This week, we play through Infocom's Wishbringer, designed by "Professor" Brian Moriarty, later of Loom fame. The game was billed as an "Interactive Fantasy for Beginners," but while it's more forgiving than many old-school adventure games, it's not exactly a pushover.
The story opens with a nice stage-setting, Walter Mitty-esque moment:
The game appears to be set in the Zork universe, as there are grues and Frobozz products about. The game is meant to accommodate novice players, with leading prompts early on (Okay, what do you want to do now?) and occasional suggestions about mapping and saving. Some mistakes are merely inconvenient, but others are fatal; the game does provide alternative solutions to most puzzles, and fewer dead ends than most such games. It also encourages retrying when the game ends unhappily.
I always encourage readers to try these games before reading further -- and if you're a would-be adventurer reading this post out of idle curiosity, Wishbringer is a good place to start. The parser is solid and cooperative, the prose is very well-written, and the game isn't frustratingly difficult, though I've certainly played easier text adventures.
With that said, my observations follow, and for documentation's sake I reserve the right to give some things away that are more fun discovered on one's own.
******** HERE THERE BE SPOILERS! ********
Wishbringer continues Infocom's constructive approach to copy protection, with several clues based on items found in the original packaging.
Some storytelling concessions are necessary, given the game's target audience -- if the player tries to OPEN ENVELOPE too early, the game plainly responds with You're not supposed to open the mysterious envelope until the story tells you to do so. YES or NO confirmations are usually required for irrevocable actions, which is a thoughtful design choice.
The game map is quite simple -- there are no mazes, though there are some navigational anomalies here and there. It's important to map the trail up to the Magick Shoppe, as the return trip is shrouded in heavy fog and risky (though possible) to navigate safely.
One of the things I always liked about the Infocom games is that other characters have their own schedules to keep, and their actions aren't solely triggered by the player's activities. Here, the gravedigger asks about the mysterious envelope, and has something interesting to say about it, but leaves in a few turns anyway if we don't show it to him; similarly, our boss Mr. Crisp throws us out of the post office if we stall too long at the game's outset.
The game features a couple of standard hungry-animal puzzles. Ms. Voss' nasty little poodle blocks the path but can be bribed with a bone... found in an open grave. No surprise there, but it's a nice little bit of macabre humor. Also, the piranha in the Witchville fountain can be bribed with an earthworm.
The game's scoring mechanism provides useful feedback -- worthy actions earn points, significant or destructive errors knock the score down. It's entirely possible to finish the game without earning all of the points -- the scoring mechanism favors practical solutions over the use of magic WISHes, encouraging replay and creativity.
The story is dramatic in the best Infocom tradition, with a central conceit reminiscent of It's A Wonderful Life and an emotionally satisfying ending. And the game's ultimate nemesis is female, an unusual choice at the time.
The arcade on the Pleasure Wharf features a LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS! machine, a nod to a contemporary Infocom game.
There's a little seahorse found near the ocean that dies if we fail to THROW SEAHORSE INTO THE BAY to revive it. The creature appears grateful for the rescue, but I never cashed in on any favor it may have owed me in return during my playthrough.
The story's major twist occurs after we meet the Magick Shoppe owner, and find we are no longer in Esteron, but in Witchville:
There's a time element to the story, measured in moves rather than real time -- the letter must be delivered by 5:00 PM, which is a challenge, and the remainder of the quest completed by 6:00 AM, which isn't so much.
The generally impenetrable forest can be entered once in the normal fashion, and returned to once via electronic magick (wasting the arcade token, however.) Inside the forest, we find the familiar white Zork house. But this is a different story, and after disgorging its leaflet, the classic mailbox acts like a happy kitten, following the player around and proving useful near the arcade.
The cemetery is a dangerous place after dark, as the creepy eldritch vapors carry the player into the air and empty his or her inventory, scattering the player's possessions around town. It's an inconvenience at most, as the lost items can be found again with thorough searching, but new players will learn it's best to avoid the situation given the time constraint at hand.
Witchville's fascistic Boot Patrol is a funny and menacing force in the game -- magically animated boots make the rounds and should generally be avoided, though finding the back way into the jail cell to fetch the blanket isn't as easy as getting arrested once.
The titular Wishbringer stone can be used to make 7 different wishes, in conjunction with specific inventory items. The manual details the 7 available wishes; most can only be used once, but it is possible to finish the game (maxing out the score) without using any of them. I used the WISH FOR ADVICE spell to help me along in the game, and the WISH FOR DARKNESS to sneak into the movie theatre (as I missed finding the gold coin enabling legitimate entry.) I also used the WISH FOR FORESIGHT, which hinted at the game's ultimate conclusion but was cleverly misleading, and I did a WISH FOR RAIN to solve another puzzle.
I stumbled upon an avenue for further exploration when SAVE GAME yielded You can't see any game here!, indicating that SAVE might be a verb for other purposes...
The game allows the player to DIG ... WITH HANDS, which was nice for me after recently playing a lot of games involving devilishly well-hidden shovels.
I did run into one parser challenge later in the game -- there are 13 paintings in the tower's Round Chamber, always a suspicious element in adventure games. But I tried to MOVE PAINTINGS or TAKE PAINTINGS to no avail. An Invisiclues hint finally led me to LOOK BEHIND A PAINTING, which worked.
I fell for the story's decoy ending, returning the wrong cat to the Magick Shoppe on my first attempt. But a retry with further exploration led me to the proper conclusion. It's an emotionally satisfying ending that I really don't want to spoil, so I'll draw the curtain over the particulars and end with my less-than-perfect finishing score:
I enjoyed playing Wishbringer -- it was not a big hit in its day, and wasn't included in the first Lost Treasures of Infocom collection, so I suspect the "beginners" label may have caused it to be overlooked. But it's a well-told story in the classic Infocom tradition, and not quite as easy as I had expected. Worth playing.