Missed Classic: Infidel - Won! (Lost!?) and Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

A few days ago, I took my first deep dive into Infidel’s hidden pyramid. Powered by a flaming torch and a sense of narcissistic optimism, I discovered a long-buried burial barge, a hidden underground temple containing two chalices, a cube maze with a hidden door, and an Indiana Jones-style weight puzzle to recover four gem clusters. Thus far, after a disappointing start, I am coming to enjoy the game. Mike Berlyn has a good handle on puzzles and has managed to keep the game grounded in a sense of realism. The hieroglyphics have been fun to puzzle through, though a bit inscrutable. More importantly, they have been just understandable enough, with effort, that I could advance through a puzzle or two.

I am reluctant to admit this, but the solution to my “plaster wall” problem was embarrassingly simple: I just had to destroy the wall with my axe. I had avoided this solution in large part because no real archeologist would deliberately destroy priceless artifacts like that, but it appears to be the only way to advance. At least in my mind, I could imagine myself cataloging each of the rooms as I came to them, carefully labeling where I found this treasure or that. But take an ace to a wall? Not really how I’d approach it. It was bad enough that we broke the statue last time, but at least that was an accident...

Destroying priceless artifacts for fun!

If you enjoyed destroying that plaster wall, I have a surprise for you: it’s a two-for-one sale! Just beyond that wall was a short hallway followed by another plaster wall. This second one has some hieroglyphics on it, plus two niches, one to each side of the door. I see the symbol for “mast” in the text (although I can’t make out too much more), so I straddle the mast across the hall by putting the ends in the niches. That works! I think I know where this puzzle is going, so I climb onto the mast before taking the axe to this second piece of priceless history. I was right! As soon as I broke open the wall, a torrent of sand came out and quickly causes the floor to collapse under its weight. I find myself standing on the beam across the hall with a seemingly bottomless pit right below me. I feel especially clever for figuring this out from the text, even as a bottomless pit stretches the realism a bit. I half expect to see a nasty little dwarf run by any second! I try to tie the rope to the mast to see how far the pit goes, but the game tells me not to bother. Okay, then. Should I give Mr. Berlyn credit for guessing I would try that? Or demerits for not putting anything to see down there?

I step through the hole in the wall into a large antechamber, the “Chamber of Eternal Royalty”. The area is three rooms from north to south with my makeshift door roughly in the middle. In both the north and south ends of the room, there are sealed doorways. I design to tackle the northern one first. That door has some more hieroglyphics on it (also containing the “mast” symbol), as well as a “timber lintel” above the door. I had to Google to learn what a “lintel” was and it’s apparently a beam across the top of a door. Since I know the mast is involved somehow, so I experiment and discover that it is exactly the right height to wedge the mast under the doorframe. (Of course, I had to run back to collect the mast from the other hallway. The game lets me reach in and get it without falling into the pit.) Because this game enjoys destroying priceless history, I have to destroy the seals with my axe to open the door. When I do, a large weight comes down but is stopped by the mast. Another puzzle solved with basic carpentry!

This is a lintel, in case you were curious.

Just beyond that door is the burial chamber! Not only is there a huge sarcophagus in the room (the queen, I presume), it has a number of other features that I suspect will be essential to getting it open: two small recesses on the cover, four statues of the same gods that we saw in the X-shared room, plus the statues’ arms are blocking the lid from opening. I play around with these things but cannot find anything to do yet so I head east into an adjoining room.

That room is called the “Treasury” and it has a table with several “discs” protruding from the surface. One of the discs has a scarab on it. Playing around with them, I believe they are some sort of hidden scale: when I press on them, they go up and down. The discs look to be exactly the right size for the gold and silver chalices I found earlier. I actually had to restore and replay this section since I left them upstairs in the Chamber of Ra. There is no way to get the mast out of the doorframe without dying or getting stuck so I expect I’ll have to make sure I do this part last. I put the two chalices on the discs and pick up the scarab, only to die when the ceiling collapses. Did I do them in the wrong order? I try them the other way and the same thing happens. What am I missing? I look more carefully and notice that you can see if the discs are above the table, below the table, or completely flush with it. Since the gold chalice is heavier than the silver one, they never balance. The trick I find is to fill the silver chalice with the water from our canteen. I seem to have exactly enough water for this and it fills it nicely up to the line. With that done, I can safely remove the scarab and head back to the sarcophagus chamber.

I thought a scarab was an ornate dagger. Oops. 

My newly collected scarab fits nicely in one of the recesses on the sarcophagus lid. Unfortunately, I do not have anything else that fits in the other recess, no any clear way to open the sarcophagus. I suppose I could try my axe again, but solving the puzzle seems like the best approach. The four gem clusters, matching the four gods on the lid, seemed like a good guess but they don’t do anything either. I give up here to puzzle out the door at the southern end of the antechamber.

