t work as a game. We might remember that we started off playing as an asshole (I was upset about it at the time), but by the time we were several hours in, I had become fully engrossed in the puzzles and had internalized the character. He wasn’t that abusive treasure-seeker that deserved his comeuppance, he was me. I worked with him through trap after trap, decoded dozens of ASCII art hieroglyphics, and was trilled each time I managed to progress a bit farther in the game. To then have the opening narrative pulled back at the last moment like this, throwing out all of the attachment that I had gained for the character… it was a big “f**k you”."

    I understand what you're saying here but... I'm not sure there's actually that much of an inconsistency here between the character at the beginning and the character you "played" during the game. Even if you enjoyed solving the puzzles, you were still doing it for the purpose of looting a tomb. I guess you can say "we'll, that's the context the game forces on me, I reject anything I do not have control over, and otherwise this game plays out like a standard adventure game", but in a weird way this compartmentalisation of the more sinister implications of the setting in favour of the trill and challenge to be found in tomb raiding is exactly how you'd expect this kind of character would think. Of course this still means that the ending essentially amounts to a "gottcha" moment, which will always be a bit of an acquired taste.

    Thank you for this very detailed review of the game though! It's very interesting to see that this game still draws out strong emotions in people. I too really loved the code-breaking aspect of this game and am surprised that we don't see these kinds of overarching puzzles more often.

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  6. real archeologist would deliberately destroy priceless artifacts like that... Because this game enjoys destroying priceless history, I have to destroy the seals with my axe to open the door.

    I kind of got the feeling that these necessary steps were included to help demonstrate just what kind of archaeologist the protagonist was: one for whom any means was justified by the ends.

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  7. Many of us obviously have read everything at the Digital Antiquarian, but for completeness' sake, Jimmy Maher had some thoughts on this game:
    http://www.filfre.net/2013/04/infidel/

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  8. I'm glad that I played this game without knowing what a conversation-starter it would be. If I had known the ending coming in, I don't think I could have been as honest with you of my reaction and I don't think it would have started the same conversation.

    This game should be more famous than it is for what it brought (or didn't bring) to adventure games and "interactive fiction". I almost guarantee that when I get to the end and have played every Infocom game, I'll only remember little bits and pieces from most... but this game will stick with me.

    (And yes, I expect Floyd will be another, unless Stationfall completely changes my view of him.)

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  9. I know how it feels, Joe. I've been there.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9D8RxjizbQ

    But it's much better to cope with as a failed game scene rather than a won game scene.

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  10. I agree with Voltgloss - I understand why people may not like the ending, but I think it's unique and different and deserves recognition for that. Some adventure games let you play as generic characters with zero personality, others let you play as loveable losers like Larry or slightly flawed heroes like Guybrush, but letting you play as outright nasty characters like this is rarely seen. Some may say it's for good reason, but I like how this game tried something different, and think it's honestly a shame it was so polarizing you didn't really see this again.

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    1. The further I get from playing, the more I can understand this position. It's easier to see the art with a bit of distance.

      That said, my reaction here was an honest expression of how I felt while playing. The game makes you go "AAARGH" and only later makes you go "HMMM", at least in my case.

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