Tuesday 7 November 2017

Missed Classic: Sorcerer - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

Hola, sailor! We’re back to close out the adventure that is Sorcerer, the fifth official Zork game. Last time out, we successfully navigated a glass maze and a wickedly cool time travel puzzle in a coal mine to emerge, mostly empty-handed, on the shore of a lagoon. All we have left is a spell book and a “smelly” scroll. My anti-hunger potion is finally wearing off and I have no idea where I am relative to the remainder of the game. This week, I’ll start by exploring the lagoon and we’ll see where that takes us. I just hope I do not starve before I get to the end of the game. I can replay to do the rest of the game faster, but it would be an annoyance that I would rather avoid.

While I am working through this game, I admit that I have become extremely curious about our upcoming Implementer, Jim Lawrence. He’ll be joining Stu Galley for Seastalker, but he was already a forty-year veteran of young-adult literature, comics, and even radio dramas. I am trying to assemble a complete list of his works, made all the more complicated by the fact that he didn’t write most of them under his own name. (Plus, there are two other “Jim Lawrences” that write or work in comics so it is far too easy to confuse his work with theirs.) I have put together an increasingly-correct list on my blog and I hope that you will take a look and provide any thoughts or corrections. I’d like to get all of my biography details straight before I cover his first game and your help is appreciated. I do not think anyone has sat down to try to build a complete list of his output before. Enough of that, let’s play!
Too cheerful to be ominous. 

The lagoon turns out to be smaller than I expected: only four rooms from north to south with cliffs on all sides. There is no obvious routes back to the rest of the game, except for a vine-covered cave in the far north that I will need to explore. In the far north, we also find a river cascading down a waterfall to outlet into the ocean. Far above the waterfall, we can just make out the ruined fortress. We haven’t gone very far, but we are very far below. It’s nice scenery! The vines at the mouth of the cave appear to be psychic, constantly calling me to get too close and (I expect) get trapped and eaten. Being the vindictive sorcerer that I am, I cast “meef” on them to kill them all. I guess I have a black thumb. As I do this, my “vilstu” potion from the beginning of the game fully wears off and I find myself exhausted, unable to even hold my spell book. I rest on the beach, but I am cutting this game far too close.

While my character is resting, I would like to discuss some confusing geography. This game has us on the west edge of the Flathead Ocean and the descriptions in-game tell us that there are “magical beings and priceless treasures” on the other side of the ocean. In Zork III, we stood in front of this very same ocean and looked out to the west so that must have been the opposite shore. But, that doesn’t make sense. We’re running around the Great Underground Empire now. There are references to Flatheads and zorkmids. Did the Empire straddle both sides of the ocean? If so, why is the opposite shore seen as mysterious? I suspect this was just intended to be some color text and an offhand reference to a previous game, but detail-oriented nitpickers like me can never let something like that slide. What do you think? Am I misunderstanding something?

Well-rested, I head into the cave and die immediately because I forgot to bring a light. I restore back and try again (with a lighted spell book), but this time I die immediately because the cave is a grue lair filled to the brim with mutated grues that don’t mind the light one bit. On the bright side, I get a good look at their slavering fangs before dying. Unfortunately, I am now stuck because there is nowhere for me to go. Did I leave an item that I need behind in the main part of the game? Do I have to do the whole coal mine again? I can’t even think of anything there that might be useful.

It’s beautiful except for the whole no-graphics thing. 

It takes me longer than I care to admit to discover that I can swim! I paddle out into the lagoon and spy a clump of spenseweed underwater. I feel like I should know something about spenseweed. Was it in Enchanter or a different game? I swim down and try to pick the weeds, but that doesn’t do any good. I try to cast “meef” again only to discover that my spell book and scroll are both soaked and unreadable. I restore back and leave them on the beach. Casting “meef” here is strange because I cannot cast it on the surface of the water-- I have to dive down to do it. I have always imagined the spells in this game as spoken-word so casting underwater feels wrong somehow. In any event, the weeds die and I find a hidden black crate. I have to surface for air, but I am able to get back down to drag it to the shore. Inside is a treasure trove of deux ex machina: a can of grue repellent, a “grue suit” for protection, and a brass lantern. I think we know what to do with those.

I put on the suit and spray the repellent and I am now easily able to cross the grue lair. The other side is the “Mammoth Cavern” (a sideways reference to Colossal Cave?), the base of operation for the big bad of the game. Inside are vats for the creation of mutated grues and plenty of other evil machines to keep mankind down. I must have discovered-- completely by accident-- the demon’s lair! If only I had come here deliberately! The cave has three exits, but two of them are more like Sartre’s “No Exit”: the “Chamber of Living Death” and the “Hall of Eternal Pain”. Both of them kill me (or rather, fail to completely kill me) in amazingly terrible ways. I am forced to restore.

And you thought I just make pop culture references.

