Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Missed Classic: Ballyhoo - Circus Minimus

Written by Joe Pranevich

Welcome back! Last time out, we started into Infocom’s fourth mystery game, Ballyhoo. Unlike our previous mysteries, this one is not (yet!) a murder. Instead, we have a kidnapping… at a circus! We will have to use all of our investigative skills to find out who kidnapped the owner’s daughter and why, even though the owner doesn’t know we are helping and probably wouldn’t be that thrilled to find out that some random patron was snooping around his circus after closing time. Why are we doing this again? Because we secretly dream of the Big Top ourselves! And of being a detective, apparently. Actually, I have no idea why we’re doing this but someone has to save the girl and so it might as well be us.

I apologize for the small delay in getting this out. We’ve had “plague house” here at the local Infocom Marathon Headquarters and so much of my time has been spent either being sick, cleaning up after others being sick, or both at the same time. It doesn’t make for the best head-space for writing about a fun-filled circus holiday. To compensate, I’ve made this entry a bit longer than usual. As they say, send in the clowns!

Has anyone seen my moongate?

Walk Down Memory Lane

Last time out, I mapped out all of the circus that I could. This consisted of several circus acts including an animal menagerie; Andrew Jenny, the half-and-half person; Rimshaw, the hypnotist; Tina, the “fat lady”; plus the Big Top itself. A guarded turnstile blocked our way further south, presumably to the crew area. While exploring, I performed a hire-wire act in the empty Big Top, scoring me a lost child’s balloon which I must be careful not to drop or else it will fly away. I need to solve some puzzles if I am to advance.

The first “puzzle” that I know of is more like copy protection. The ticket included with the game has tons of fine print on it, but most importantly that three sessions with Rimshaw are included with the price of admission. This includes palm reading, hypnotism, and head-bump reading. I’m going to start this week by cashing in my extras.

While the palm reading reveals nothing but that I am going to have an interesting night, the hypnotism is surprisingly effective. I am cast back, as in a dream, several hours to when the circus was in full swing and I am sitting in the audience. The place is packed and everyone seems to be having a good time. This is a fully interactive dream, so I can interact with it in the usual Infocom way. Suddenly, I hear a rumble and a growl. What could it be? I look around, only to realize that it is my own stomach. I am hungry! (I confirm this with the “diagnose” command, a nice throwback to earlier Infocom games.) Just in the nick of time, a hawker comes to the end of my row selling tofu and peanuts. I yell down that I would like some peanuts and he flashes me the price on his fingers. I pass down that amount of money, but the press of the crowd is too much. My food never arrives and the hawker is quickly lost in the press of the crowd.

I’m still hungry, so I go in search of my peanuts. The crowd is too thick to the west, but I can push my way through to the east. I’m told that the exit is that way and down which is probably a hint. I chase the hawker through several rooms, but never catch up with him. The crowded bleachers form a maze. When I can head in his direction, I do, but I try to find routes down or east when I cannot. Eventually, I end up at the entrance to the Big Top with no hawker, but there is a concession stand set up where I can purchase food. Just as I arrive a monkey-- a literal monkey!-- lands on my back. I can’t get it off.

Cheeky monkey! (And a very important photo in the history of human-simian interaction.)

Before I continue, I’ll mention that this “monkey on my back” is a callback to the detective who, it is said, also had a monkey on his back when I saw him last. His monkey was drunkenness and it was explicitly a metaphorical monkey. It’s very cute that I am afflicted with a literal one. Regardless of the spiritual implications of the situation, the monkey does not let me leave the concession stand area including by going back into the Big Top. I choose instead to stand in line for the concession stand. Unfortunately, the line is long but shortly after I stand in it, a second shorter line opens up. I switch over to that line and wouldn’t you know it, the guy in front of me invites his friends-- and entire baseball team-- to cut in front of me. Now I’m in the long line once again. I switch to the short line, but everytime I do everyone else gets the same idea. It’s a puzzle!

