Unwinnability and Wishbringer

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Comments: 23   (latest April 21)

Tagged: cruelty scale, wishbringer, infocom, zork, design, interactive fiction, unwinnable states, if, unlosable games

Someone asked recently about a version of Zork modified to avoid all the classical Infocom annoyances. Expiring light sources, random combat, crucial items stolen by the thief... Zork comes from an era where all these were simply part of the fun. You saved a lot, optimized your run, and tried again if you failed. But the gaming world -- I include myself -- has largely decided over time that this isn't fun.

As far as I know, there is no such modified Zork. But it's an intriguing idea! In fact someone is working on a modified Planetfall in just this vein. A new MODERN command switches to a mode with no hunger timer and, ideally, no unwinnable situations.

When we talk about those early games, it's easy to fall into the trap of calling those unwinnable situations mistakes or design flaws. Once you do that, you're stuck searching for explanations of why the designers made those mistakes. Answers come in two flavors. Either (a) the state of the art was too primitive to understand that unwinnable situations were bad; or (b) the designers were padding out their games to a given level of difficulty or play time.

Speaking as one who played the games back in the day: this is just wrong.

This Giant Bomb article puts it well:

The early generations of text adventure games tended to have a lot of chances that could lead players to unwinnable states, as a way to make a game deeper and more challenging; this kind of game design was not yet considered unfair to players. It was usually considered a product of the game’s difficulty rather than poor design and encouraged (or, as its critics would say, forced) replayability.

-- Unwinnable State (Concept), Giant Bomb

The need for many failed run-throughs before one figures out the perfect approach was certainly an element of the challenge. But it was never padding. It was as much a part of the design as the treasures and the magic words.

There's a deeper confusion, though. The same article goes on to say:

Mike Dornbrook, Infocom's Head of Marketing, conducted a customer survey in late 1984 which showed a clear correlation between the Infocom games players considered their favourites and the games they had actually finished. This piece of marketing intelligence led to the more foolproof design of Wishbringer and later games.

-- ibid

Wishbringer was Infocom's second junior-level game. It is friendlier than earlier games, more forgiving, and more generous in its design. Most of the major puzzles have at least two solutions. But it's a misconception to say that Wishbringer avoids unwinnable situations, or that Infocom changed its design stance after 1984.

It's true that Wishbringer was immediately followed by A Mind Forever Voyaging, which was focused on narrative exploration rather than puzzles. But this was just halfway through Infocom's high season. Their later slate (Spellbreaker, Leather Goddesses, Trinity, Lurking Horror, ...) embraced the model of failable game design and refined it into some of their best-regarded work. With Journey, Infocom redesigned IF from the ground up (discarding the parser!) -- but doubled down on failable puzzles, structuring the game around a limited resource system which took much trial and error to solve.

To untangle this, we're going to have to dig into the ways in which games can become unwinnable. How does it happen and why?

First, consider the difference between losing the game and the game becoming unwinnable. If you attack a troll and it hacks you to death, it's very clear that you've lost! RESTORE (or UNDO) and try again. Whereas if the troll breaks your sword and you run away, you live -- but if you need the sword elsewhere, you're hosed. You might make progress elsewhere in the game, but ultimately you'll have to throw it away and redo it.

Or maybe a broken sword is a clear sign of failure? Adventurers don't waste resources! There's an ambiguity here: if the game signals that you've made an irreparable mistake, you know to back up and try again. But signals are a matter of convention and culture.

(These are the issues I was trying to get at with my old "cruelty scale". When you've fallen into an unwinnable situation, do you know it? Reasonable players may disagree, particularly if they're from different decades. Some games clarify with pointed mutters: "You feel like that was a mistake," or perhaps by penalizing your score.)

Here's a subtler question: have you really lost progress just because you need to restart and try again? In an adventure game, progress is understanding the world and solving puzzles. Solving a puzzle again is just a bit of extra typing!

I'm pushing a point here, but the classical parser games really did have a different rhythm than we're used to nowadays. Even on the old eight-bit machines, a experienced player could replay a section of a game nearly as fast as they could type. It wasn't fun, no. But if you already expected to need to restart a few times, then exploring with unwinnable mistakes hanging over your head just wasn't a serious penalty.

This balance shifted with the later graphical adventures. In the third-person (Sierra/LucasArts) games, walking and other animations made replaying a much more tedious chore. In the Myst-likes, the loading times of those graphically rich scenes slowed you down nearly as much. It's no surprise that the "unstuckable" game model had its renaissance in the graphical era.