The final white door leads me to where I wanted to go all along: Belboz’s chamber. He appears to be asleep (lucky me!) and he is only a few feet from an elaborate ornate dagger. Should I take the violent approach? No! I use “swanzo” to exorcise an inhabiting spirit (this is the spell that I received in the hollow at the center of the glass maze), but that doesn’t quite work. The demon leaves Belboz… but invades my brain instead. I become the instrument that he uses to take over the world. I remain conscious but unable to act as atrocity after atrocity are committed by a person that looks like me and which I cannot look away from. This game likes its tortures! I restore and try killing Belboz instead but much the same happens. I can’t even probe the demon’s mind because it wakes up and tosses me in the Hall of Eternal Pain. What am I missing?

Well, it’s obvious: the smelly scroll from the coal mine. That contains the “vardik” scroll (and I completely forgot to write it to my spell book earlier) which shields a mind from an evil spirit. I use that on me and then “swanzo” on Belboz and the demon is cast out! Better yet, he has no ready vessel to occupy and so dissipates in the magical wind. Belboz wakes up and transports us back to the guildhall where we celebrate. He also appoints me as his successor as guildmaster, a position that surely will come in handy in Spellbreaker. The game is over!

What was the floor waxer for?

Did I miss anything in the amusement park?

Time played: 1 hr 10 min
Total time: 8 hr 50 min
Total Zork Marathon Time: 96 hr 45 min

Final Rating

What a great game! I’m writing this now a few days after I beat the game to allow my brain some time to settle. I am not sure how this will fare in the PISSED rating scale, but I loved it. Having played all of these Infocom games in order now, I feel very invested in the universe. Steve Meretzky is obviously a guy that loved that his job was to play with fantasy and sci-fi toys. This game beautifully ties together the Enchanter and the Zork styles, glueing the series together, while showing that he was aware even of their early mainframe work. He also succeeded in making the Great Underground Empire feel like a almost-real place instead of rooms with puzzles randomly scattered through them.

Puzzles and Solvability - Mr. Meretzky’s puzzles are some of the best in the business. The coal mine is potentially the best puzzle so far in the series, made all the better because of the way it layered in the time limit (coal gas!), time travel (bootstrap paradox!), and the chute puzzle from mainframe Zork. The glass maze is similarly an amazing puzzle, especially the tense chase at the end when you are fleeing the dornbeast and the maze has reorganized itself around you. The matchbook puzzle at the beginning feels unfair, especially if you didn’t realize until near the end of the game that you needed the potion that it grants you. I also did not appreciate all of the random deaths when you entered certain rooms, or the randomness in general with the casino and the haunted house. This made it more difficult to know if I was on the right track. Did I die because I was unlucky? Or because I cannot go that way yet? Those flaws hold this grade back a bit. My score: 6.

Imagine match-related pun here.

Interface and Inventory - Another game with the Infocom parser, another great work. Not too much to add since this is pretty much the same engine as Enchanter. My score: 4.

Story and Setting - I’ve commented already how much I loved the setting, but the story here is far too easily forgotten. We stumbled on the end by accident, as if Mr. Meretzky wasn’t quite sure how to get us hints to lead us to our destination; he just figured we’d get there eventually. Great setup but poor follow-through. My score: 4

Sound and Graphics - No pity points this time. There was no ASCII art anywhere. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - I loved the mood of this game although it never had the tension that it should have. The new realization of the Great Underground Empire is fantastic and makes an impossible idea seem almost plausible, in a magic-fueled fantasy world. The game is never as evocative as Zork III or as tense as Planetfall, but it does a lot of things right. My score: 6.

Dialog and Acting - The prose was consistently good, but I would have appreciated more characters to interact with. My score: 5.

Let’s add it up: (6+4+4+0+6+5)/.6 = 42. I am granting a single bonus point for being the game that defines the Zork series to me. Worldbuilding is tricky-- trying to add sense to someone else’s universe after four games is nigh impossible. With that, we land at a final score of 43!

A score of 43 places this game above every other Infocom game so far except Planetfall and that seems fair. Planetfall had both a plot that continued through the whole game as well as solid character development for Floyd. This game feels like a well-written homage to the earlier style; I just wish the plot hadn’t been completely forgotten until nearly the final room.

With an average score guess of 45, I think we’re all pretty much in the same place about where this game fits. Alex Romanov gets the gold with his guess of the same! I need to put the Zork Marathon to bed for a while to work on some main-line games, but Voltgloss will be bringing us another Missed Classic very soon. Our next Infocom game will be Seastalker but the next real Zork game won’t come until Wishbringer in five games. See you in two days as I kick off the playthrough of The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.


  1. "Did the Empire straddle both sides of the ocean? If so, why is the opposite shore seen as mysterious?"