Just being patient doesn’t cut it, nor does switching to the shorter line. I have to trick the crowd: if I pretend to get out of line to go to the short line, but instead stay in the long line, the people will cross like lemmings to the other side and leave me with a straight path to the front. I am forced to buy a chocolate covered banana which leaves me with exactly $12.81 in my pocket. I know I’m on the right path because that is precisely the amount of money that I started the game with. There is so much good humor here; it’s a very memorable sequence. Highlights for me are the realization that the audience members are shockingly born exactly one minute apart from each other (a sucker is, as they say, born every minute), plus the ribbing the game gives you as you pick the wrong line over and over again. It is clever enough to point out, for example, that the person you were standing in line behind just a bit ago just got there food. It’s all quite clever and my favorite part of the game so far.

Unfortunately, I make the mistake of feeding the banana to the monkey. He stays on my back and I seem to be stuck. I restore and try instead to throw the banana. He jumps off my back to get it and I am finally free of him, even if I am annoyed about the dead end. Heading back into the circus, still without food, I pass the hawker taking a break near the entrance. He tells me that he eventually gave me a granola bar and the guy sitting next to me still has it. But I didn’t order a granola bar! I need to go back in and get it off of him. I navigate the maze back to my seat and the sequence ends. I have ten more points! What was the purpose of that? Was there a clue to the kidnapping that I missed? I try playing through it all again, but I don’t see a clue if there is one. Could there be something else hidden in the crowd?

I ask Rimshaw to read the bumps on my head and he tells me two interesting bits of information:
  • For romance, a woman will soon come into my life.
  • For travel, I will soon visit the grand canyon.

Since I doubt either of those things will happen in this game, are those clues to future Infocom adventures? Rimshaw comments that I like Infocom adventures (how true!) and tells me that his favorite game is Enchanter, so that seems to be a good possibility. I think this is too early for Plundered Hearts to be referenced, but could those be references to Leather Goddesses and Trinity? I have played neither so I have no idea.

A 19th century hypnotist. With angels for some reason.

Interview with a (Former) Lion Tamer

After failing to find a way to get the radio from the bearded lady or how to get past the elephant, I work on passing through the turnstile into the crew area. That passage is guarded by “Harry”, a blind man inside of a repurposed (and burned-out) animal cage. We saw him let Chuckles and Thumb through in the beginning of the game, but he doesn’t recognize me to let me through. Since he’s blind, I can’t just wear the clown mask. I’ll have to come up with an alternative path.

As it turns out, Harry is a plethora of information about the rest of the circus staff. He’ll talk to me about just about everyone, with two special exceptions. In my conversations with him, I learn that:
  • Chuckles had a lot of pride in his craft, until… what? He doesn’t say.
  • Tina has tried to lose weight, but Munrab forces her to eat.
  • The Roustabout fell out of the social safety net and Munrab is forcing him to live in a cage instead of a trailer.
  • Jenny is trying to keep Andrew on the straight-and-narrow, but Andrew considers her a thorn in his side.
  • Rimshaw is worthless and we shouldn’t waste our money. (We already know that he’s a skilled hypnotist!)
  • Gottfried, the new lion tamer, is a glory hog and stays one step ahead of the ASPCA.
  • Munrab, the owner, is struggling. His dreams are not panning out and he is putting the squeeze on everyone. The circus is dangerous because of his pressure and cut corners.

Harry has less interesting things to say about the remaining staff (like Comrade Thumb) and doesn’t seem to know some names from the manual at all. I also learn that his blindness is caused by being mauled by one of the lions. He even shows me his scars. The two lions in the circus are Nimrod and Elsie. He pointedly tells me that Nimrod refuses the whip while Elsie can only be tamed by it. That won’t possibly come in handy later. I should note that he’ll only talk about this once so you better take good notes!

There is a small puzzle while talking to him, although it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. If you ask about Chelsea, Munrab’s daughter, he tells you that he told you already. If you took good notes and realize that he didn’t do that, you can argue with him, eventually ending in a volley of “did not” and “did so” just like in cartoons. If you switch and say “did so”, he’ll get confused ala the Looney Tunes and say “did not” and then finally he’ll talk to you about Chelsea. At least at this point in the game however, all he says is that he hasn’t seen her all evening. A little underwhelming for the mini-puzzle that I had to pass through to get that information, but at least it was fun. Pointless trivia: this verbal sparring was first used in the Chuck Jones cartoon, Rabbit Fire, in 1951. Nearly 70-year old gags are still funny!

Even after all of those interviews and the trick to talk about Chelsea, none of that helps and I have to keep exploring.

