Thursday, 14 March 2019

Missed Classic: Spellbreaker - Romancing the Stone

Written by Joe Pranevich

A few years back, I spent some time studying Shakespeare. I’m not going to claim some amazing insight into the bard, but as I read each play I was always struck by a moment of realization when I saw what he was up to. It’s not fair to compare Infocom with one of the seminal writers of the English language, but most of their games has similarly featured a moment of realization when you discover exactly what kind of game you are playing. For Spellbreaker, I think I hit that point in the last post. Here’s my prediction: we’re going to spend the game visiting largely disconnected regions and solving puzzles. In each area or so, we’ll find a white cube which will propel the narrative forward to another area. I don’t quite see the endgame yet, but some magic will allow us to access the blocked exits in each of the cubes to solve a final puzzle which will end the series. Let’s see how off the mark I am.

Honestly, I’ve already been off the mark once in this game. I expected it to be more of a chase as we constantly nipped at the heels of the orange-smoke assailant, exploring regions and solving puzzles as a means to get closer and closer to him. That hasn’t turned out to be the case, but I suppose there is still plenty of time to catch up to him.

Last week, we ended as I snagged a second white cube off of a hermit who lived on top of an avalanche. I climbed the rockfall by pausing time at just the right moment and scaling the boulders in flight. I magically fixed his hut and was rewarded with the cube. That led me to a “Soft Room” which is where I will start today. Let’s go!
This is a burin. Infocom games are great for the vocab!

Soft Room

Before I get too far into this post, I should talk about the featureless white cubes. One of the side puzzles in this game is that each cube is identical and it will rapidly become difficult to keep track of which ones lead where. This is a tricky puzzle, but also a famous one, and at some point over the last 30+ years I must have learned it and I was reminded of the solution as I was playing. I do try to stay unspoiled, but when your hobby is researching old games it can sometimes be difficult. At the start of the game, we are carrying a “burin” which is used to “inscribe objects with words or runes of magical import”. We’re also told that it can be used to write spell scrolls, which was my first thought for how we might use it. In actuality, we can inscribe a word on each cube to help keep track of which was which. I am going with a Greek alphabet naming scheme with my first two cubes now called “alpha” and “beta”. I’ll come up with something else if I run out of letters.

Unlike “Packed Earth”, the Soft Room has only two exits in the south and east. I try the east first and it is blocked, so there’s just the south.


Heading out that exit, I am teleported to a meadow with blooming flowers everywhere, including a strange weed which is practically dripping with pollen. There is also a convenient pair of gardening shears in the meadow which I snag. My guess is that I will be able to use this to get past the ogre by causing him a sneezing fit. I can’t just pull the weed out of the ground so I snip it with my new shears and teleport back to the ogre’s cave. If that all seems too easy, it’s because it is. The weed itself bothers the ogre, but not too much, even when I wave it in his face. I cannot “throck” it to make it grow bigger because I’ve already killed it. I restore back and this time discover that I can get the weed out if I pull it multiple times! With that, the ogre still isn’t affected until I realize that I can plant the bush in the dirt in his cave and then “throck” it to make it grow. It’s very convenient that the ogre doesn’t bother to kill me while I play gardener in his house. The plant grows, the ogre is trapped in a never ending cycle of sneezes, and I can explore deeper into its lair.

Of course, this isn’t my first time down here. I was able to explore this far with time frozen last post, but now I am able to pick up the scroll and open the gold box. The scroll is the “espnis” spell, to put something to sleep, and I add it to my spellbook. The box is surprisingly unlocked and contains yet another white cube. I name it “gamma” and that is where I am going next.

Just like this but not in space.

Water Room

The “gamma” cube takes me to the “Water Room”, a bubble underneath some magical ocean. There are exits hidden as curtains of air bubbles to the north, east, and south. I try north first and find myself in an “oubliette”. I have no idea what that means so I look up the definition: “a secret dungeon with an opening only in the ceiling, as in certain old castles”. That seems about right: I’m trapped in a room with water running through a channel in the floor and unclimbable walls on all sides. At the very top, there is a trapdoor, but I see no way to reach it. I eventually have to “blorple” my way back out. East from the water room is the now-expected blocked exit. That only leaves south.

Heading south, I arrive with a splash. I’m in the middle of the ocean. The “gamma” cube has reappeared and is sinking, but since my spell book is now waterlogged I expect that is the least of my worries. Looking around, there’s also a large fish and a floating bottle. I grab for the cube, but the fish swallows the bottle and swims away. I restore and work out a plan to be more prepared next time. To keep my stuff safe, I’ll put the spell book and anything else that might be harmed by the water into the zipper. This also means that I’ll need to memorize any spells that I need before I take the plunge.

On subsequent attempts, I get closer. If you grab the bottle, you’ll always lose the cube and vice versa. I work out that I can feed the fish with the rye bread, but then I have to grab the cube and then the bottle. If you do it in the other order, the cube sinks too quickly. I’m also smart enough to not open the bottle until I “blorple” my way out of there so that I don’t damage the scroll inside. You might also recall that I was using my magical loaf of glowing rye bread as a light source, which I have now replaced with my magic glowing knife. A commenter (Lisa!) last week made a note that I could use “extinguish” to remove the glow and so lighting myself is a safe choice, but I didn’t know this when I was playing this bit and the knife seemed like a safe option. Inside the bottle is “liskon” to shrink a living thing. I memorize it and I think I know already where we need it. I have a date with a very large snake.