    I believe the later manual for Zork I should answer both questions (I'll ROT13 this because of spoilers). Lrf, THR qvq fgenqqyr obgu fvqrf bs gur bprna. Jrfgrea fvqr jnf bevtvanyyl pnyyrq Dhraqbe naq rnfgrea fvqr jnf yngre pbadhrerq ol xvat Qhapnaguenk. Rnfgrea ynaqf nccneragyl jrer zber zntvpny naq cbchyngrq ol enprf yvxr tabzrf naq gebyyf. Gur vqrn bs yvivat va pnir flfgrzf pnzr nyfb sebz gur rnfgrea pbagvarag, juvyr ba jrfgrea pbagvarag pnivat jnf erfgevpgrq gb whfg srj cynprf.

  2. Very well done! I have a number of "fun facts" to comment upon, but I'll start with two "exercises for the reader" (and the player). Think of these as Sorcerer extra credit. :)

    1. The three doors at the end feel like a save-and-restore problem, and that's certainly one way to resolve it. But there is actually a magical means of figuring out which door of the three is the one you want - *without* trial-and-error. Can you guess what that is? It was mentioned in the posts.

    2. You may recall the dorn beast dies through extreme lack of floor when it chases bat-you back through the glass maze. As the game drolly explains, the dorn hurriedly "tries to invent dorn beast flight" but "dorns do not fly so much as plummet." BUT... there is actually a magical means to access the scroll from the end of the glass maze area WITHOUT the dorn beast dying in the process. Can you guess how? Again, Joe mentioned this in his posts... and remember: you don't need to (indeed, can't) carry the scroll out of the maze area. You drop the scroll through the chimney to access it later... so the question then is: how do you get *yourself* out from the glass maze area and its ravenous dorn beast?

  3. Other fun facts:

    - While it certainly feels like you stumble on Belboz by accident, there *is* a subtle push provided in-game: the amulet from way back at the beginning of the game. If you examine it, it glows more brightly the closer you are (physically) to Belboz's hideout - so approaching the coal mine (which is generally south from where you "land" after using aimfiz) makes it brighter as you draw nearer; coming out the other side makes it even brighter; etc.

    - The exhaustion and need to sleep after the coal mine puzzle is from the no-breathing potion wearing off - not the no-eating-or-drinking potion wearing off. This literally forces the player to take a nap after the coal mine and before completing the lagoon/facing down Jeearr (the demon possessing Belboz).

    - The game will let you sleep literally *anywhere* in the game. This leads to some amusing deaths if you sleep somewhere clearly hazardous. Like in the riverbed after you've dried it out with "pulver" (which, remember, lasts only a couple of turns). Or in the snake pit. Or with a horde of locusts bearing down on you. Or - my personal favorite - while being chased by the dorn beast.

    - It's possible to "skip" the coal mine entirely by just diving down the chute at the entrance. This dumps you in the Lagoon without having needed the vilstu potion - but also leaves you without the smelly scroll (vardik), with which you won't survive the encounter with Jeearr.

    - With the mindshield "vardik" spell active, you can destroy Jeearr by killing Belboz with the knife by his body. This leads to a sub-optimal ending where Jeearr is defeated and the world saved... but you crying over the dead body of your friend and mentor. And without full points, natch. For a full win and best ending, you need that "swanzo" exorcism scroll from the glass maze.

    - You missed precisley nothing in the amusement park. The only important thing there is the throw-ball-at-the-bunnies game. The roller coaster, log flume, and haunted house are all pure window dressing. Same as the floor waxer (which will reappear in another later Infocom game).

    - It's possible to accidentally kill yourself by drinking one potion while another is still in effect. Fortunately this doesn't apply to the "no eating or drinking" potion. But try drinking the vilstu "no breathing" potion while the "better reflexes" potion is still in effect - you won't survive the experience.

    - As a final comment on Sorcerer: if you haven't already, I suggest you cap off your Sorcerer experience by drinking the indigo "flaxo" potion from the Torture Chamber.

    And looking to the future... while I have been repeatedly stymied over the past couple of weeks in my efforts to find time to pull together posts for the Missed Classic I'm working on presently, that is about to change; over the next couple of days into the coming weekend I should have time to finally complete those. Just in time, it seems.

  4. Hey guys, some real life work issues have eaten all of my writing time so I have a 80% done Sherlock post and just haven't been able to polish it and get it here for you. I hope I'll be able to it it tomorrow or this weekend (although by then TBD's post may be ready).

    Don't mean to leave you all in suspense!

  5. Syberia GOG giveaway: https://www.gog.com/game/syberia

    Heart of China and Rise of the Dragon released at GOG:

  6. Good job. Do you plan to do Spellbreaker at some point?

    1. Spellbreaker is next in the marathon, probably starting in January. I'm just finishing up "A Mind Forever Voyaging" now. (And if you search for my name, you'll find commentary on Wishbringer and all of the other Infocom games up to AMFV as well.)


    2. Sounds good. Saw your AMFV commentary. Will look at Wishbringer.