Yummy discarded granola.

Healthy Snack

In my next explorations, I end up back under the bleachers in the Big Top. The entrance was moved since the stands have been put back into place, but I can now climb under the fabric of the tent on the Midway to gain access. Since I have been recently hypnotized, I recall where I was sitting and go there to discover the lost granola bar that the hawker tried (and failed) to give me. I could eat it myself, but knowing that the Fat Lady is trying to be on a diet, I go there instead.

In her room, she has been oblivious this whole time just listening to her radio. Her “room” is actually two connected rooms with her in the center. I am either on her left or her right, with passages to the northeast/southeast and northwest/southwest to cross to the other side. If I try to take the radio, she passes it into her other hand and I have to go to the opposite room to see it again. That much I had discovered last week. However, if I stand on the side with a free hand, I can give her the granola bar which causes her to notice me. She offers me her hand which I-- after a moment of confusion-- shake in a show of friendship. She puts down the radio in the process and I can head to the other room and grab it quickly, scoring a few more points in the process. Tina is portrayed as “simple” (my words, not theirs), a gentle giant, but it’s not at all flattering. Yes, it’s all for maximum pathos but it doesn’t completely sit right with me, especially since we’ve now essentially stolen a radio from an adult child. I hope at least she enjoyed her granola bar; it probably came from the granola mines of the Great Underground Empire.

That said, the radio is (for now) useless and only plays static. There’s an ad for a classical radio station that I mentioned last time so I follow the instructions to change the channel to AM 1070. That causes a brief burst of music before it returned to static. I try carrying the radio around the grounds to see if it gets reception somewhere else, but I never find any. It’ll have to be a mystery for later.

They’re finally here!

Send in the Clowns

Let’s skip over another one of those impossible-to-narrate sections where I screw around with stuff and nothing much works, but I discover one thing: I can open the balloon and breathe the helium inside. Thanks to my new (and very brief!) high-pitched voice, I impersonate a clown much more effectively and manage to fool Harry. Even though he’s blind, I put on the clown mask just to be on the safe side. He lets me through into the staff-only section of the circus. I hope that the mask is enough to fool anyone I might come across because I don’t have the rest of a clown outfit handy.

There are only two “rooms” back here, but both seem promising:
  • The east end has Katzenjammer’s trailer. He’s the new lion tamer. Both his trailer and an external baggage compartment are locked.
  • The west end has a dilapidated trailer with a warped front door. I try to pry it open, but do not succeed. It too is locked. More on that in a second.

The other interesting bit is that there is a pleated cloth wall in the north west. By climbing under the cloth, I arrive back in the prop tent. I also spot a piece of wood that wasn’t there before. In classic adventure game form, I reach down to pick it up and… well, I can’t spoil the joke by explaining it. I guess we’ll do a rare “screenshot of text”!

Profanity is funny!

In any event, the mousetrap and its accompanying cheese are now mine and I am sure that one or both will come in handy in the near future. More importantly, I can now go in and out of the staff area without passing through Harry’s gate, which is good because I am out of helium.

I head back and knock on the door of the trailer. Chuckles only glances at me a moment before letting me in, probably because I am still wearing Malcolm’s mask. (What happened to Malcolm anyway that he lost his mask and hasn’t been seen around the camp? Is that part of the mystery?) In a slang-ridden conversation-- all helpfully translated by the circus slang section of the manual-- Chuckles complains about “Johnny Tin Plate” (the detective) snooping around, but he’s pretty sure he won’t find their “grift” (illegal gambling) because you have to put “Annie Oakley” (ticket) under the old front. I file that information away. Comrade Thumb is also in there, but he mostly ignores me while staying on his bunk-bed. During the conversation, Chuckles pauses at one point to ask me to close the door, but he doesn’t catch on that I’m not who I say I am and I’m not dumb enough to do more than nod along. I expect that speaking will ruin the disguise. I search and find an ashtray with some ashes in it. Further snooping reveals that it the ashes include some unburned newsprint with a large-font letter “M” on it. Could this be a sign that one of the clowns worked on a ransom note? I haven’t seen the note yet, but ransom notes often use cut up newsprint, at least in detective fiction. After a few turns, he realizes that I am not Malcolm and kicks me out.

