Friday, 16 February 2018

Missed Classic 52: Infocom’s Tutorial Game (1984)

Written by Joe Pranevich

You might say that a guy who is trying to play every Infocom game in release order, plus read all of the tie-in books, is a bit of a completionist. If you then added that he was trying to do all this in a mad rush because he wants to be done before it’s time to review Return to Zork when we get to 1993, it’s probably best that I don’t know your opinion. If you asked my wife, she’s tell you that I like to do things in the correct order. I always try to read books in the order they were published, regardless of what the author says. I’ll probably never let my son watch the Star Wars prequels before the original films. The shared experience is important to me and my playing these games in order, I have a hope of understanding how the original players felt when these games came out, even if the average Infocom-purchaser wouldn’t have bought all of the games.

That leads me to this surprise. I had thought that Cutthroats was the next released game, and I’ve started playing it already, but while I was wrapping up the research I learned that I had been mistaken: there was one tiny Infocom release between Seastalker and Cutthroats. Around the summer of 1984, Infocom released two special advertising packages. The first of these, the so-called “Zork I demo” was a disk sent to computer stores. The intention, at least according to text in the demo itself, was that a customer in these fine establishments could sit at a computer terminal and play a few minutes of an Infocom game, become inspired, and leave with a handful. But while Zork I is a lot of fun, it wasn’t quite the perfect game to get players hooked. It didn’t hold players’ hands at all or even explain how you play interactive fiction. To remedy this, Infocom developed the Tutorial Game, a miniature adventure that would introduce the key concepts in a fun and lighthearted way.

Let’s play a game at the computer store!

This game will look different than the other Infocom titles that I have played. Except for the original Dungeon, I have been playing the DOS versions of the games as they appeared in the Lost Treasures of Infocom boxed sets. This is both to provide some consistency, as well to as guarantee that any bugs that I discover are in the originals. While I have searched for a DOS version of the “Zork I demo”, none seem to have survived to the present day. I considered playing this in an Apple II emulator, but that seems like much even for me. Instead, I’m just playing the original data file in Frotz instead, an open source Infocom interpreter. This is essentially like playing in an Infocom version of ScummVM, but it’s the easiest way for me to play and grab pictures for this mini-review.

When you boot the demo disk, it drops you into the Tutorial Game after a few introductory words. Although there are no credits provided on the splash screen, this game is believed to have been written by Marc Blank himself, the co-designer of all three Zork games, Enchanter, Deadline, and The Witness. The game opens into a bare living room with two exits and a brass lantern sitting on a table. We’re told right away that the goal of the game is to capture a prized butterfly which is flying around in the room to the south. We are joined by a narrator who is prompting me on the basics of adventure gaming, suggesting that we type “look” to look around and “inventory” to see what we are carrying. It then suggests that I walk east, straight into a darkened room. I might get eaten by a grue!

The narrator interjects frequently with more than a little bit of humor:

This illustrates two important points. First, don't believe everything a computer tells you. Second, objects lying around like tools, lights, and weapons can be useful and should probably be carried around for situations like this. Luckily, we have seen a lantern in the living room. As the man said, "Go west!"

Don’t believe everything a computer tells you? If we all listened to that advice, what would we use Twitter and Facebook for? Once I get to the west, the narrator backs off and tells me that I am on my own. I try to read the sign, but the game helpfully suggests that I should be more concerned with the lamp right now. I grab and light it before returning to the previous room, now described as a broom closet. Inside is a net and a key so naturally I pocket both. The game practically gives me a high-five.

Now it lets me read the sign! It reads, “Butterflies are free. Bring your net.” The southern door is closed and locked, but I can use my new key easily enough. The game uses this as a chance to show you that you can (and sometimes must) use adjectives, in this case to distinguish between the southern mahogany door and the eastern oak one. The narrator says that this is a feature of all “Interlogic” games and that is a term I have not heard in awhile. It’s possible that this game existing for some time before sending it out on as a demo. Is this the last time Infocom uses that term?

I enter the final room. The narrator tells me that catching the butterfly “will enhance your reputation as the world's foremost collector of rare butterflies and enable you to finish this tutorial before the store owner throws you out.” That is hitting a bit close to home, don’t you think? I look around, but I didn’t move fast enough because the butterfly escaped out the now-opened door. I lose and the demo transitions to a brief excerpt from The Witness before dropping me to the start of Zork I. Not taking a loss for an answer, I restart and play the rooms quickly again, this time shutting the mahogany door as soon as I arrive. Trapped inside with a madman with a net, I capture the butterfly easily and win.

Half the fun is trying unusual things! Like obscure game demos!

Once again, I get to see a single room transcription of The Witness before being put into the beginning of Zork I. Did they really expect people to play that game on the basis of a single room description? I play a bit of Zork and the outside area seems to be intact and I can even retrieve the painting from the basement. As soon as we defeat the troll, the game ends. Alas, I will have no trip to Flood Control Dam #3 this week.

Very odd, to say the least!

Time Played: 20 minutes

I’m going to leave it up to Ilmari to determine if this game is “real” enough to be given a rating, but I can hardly help myself to think about it. Scoring it quickly, I would give it a 1 for Puzzles and Solvability, because there is a bit of a puzzle there and the game doesn’t hold your hand the whole way. The interface is the typical Infocom parser, but nicely improved with the narrator interjecting in a way that seemed both natural and helpful. I’ll use the typical 4 for Interface and Inventory. Given the lack of story, I’d do zeroes for Story and Setting, Sound and Graphics, and Environment and Atmosphere. That leaves 3 points for Dialog and Acting because the narrator is a nice touch; the whole effect is surprisingly well-done.