Shrinking the Snake

If you recall from last week, one of the obstacles was a large oroborus that is blocking the path north out of the Hall of Stone, the east exit from Packed Earth. I tried a number of ways to get past, but this time I was right: “liskon” causes the snake to shrink and become a regular-sized snake, no longer large enough to swallow its tail and fill up the corridor. That gives me both a passage north and the snake’s passage east-to-west. The fact that I could guess that solution immediately after seeing the “liskon” spell shows either that I have played too many of these games or that the solution was a bit too predictable. I’ll let you decide which. The choice of directions is an illusion because east and west just loop you around. I have to explore north.

In that direction is a temple to some long-forgotten rat god, as well as a large collection of bats. It’s just one room so there’s little opportunity for exploration, but in the center is a large statue of a giant rat. It’s mouth is slightly open, but I cannot see in it from the ground. Fortunately, the statue is easy to climb and before long I find myself staring into its one gigantic opal eye and mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth. Why did they bother to make the statue’s teeth sharp? On the rat’s tongue is another white cube, but there’s no way to get it yet. The game hints that I could get to it if the mouth was open, but I can think of no way to do that. I try to shrink myself so that I can reach in, but all that I gain by having an arm small enough to fit between the teeth, I lose by having shorter arms. The best option seems to be “malyon”, to animate the statue. I remember that we had to do that with a statue in one of the previous games. Will it work again?

This looks about right. (By “Beyond My Ken” from Wikimedia Commons)

The statue comes to life, just as I expected. It is very hungry and apparently not at all happy being a receptacle for hundreds of years of bat poop. Fortunately, I had the foresight to climb down but even so it finds me quickly enough and smashes me into goo. As long as I don’t do anything to attract its attention, I seem to be find and he turns back into a statue after a few turns. At this point, I try lots of things. I even discover that I can pry out its opal eye, but that doesn’t make it much less dangerous. We can shatter the opal on the ground to get an opal shard, but I’m not sure whether that isn’t a dead end for some puzzle later. I try to cause it to choke on things like my knife by placing it in its mouth before I bring it to life, but that doesn’t help.

Unfortunately, I get stuck here for a while. In between trying new things with the rodent and re-exploring the few rooms that I already discovered but didn’t solve, I eventually enter the “trying random things” phase. I discover that I can use the “espnis” spell to try to put the statue to sleep. Except, while the statue is too large (and made of basalt?) to fall asleep, it does start to yawn. After repeated attempts, I manage to time it so that he turns back to stone right in the middle of an open-mouthed yawn. At that point, I have no difficulty in grabbing the new “delta” cube and teleporting away.

With that, I am going to wrap up for this week. We’ve explored two more cubes and discovered a new spell, but there aren’t that many puzzles that I haven’t solved yet. Offhand, the only puzzle that I am sure about is the oubliette as I have neither a path up to the trap door, nor any idea what I am supposed to do with the flow of water. (Although now that I think about it, is that water connected to the water in the ruins room? I’ll have to check that out in a bit.) With that possible exception, I don’t really feel like I am “exploring” this game so much as going past one linear puzzle to another, one at a time. I want desperately to be able to explore this wide world that we can see glimmers of, but the game is keeping me on a tight and very frustrating track. I’m only a quarter of the way through the game by score so there is plenty of time for things to change significantly. Let’s see what happens next!

Time played: 2 hr 10 min
Total time: 6 hr 00 min

Score: 160/600 (26%)
Inventory: 4x white cubes (“alpha”, “beta”, “gamma”, and “delta”), gold coin, zipper, smoked fish, magic burin, knife, spell book, pruning shears, gold box, bottle, opal

Spell Book Contains: caskly, throck, blorpie, yomin, rezrov, frotz, gnusto, malyon, jindak, lesoch, espnis, liskon


  1. I always thought they screwed up the part with the statue and the opal eye.

    They should have had it that unless you pry out the eye first, the statue immediately sees you and crushes you. If you do pry out the eye first, then the statue is blind and the whole espnis thing can work while he is feeling around for you.

    1. I did feel as if that puzzle was missing something. It was difficult enough to guess at trying to put him to sleep. I spent a LONG time thinking that I needed to put the right thing in his mouth or to break his teeth... yawning was a much more peaceful approach.

  2. I am going with a Greek alphabet naming scheme with my first two cubes now called “alpha” and “beta”. I’ll come up with something else if I run out of letters.

    Lbh jba'g; gurer'f bayl gjryir (vs V pna pbhag).

    I like naming them after their properties (earth, water, etc.) so I don't have to keep a list of correspondences to an arbitrary system like the alphabet for when I want a particular one. It's pretty easy to come up with words that suggest the property without bumping up against the game's existing vocabulary, but you can also use words in the game dictionary if you put quotes around them (like write "earth" on cube), which I think is pretty sophisticated parsing.

    A commenter (Lisa!)

    *looks shifty*

    1. I should have used a word that was reflective of where the cubes went, but I honestly did not consider that at the time because I was naming the cubes first then traveling.

    2. Yeah, it's maybe not the order one would think to do it in unless they already knew what was going on, especially if they'd just figured out that's what the burin is for.

    3. One of the strange things for me is that I do know the solution to a few puzzles by osmosis over the years, the burin "puzzle" being one of them. However, I don't always know what game they came from. This is one of those times where I had a vague recollection and then it clicked when I saw the second cube and realized what was going on. In an ideal world, I would be completely unspoiled but it's not that world.

      On the bright side, I really am 98% fresh on this game. I haven't remembered any of the other puzzles, either from an aborted playthrough as a kid or as a guy who has read a lot about adventure games.

    4. You are not stuck with the words you first picked for the cubes. You can write new ones on them.

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