Text adventures seem old, but by this point we are only a year before Leisure Suit Larry. That version of blackjack (above) was one I spent many hours on as a kid.

Infocom’s First Minigame

I took the bit about the illegal gambling as my next clue, so I search for the “old front” and find it quickly behind the elephant tent. When I slide my ticket under, a compartment opens up into a gambling hall where circus-goers and staff seem to be having some fun. I’m not sure how anyone finds out about this place to get in, but I’m sure word gets around the seedier circles. My options at seem to be poker and blackjack, but the game doesn’t let you try poker as it is a private game. At first I think I can’t play blackjack either, but it’s just a verb problem. If you type “bet $1” (for example), the game starts.

This looks like Infocom’s first minigame! It’s actually quite simple, only using yes or no questions for all the game mechanics except betting. The maximum bet is $2 and I stick to that because I can always restore if I lose too much. I lose the first couple of hands, but soon the “won” hands stay about even with the “loss” ones. Blackjack is a fairly simple game, but I did not pay enough attention to tell if they accurately simulated multiple decks or did a new set every hand. The only missing feature is “splitting” hands. That’s when you are dealt two of the same card and are given the option of splitting them into two hands (with additional bet) so that they can be played individually. Even Leisure Suit Larry had that, but it’s not a huge deal. In the end, I can’t really get ahead without save-scumming and nothing magical happens when I double my money. If there’s a plot point here, I don’t see it... until I quit.

As soon as I get up to leave, my character gets an impulse to play one more hand. That time, instead of playing as before, there are taps on our feet. It only takes one hand to realize that the taps are revealing the value of the dealer’s hole card! That helps less than you might think and I still lose, but why is something helping me cheat? I sneak a peek under the table and it is Comrade Thumb! Is this his way to repay me for helping at the water fountain? The dealer quickly catching me looking under the table and realizes what is going on. He kicks both Thumb and I out of the gambling den and will no longer let me back in. I hope I didn’t miss anything. I can always restore if need be.

We can't rewind; we've gone too far.

Radio Killed the Text Adventure Star

With no further leads, I embark on another round of searching for new things to do. I start behind the elephant tent near the gambling hall and realize immediately that I must not have tried hard enough before. My first discovery is that I can climb the cage there and then clamber further onto the elephant’s tent itself. It’s dark and I don’t have a destination in mind, so there’s no place it lets me go. The one good thing is that the radio works up there! It does me no good immediately, but knowing the radio works with altitude could be a clue. Climbing down from the cage causes you to fall off and die. Just kidding, you just fall off and bruise your ego, complete with a fake death scene. Cheeky.

The cage itself was my next win. I had thought for some reason that the cage door was on the inside of the elephant tent, that I was seeing the rear, but in fact this is the front. Peering inside-- which I assume I could always have done but never thought of it-- I see a pair of keys on a nail. Using my tightrope-walking pole, I can poke in and grab the keys and slide them down to me. Not surprisingly, the keys unlock the cage door and inside is a makeshift home for a person. A bit dehumanizing perhaps, but he or she does have a nice pair of cassette headphones which I pocket. There is also a bucket of raw meat which I’m going to assume wasn’t for him, unless we have a werewolf or something. The headphones have a location counter (currently 372) plus play, record, and rewind buttons.

I play the tape and at first don’t notice anything funny. It’s all Jimi Hendrix solos and the author didn’t even bother to find the names of real Hendrix songs. But when I rewind and play from the beginning, there is the distinct sound of Rimshaw hypnotizing someone from locations 124 to around 250. Did Rimshaw use these headphones to hypnotize someone into kidnapping Midrab’s daughter? Does the kidnapper even know that he or she did it?

No one will ever kill this radio star. Well, other than drugs.

The recording feature on the headphones is pretty neat. I am able to climb back up on top of the tent, play the radio, press record on the headphones, and then record as many turns of classical music as I want up until the end of the tape. The system is even smart enough to let me fast forward part of the way through the tape (past the hypnotism) and record only in the latter portion. It’s a pretty neat object, a neat little puzzle, and a clever bit of coding. I’m very impressed! It seems silly, but it’s one of the more clever object puzzles of the Infocom canon so far, which I was not expecting from Ballyhoo. Now I have “music to soothe the savage beast”. That sounds like it will come in handy! I also show the headphones to Rimshaw and he as an unguarded moment where he seems about to panic before he composes himself again. He’s guilty. It’s him and the clowns? I also realize they are too small to fit me so they might be for someone young. Were they Chelsea’s? Does she like Jimi Hendrix? I doubt it. Who did they belong to?