But we should take a closer look at the ways a game might become unwinnable.

Let us assume that you are hosed. Why? Because you need something to win the game and you don't have it. Either you've lost access to it and you can't get it back, or you've run out of it and you can't get more.

In practice, these situations usually fall into a few general types:

  • An area gets closed off partway through the game. You left some critical item there and you can't get back to it.
  • You run out of time. Or you run out of something that is consumed over time: lamp fuel, food, health.
  • You accidentally destroy or lose an item while experimenting.
  • You use up a resource trying to solve a problem, but it's the wrong problem.
  • Random events in the game ruin your path to victory.

What led authors to create games with these situations? What did the games, and the intended audiences, gain from them? Let's go point by point.

An area gets closed off partway through the game

What we gain: A sense of a living world (if the game geography changes), or a dynamic storyline (if the player is pushed into a new area).

The fun this adds: The challenges of planning and thoroughness. You have to sweep an area for every possible resource. If you can't snarf them all on your first run-through, you at least have to remember what was available. When facing later puzzles, you have to consider everything you've encountered in the game, not just what you've got right now.

(Yes, I am taking for granted that more challenges mean more fun. Obviously you don't have to be into this kind of fun! But when we analyze these old games, we have to think about what fans got out of them -- and the fans, by definition, were the people who enjoyed them.)

How do we get this in a modern game? Think about narrative games which aren't parser IF. They typically don't have a DROP action! If the player can't leave objects scattered around, the problem of closing off areas becomes much easier to manage. You just have to make sure the player picks up everything they need -- either as part of the narrative, or in order to solve the puzzles leading to the section break. (This is the old cliche of opening a chest and finding a key underneath a coil of rope. No getting out of that room without the rope!)

You run out of time (or light, or food...)

What we gain: A sense of tension.

The fun this adds: The challenge of optimization. First you have to figure out what to do; then you have to figure out how to do it in the limited time available.

(Captain Verdeterre's Plunder is an example of building an entire game around this challenge.)

How do we get this in a modern game? The familiar gimmick is to narrate a time limit, but really sync the clock to the player's progress. The mine timbers may shudder threateningly, but they won't actually fall until the exact moment the player dives clear. The idea isn't to fool the player -- it's usually a pretty transparent gimmick -- but to give them a mood to play along with.

(I recall Christminster as the first time I noticed this gimmick, but I'm sure Infocom used it first.)

You accidentally destroy or lose an item

What we gain: A sense of a systematic model world. You can eat food and then it's gone. You can throw items down a pit and then they're gone. You can set things on fire and then they're gone, or perhaps (if the game model is ambitious) scorched and ruined.

The fun this adds: These systematic interactions can be worked into puzzles; everyone loves a systematic puzzle mechanic. But the puzzles won't make sense unless the player has already experimented with the interactions. That means giving the player rope (no pun intended) to hang themselves.

How do we get this in a modern game? This is a tricky one. You have to come up with ways for every single resource to be replenishable, which can feel artificial.

You use up a resource solving the wrong problem

What we gain: A sense of deep exploration. There are many ways to approach a problem, and you may have to explore several of them before you're done.

The fun this adds: You've solved a bunch of puzzles, but the solutions are mutually exclusive -- you need one item in three different places. Now you have a metapuzzle! Go back and juggle the previous solutions until they fit together. You may have to take another stab at one of the puzzles and find a new solution to it; but first you have to figure out which one.

(Enchanter is my earliest glowing example of this idea. That dispel scroll solves all sorts of puzzles -- but you can only use it once!)

How do we get this in a modern game? This is the road that led me to Hadean Lands. My solution was (a) the RESET command, which effectively replenished every resource by restarting the story; and (b) the goal system, which removed the tedium of retrying a sequence of puzzles. Everything was geared towards letting you grapple with the metapuzzles.

Random events in the game ruin your path to victory

What we gain: Okay, this one is the joker. Even in 1978, nobody was happy that the thief was running around Zork stealing your treasures. Yes, it provided the challenge of persistence -- you had to be bloody-minded enough to retry the game when the thief boned you. (Or, in Zork 2, the wizard.) But it wasn't a surprise that Infocom retired this theme from their repertoire after about 1981.

(It turned up again in Beyond Zork with its randomized mazes and monster combat. And, yes, everyone called it a design flaw. I don't know what Moriarty was thinking.)

How do we get this in a modern game? Do the math -- or run the test suite -- and verify that no combination of random events can hose the player.

All right, we've walked the bounds. Where does Wishbringer lie in this territory?