Add up the score (1+4+0+0+0+3)/.6 = 13 points! That is better than both Psycho and Merry Christmas from Melbourne House!

Although this Zork I version was released only to retailers, the tutorial game was also included in the Four-In-One Infocom Sampler release later that year. There seems to be several versions of that sampler floating around (the one I located must have come later since they mention Wishbringer), but all of them include the tutorial game. Later sampler disks would include a different set of games and not all of them included this tutorial.

This will not be our only “demo” game in the Infocom marathon, but the next one is not likely to come for a while. In 1987, there is supposedly a specialized “demo” version of Wishbringer that I can look at and see if it deserves its own post, but more important is the 1990 release of Mini-Zork, a Commodore 64-exclusive version of Zork I released as a magazine sampler. That game actually has some modified puzzles from the original and I am looking forward to seeing what that looks like… in a few years.
Up next really will be Cutthroats. I promise.


  1. I guess a score of 13 .. oh wait !

  2. The nice thing about this short delay before the start to Cutthroats is that I'll be able to finish reading "Crystal Phoenix" and talk about it a bit in the next post. That is Michael Berlyn's first novel (of three that he wrote before working for Infocom).

  3. "I always try to read books in the order they were published, regardless of what the author says. I’ll probably never let my son watch the Star Wars prequels before the original films."

    I think this need to do things in order is quite common, and I find myself more in awe with people who can just pick up a series of books, comics, games etc. at some middle point, without at first investigating the context. In some case I myself might even go a bit further and instead of publication order do books etc. in writing order - say, begin reading Tolkien from Book of Lost Tales and not from Hobbit.

    The game seems interesting, and I am truly intrigued whether any other company has had a similar idea of a "demo adventure game". The only thing that comes to my mind is the demo of Space Quest VI, which is its own independent little game.

    1. Yeah. I'm the crazy guy that has read almost every Marvel comic from 1961 through 1968 or so. Hundreds of comics and stories including the first appearances of almost everyone in the Silver Age. I wish in retrospect that I had written about it, but I can't write about EVERYTHING I do...

    2. Scott Adams did a demo version of Adventureland, but unlike the Zork demo, you had to actually buy it. It was a lot cheaper than his normal games, though. It's basically the surface area of the game with a couple items removed, so it's essentially the tree puzzle and the ox puzzle. There's three treasures to collect and deposit, then you get a victory screen that tells you to consider giving the full game a try.

    3. Also, Joe, I've been doing the same thing, though I started in the 1940s at the VERY beginning. It's been quite a while since I updated that blog though, I should probably get back to it.

    4. Infocom sold the demo in their 4-in-1 sampler, but the version that I looked at was their "demo" version that was never actually sold. You had to be a computer store to get one.

    5. The Infocom demo never had a standalone release available for purchase though, did it? That's what the Adventureland demo got.

  4. I try to read things in order too, but when I was younger, I had a bad habit of picking up the second book in an epic series first. Somehow I did that with both the Wheel of Time and Sword of Truth series. It didn't stop me from reading and enjoying all the rest of the books in the series eventually, although I was a bit confused at first.

  5. Like most of us it seems, I also read/play/watch in order. I used to, when a new book in a series I liked came out, re-read all the earlier books in the series first to refresh my memory.

    And I sometimes do that with primarily story-based games too (I did that with Mass Effect 2 and 3 when they came out)

    1. Heh, I used to re-read all Harry Potter novels released so far when a new HP movie hit the theatres.

    2. Maybe I am not unusual! But for example:

      - When reading Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, I tracked down every short story he wrote as part of the series (in a variety of different collections) to read those at the right time. This was all so that I could get to Ringworld. Check it out on Wikipedia, there's a nice list there now withy the right order. (I vaguely wonder if I added that to Wikipedia. I don't remember there being a good list when I started and I had to scrape it from fan sites.)

      - Narnia is the one that makes me so upset. The books were written in one way with Lion/Witch/Wardrobe as the first, but the author wants you to read the "Magician's Nephew" first and has all of the books scrambled. That is just crazy. Thankfully, I grew out of this series and have no intention to ever read it again.

      I know there are other examples, but that's what I can think of now.

    3. So, what's everyone's take on screen adaptations of book series NOT following the order of the latter? I certainly am mightily pissed when no Holmes adaptation ever begins with a full-length pilot movie of A Study in Scarlet, followed by equally lengthy The Sign of Four and THEN continuing with the short stories.

    4. But there is a difference between the original work and adaptations. I can enjoy a Holmes movie for what it is, as long as I see what came before. But it is a good point.

      Doctor Who is the one series that has broken me of this. I watched NuWho without knowing anything about the original and didn't get into the classic series until later. I'd still love to review the classic series, but it turned into a significant time sink and the early episodes are not quite good enough to hold my attention. I have seen a lot of individual stories, but regretfully I have not seen all of them.

    5. Actually, my wife reminded me today that Star Trek had also broken me already. I have seen every episode of Star Trek IN ORDER except for some of the latter Voyager episodes and the Animated Series. (The latter because it wasn't available when I watched the others.)

  6. Only Star Wars prequel I will let my kid or kids when I have one or some watch is episode III

  7. For those of you itching to hear about Mike Berlyn's book, my mini-review is here:

    I'll link to it and discuss it more in the context of his games (especially Suspended) in the Cutthroats introduction post in a few days.