The keys do not just open up the the cage. Trying them around the yard reveals that they also open the gorilla’s cage on the other side of the elephant tent. The gorilla’s name is Mahler and he’s not completely happy to see me invade his space. If I stay too long or get too curious, he “kills” me with a fate worse than death: permanently maimed and forced to act as a circus freak. I am able to locate a trap door hidden under the straw in his cage, but going anywhere near it results in that death. The solution turns out to be the music, although I’m not sure I should do this yet. If you play the headphones, Mahler will snag them off of you and calmly listen to classical music. (Hendrix is not his thing.) That lets me open the trap door, but it is empty except for a red ribbon. What is the significant of the ribbon? I have no idea. Unfortunately, Mahler destroys the headphones as soon as the music stops. I make a note of this detour, but I still expect that I’ll need to hypnotize someone so restore back.

I did not wear a tutu while playing this segment.

Cowardly Lion Tamer

Leaving the menagerie, I find the detective slumped down on the midway. He’s alive, but barely. It doesn’t look like foul play, more like a drunken stupor. He’s still holding his “cure-all” flask and will not let it go. I try to search his coat but I am told that I cannot while he is wearing. He’s too heavy for me to get it off of him also and this could be something to come back to later, if I find some help. Is there a circus strongman around someplace? I was hoping that he had the ransom note in his pocket so I could compare it to the burned newsprint from the clowns’ trailer.

Trying my key all over the place, I discover that it doesn’t unlock any of the trailers or the main office, but it does unlike the storage compartment under the lion tamer’s trailer. It also unlocks the lions’ cage in the western ring of the Big Top. The storage compartment contains a bullwhip which I grab. I now have a whip, a chair, and a bucket of raw meat, plus access to a cage of wild lions. It’s my turn to be a lion tamer!

Letting myself in with the lions, I discover a large podium in the center of the ring and a closed grate to the south. The lions won’t let me near either. Although they are patient, I will get mauled if I stick around too long. My guess is that I am trying to “tame” the lions into letting me open the southern grate. From there, it’s either a place that I need to go or that they do, although I’m not sure which yet. Throwing the meat around calms the lions a bit, but they still do not let me go near the center podium. They do let me open the southern grate, but the game thinks that I am stupid for trying to climb in there so I’m guessing that was not the right call. Instead of tossing the meat immediately, I try the whip and chair. I spend a lot of time trying to find the right verb for whatever real tamers do with their chairs, but I eventually give up. Instead, I crack the whip over each of the lions. This is the point where I should remind you-- and wish I had reminded myself-- of Harry’s conversation about the lions. He said that Elsie could be tamed by the whip while Nimrod could not. Of course, I have no idea which is which and the game forces me to address them as the “shaggy lion” and the “smooth-bodied lion”. When I crack the whip over the shaggy lion, he gets really angry and kills me immediately. When I crack it over the smooth one, she calms down and goes into her routine. My guess is that is Elsie. That isn’t enough since she isn’t so docile that she lets me past.

And I admit that here’s where I took a hint. I was absolutely convinced that I needed to do something with the chair, but I could find no words that worked. In the process of looking up a walkthrough to see the command for the chair, I realize the real problem was that I didn’t crack the whip three times. The first time is just the start of the act. If you want her to do more, you have to keep doing it. Once she has been “tamed” three times, we can now open the grate again. Why Nimrod lets us now and not before Elsie was tamed will have to remain an exercise for the player. With the gate open, I can toss in the meat and… then what? I find that if I leave the cage and come back, they naturally went through the grate to retrieve the meat and that is good enough for me to be able to close them in. Lions managed! Now I can finally search the center podium to discover a cigarette case hidden underneath. What good does that do me?

It’s a mystery to everybody.

