I was trying to kiss a frog. I don’t even remember why I was trying to kiss the frog, I just remember that it was vitally important that the croaker received a smooch. The first time I tried, I was disgusted by the sight of him, so I shut my eyes. On my next try, his croaking made me queasy, so I put my hands over my ears. His rank stench thwarted my next attempted, but fortunately I had a clothespin that I could put over my nose. I was, I figured, finally prepared to plant one on the little guy, but the mere thought of touching my lips to his (not that frogs have lips, but whatever) stymied me yet again.
I was hunched over the keyboard of an Apple IIe, my best friend Sara crowded in beside me. We’d gone halvsies on a copy of the latest game from Infocom, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and were, as was so often the cases when playing one of their text adventures, cheerfully stumped. We understood that semi-permanent vexation was a key component of an Infocom game, but that was, oddly enough, part of the appeal. As entertaining as the interactive fiction stories were – this one had us traveSomling the galaxy to collect the items needed to create a Super-Duper Anti-Leather Goddesses of Phobos Attack Machine – the puzzles were the real stars of the show.
I had no idea who exactly was making games for Infocom, but I envisioned them as some kind of evil geniuses, working in offices filled with secret passages and traps. The puzzles they crafted were too clever, too confounding and intricate to have been created by ordinary men sitting at ordinary desks. You probably had to solve a riddle just to use the vending machine in the office cafeteria, or complete a cryptogram to use the toilet. Whoever these people were, they were wicked smart, and besting them at their own game – quite literally – made me and Sara feel like goddesses. Perhaps even leather ones. And so, more often than not, you’d find us huddled around that computer, bathing in the green glow of the text-filled monitor.
We ran through the items in our inventory yet again, trying each one first on ourselves, then on the frog. We couldn’t really see how a blender, a painting of a cat, or a jar of untangling cream would help with the kissing problem, but we wanted to cover all the bases, just in case. This “throw it against the wall” approach had led to more than one forehead-slapping moment of revelation and appreciation for the designer’s twisted sense of humor and logic. And by “appreciation,” I mean hoping he’d fall into an open manhole on his way home from work. Or at least get a really nasty stomach virus. My relationship with Infocom’s designers was a love/hate one, is what I’m saying.
We had the Invisiclues booklet – this was long before the answer to everything was just a Google search away – but we had an unspoken agreement to use it only once we were confident that we had exhausted every last collective brain cell in our attempt to deduce the answer. To use the Invisiclues was to admit defeat, to stand in judgment and be found wanting. At least that’s how we saw it. Given that we weren’t even 16 yet, we were probably being a bit hard on ourselves and more than a little overdramatic, but there are worse things than wanting to be the winner in a battle of the brains, I suppose.
The Apple IIe actually belonged to Sara’s brother Marty, but he let us have it after he bought a Sega Genesis with his birthday money. The Apple had definitely seen better days. There was a nasty scratch on the monitor, and the motherboard had never been quite the same after an unfortunate run-in with a Dr. Pepper, but it worked well enough if you slid open the cover and wiggled the shiny bit on the left. It was a bit of dog when compared with Marty’s shiny new Genny, but we loved it anyway.
He’d tried to get us to play games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Altered Beast with him when he first hooked it up, but I wasn’t interested. Not that they weren’t impressive – I uttered more than one “wow” while watching the first few levels of Sonic – but they just seemed terribly impersonal to me. Playing those games, I felt razzled, perhaps even dazzled, but I didn’t feel a connection to the people who made them the way I did with the folks designing the text adventures I held so dear. Besides, Infocom games gave you stuff.
Packaged inside each Infocom game were several game-related items referred to as “feelies.” Wishbringer, for example, came with a copy of the letter that your in-game character has to deliver (complete with platypus stamp), a map of the area, and the Wishbringer itself, a small magical stone that glowed purple in the dark. Leather Goddesses had a 3-D comic book, the glasses to read them, and a scratch-and-sniff card that corresponded to six different locations in the game. Every time you opened a gray Infocom box, bits of the game world spilled out into your hands – a more than ample trade-off for the lack of graphics and sound, in my opinion.
An opinion that wasn’t, as it turned out, shared by the masses. Interactive fiction managed to stave off death for a few years, but in the end, it simply couldn’t compete with more technically impressive games and quietly faded into the background. I held on to Zork, Wishbringer, and the rest but my five-and-a-quarter inch floppy disks swiftly became obsolete. I replaced them with The Lost Treasures of Infocom, a collection on CD that encompassed virtually every Infocom game ever made, but even it is now past its prime and won’t work in Windows XP. Fortunately, emulators like Frotz have been created to run the classic text adventures on just about anything, even an iPhone, so I can still visit Phobos whenever I get the urge.
The urge hits surprisingly frequently. Despite the fact that I’ve played these games time and time again, I’m still amazed by the beauty of their construction and the sharpness of their wit. Their technology may be antique, but their elegant gameplay is timeless. Bump mapping, ragdoll physics, downloadable content and online capabilities are fantastic advances in gaming, and I’m not about to give up my 360 or PS3, but there’s a reason that Zork was one of the ten games recommended to be preserved in the Library of Congress.
If you’ve never given classic interactive fiction a try, now’s the perfect time, before the holiday gaming cycle ramps up and you’re trapped under an avalanche of AAA games. For those of you who like wordplay as much as we at The Escapist do (you know who you are), do yourself a favor and play Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It – you won’t regret it. If you’re fond of Agatha Christie-esque mysteries, give Moonmist a try. And for a bawdy good time with a Venus flytrap, a gorilla and an angle-loving king, you just can’t beat Leather Goddesses on the “Lewd” setting.
Just don’t forget to search the Martian dunes for the lip balm or else you’ll never kiss that stupid frog.
Susan Arendt is likely to be eaten by a grue and has neither torch or a match in her inventory.