(Spoilers for Wishbringer in this section.)

(I will confess that I did not replay the whole game for this article. I played through the opening chapter, familiarized myself with Festeron, and pulled down the source code for reference purposes.) (Oh, this is the 1985 version of the game -- release 69, serial 850920. Note that the 1988 "solid gold" release has bugs in its time-of-day code!)

Wishbringer's opening salvo is a strict time limit. The game starts at 3:00 pm; you must reach the Magick Shoppe by 5:00. That's 120 turns. If you optimize your route -- which is to say, on your second or third try -- you can make it under 40 turns. But the typical player will examine the scenery, go back and forth a bit solving the initial puzzle, look around town -- and run out the clock.

Looks like the story's over. But don't despair! Interactive fiction lets you learn from your mistakes.

The "mistakes" here include mapping the town like a diligent adventurer. That definitely takes more than 120 turns.

The town holds a few other ways to wreck yourself during that initial exploration:


A shower of sparks erupts from the back of the game machine, and the video screen goes black.

That's unfixable. There's also a seahorse who dies three turns after you encounter it, unless you offer aid. And so on.

But let's say you skip the tour, head straight towards the Magick Shoppe (the game's feelie map is helpful), and reach your goal by, say, 4:30 pm. The shopkeeper introduces your true quest, hands you a joke snake-in-a-can, and shoos you out to a changed landscape.

You now face your first serious puzzles: getting down from the hill and back across the bridge into town. The hill path is a fog-shrouded maze, but you were explicitly advised to map it on your way up; if you didn't, you can bumble your way through by trial and error.

As for the bridge, it follows the game's master schema by offering two solutions. You can hand the troll the snake can -- now containing a live snake in this altered world -- which scares him off. Or, if you've brought the horseshoe and the gold coin from town, you can WISH FOR LUCK and give him the coin. (It's not legal tender in Witchville, but "luckily" the troll doesn't notice.)

But note that both these solutions are failable. If you haven't searched the town for both the coin and horseshoe, and you release the snake before meeting the troll, then the puzzle becomes impossible. In fact, the "easy" path of the wish is rather more likely to be foreclosed -- a beginning player probably won't have scoured the town for items.

I didn't play much past that point, but I ran into another amusing failure back in town. (1) Get thrown in jail before extracting the stone from the can; (2) crawl down into the tunnels; (3) get lost in the dark; (4) squeeze the can. The stone falls into the dark and is lost forever. Whoops.

So Wishbringer is already three for five: time limits, closed-off areas, and accidentally destroyed resources.

Then there are the wishes themselves. Each can be used at most once. Some have more than one puzzle application; all can be wasted through experimentation. That checks off both "accidentally destroyed resources" and "solving the wrong problem". No, you're not strictly making the game unwinnable, since every puzzle can be solved without recourse to wishes. But if the intended experience of the game is "win using wishes, then replay and try winning without any", then wasting wishes pushes pretty hard into breaking-the-game territory.

Let's be clear: Wishbringer has many affordances for beginning players. It begins in a tightly bounded area with a handful of rooms, two takeable objects, and one puzzle. Solve that and you gain access to the town; but the game firmly (and repeatedly) reminds you that the Magick Shoppe is your first goal. NPCs interact with you in brief scenes with clear direction. You can (and, in some sense, should) go off-track; but the track is clearly laid out.

There are also, despite my litany above, several guard-rails against unwinnable states. If you open the snake-can inside the Shoppe, the proprietor resets it for you. If you drop an item in the fog outside, it will be found waiting for you at the bottom of the hill. And I think that the game makes an effort to always show your failures as clear results of your actions, or (at worst) of your missed actions.

What the game does not have is a systematic design of avoiding unwinnable states entirely. It just avoids a few of the worst ones! Nor does it make any attempt to lead the player through to victory on the first run. Wishbringer is, in this sense, exactly like Hitchhiker or Spellbreaker: a game which wants to be approached iteratively. You will try some stuff, fail, back up to an earlier save, retry, save again, realize what you really needed the first time, do a definitive run of the first chapter, save, explore the town for a while, fail in a new way...

The saga of the unlosable adventure game begins a few years later. ...I should close with a rhetorical flourish by naming it, right? Only I don't have any idea when the idea took hold. I didn't play enough of those early Lucas/Sierra games. (Certainly by Loom (1990) we all knew what the score was, no pun intended. But that feels late.)

I don't even remember if Infocom got there. Did Nord and Bert have unwinnable states? Sheesh, it's been way too long.

Well, there's your blog post hook. Enjoy!

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