Wrapping Up

With no other leads, I start working on the (literal) case. Harry is still my best source of information for things around the circus and he tells me that the case belongs to Andrew. I take it to Andrew Jenny’s trailer and show it to both of them. Andrew doesn’t respond, but Jenny throws a fit. She fights with her other half, somehow remembering that she was involved in something that she didn’t want to be. Was she hypnotized? How do you hypnotize half of a half-and-half person? She reveals that Andrew and his “fellow thugs” are supposed to meet later this evening by Katz’s trailer. Jenny (somehow?) chases Andrew out of the tent and they are gone. Andrew is involved in this but not Jenny? That’s… logistically difficult. I’ll just roll with it. This means however that the clowns, Rimshaw, Andrew, and Katz are all involved. Is there anyone besides Jenny that is not?

I climb the stairs in their trailer and quickly discover that they are fake intended to lift you over a partition into another part of the otherwise flat trailer. On the other side of the partition is Andrew/Jenny’s half-and-half wardrobe with clothes that would make the Batman villain Two-Face envious. (Do you think he’ll be showing up in Batman Returns?) In the wardrobe is two outfits and I take both. Searching their pockets, I also discover a veil. I have a feeling that this will be enough to impersonate the duo myself. Why would I do that?

And that’s it for tonight. When I visit Katz’s trailer, I am told that it is too early. I spend time instead searching for new things to do but largely come up blank. Here is what I’m still working on:
  • I can’t find a way past the elephant into its tent. I was thinking that I could catch a mouse with the cheese, but I haven’t found one. Elephants hate mice, right?
  • I can’t wake up the detective or search him. He’s still dead drunk on the fairway.
  • I can’t get into either the office or the lion tamer’s trailer.
  • I can’t get the ribbon without destroying the headphones and I’m not certain I should do that yet.

This is a fun game, albeit a strange one. The circus-themed puzzles are unique for the games that we have played so far and that makes them somewhat more fun than they otherwise might be. Overall, the game is going a great job balancing out its humor with its darker mood. Not everything is perfect, but I’m pretty happy with the experience overall.

Time played: 6 hr 25 min
Total time: 7 hr 35 min
Inventory: mousetrap, President Taft, bucket, ribbon, skeleton key, newsprint, cheese morsel, ticket, headphones, gorilla suit, $19.81 (plus other stuff that I found but are storing such as the whip and stool)
Score: 120 of 200 (60%)


  1. The hypnotism sequence, and especially its mob psychology/two lines puzzle, is one of my favorites in this game.

    I *think*, but do not recall to a certainty, that the whole lion-taming puzzle just requires you to be CARRYING the stool/chair.

    The Invisiclues booklet for this game has some real gems, and I'd say its transcript is worth a read after winning. Particularly its section on the drunk detective.

    1. Yes. You only need to carry the chair and you use it automatically. Which does not help at all when you are playing the game and you spend 20 minutes trying to find a verb to use the chair because you THINK that is the reason the puzzle isn't working. "Block lion with chair", "defend with chair", "push lion with chair", etc.

    2. To distinguish between the lions: the male one should be the "shaggy" one, as it has a mane, and thus the smooth-bodied one should be the female, thus Elsie.

    3. ...that never occurred to me! It makes much more sense to think of them as male and female lions. Here I was puzzling for a long time over the strange descriptions.

    4. Wow. Umm. I also seem to have not thought about it enough. And I've seen "The Lion King" enough times to know that male lions have manes. ;)

  2. I forgot about the headphones - a clever bit of coding as you say.

    I agree that this is a fun game. With Infocom being best known for basically 3 things : Zork games, space games, magic games (subset of Zork perhaps), I remember thinking (30+ years ago) a circus-based game might be too off track to work. But it turned out pretty decent.

  3. "There is also a bucket of raw meat which I’m going to assume wasn’t for him, unless we have a werewolf or something."

    Brings to mind the sideshow act of the "geek", who perhaps more traditionally would bite the heads off of live chickens, but it looks like Infocom didn't go there.

  4. I was thinking that I could catch a mouse with the cheese, but I haven’t found one.

    Lbh'er ba gur evtug genpx.

    I can’t wake up the detective or search him.

    Vg vf cbffvoyr gb jnxr uvz hc.
    Creuncf n oenpvat pbyq fubjre?

    I can’t get the ribbon without destroying the headphones and I’m not certain I should do that yet.

    Qba'g jbeel nobhg vg. Lbh whfg arrq gur evooba.