The southern door kills me immediately: as soon as I open it, the left and right walls come together and crush me like an archeologist sandwich. I have to restore back again to before solving the northern room to have the mast available and yes, I can put it between the walls to block me from being crushed. Is that a record for number of puzzles solved by a single object? It feels like it must be. With that, I can enter the so-called “Chamber of Rebirth”. This one has a bunch of Egyptian decorations surrounding a slab with four circular holes. I check through my inventory and find that the gem clusters fit the holes nicely but I had to find the right order. I had to experiment to get it since it wasn’t the order that we found them in the X-shaped room: diamond, ruby, opal, then emerald. Once done, the slab opens to reveal a spatula (really!) and a book. Examining the spatula gives me the hint that it is used to open books and turn pages so I do as it asks and use it to read the book. I think it says to put the scarab in the big hole and the book in the small hole-- probably back in the Burial Room.

True fact: ancient Egyptians used spatulas.

I grab the book and leave the southern annex, taking my mast after I pass. The walls around the door slam shut, just like before, but this time I’m not caught in the middle. I play through the northern room and the treasury again to get the scarab. Just like instructed, I put the scarab and the book in the correct recesses on the sarcophagus and I hear a click! I try to lift the cover, but the four statues on the corners are still blocking the lid. Now, I can turn then but when I get to the fourth one, they all snap back again. It’s clear I need to use the right order and this is where the strange “@” symbols in the X-room come into play: you put them in the order of the count of at-symbols. With that done, statues release the lid and I can finally open the cover...

And I die. The walls collapses, burying us. “You will never get out of this pyramid alive.”

But it’s not another puzzle to be solved, it’s actually the end. I “Won!” with 400 out of 400 possible points. The best ending in this game is that you die.


I’m glad no one spoiled me on this, but seriously: F**K YOU, Infocom.

Time played: 1 hr 25 min
Total time: 5 hr 40 min

Several days pass…

I needed to step away for a bit after playing this game, to try to find something intelligent to say about a game that bent expectations to the breaking point. I also hope that some time will let me give a fair score, even if the game didn’t play fair with us. I can appreciate that there was an artistic point being made here and that Mike Berlyn was trying to push the envelope of adventure games. I can appreciate it, but I still cannot like it.

Perhaps the nicest way to put it is that this game might be a “dark mirror” of Zork (and to a lesser extent, Planetfall). Mike Berlyn was clearly playing with Zork tropes and references: the initial aboveground section until you find the location of a secret treasure-filled labyrinth is straight from Zork I. The town of “El Menhir” references a location in Zork II. For all that exploring and stealing the treasures of the Great Underground Empire was a good thing in those games, this game paints them as quest by a narcissistic thrill-seeker who wants nothing more than to loot the treasures of an ancient world for his own glory. Enchanter painted the Zork protagonist as a comical figure, but here he’s an anti-hero or even a straight-up villain. The final death scene may even be a response to Planetfall's optimistic closing moments, replacing the unexpected survival of a key character with an equally unexpected death of the main character. Planetfall ended with a surprise sign of relief, while Infidel ended with a surprise cry of anguish... and, in my case, vulgarity.

While I can appreciate that there’s some artistry here, it doesn’t work as a game. We might remember that we started off playing as an asshole (I was upset about it at the time), but by the time we were several hours in, I had become fully engrossed in the puzzles and had internalized the character. He wasn’t that abusive treasure-seeker that deserved his comeuppance, he was me. I worked with him through trap after trap, decoded dozens of ASCII art hieroglyphics, and was trilled each time I managed to progress a bit farther in the game. To then have the opening narrative pulled back at the last moment like this, throwing out all of the attachment that I had gained for the character… it was a big “f**k you”.

Let’s figure out a final rating.

I pity the fool… who plays this game unspoiled.

Final Rating

Puzzles and Solvability - Ignoring the story and ending for a moment, the puzzles in this game are fairly well done, difficult but not too difficult. Impressively, they managed to stay very “real world” with Raiders of the Lost Ark-style traps that are mostly within the realm of possibility. There was no magic here, no grues, or anything that couldn’t have fit in the real world (except perhaps one bottomless pit) and so building puzzles was much harder. Add to that the metagame with the hieroglyphics and you have some difficult but fun entertainment. My score: 5.

Interface and Inventory - There isn’t much I can add to what I’ve said many times about the Infocom parser. This game avoided many of the glitches that I found in Enchanter, although the knapsack was an unwelcome addition with extra turns spent just manipulating inventory. And while I was complimenting the realism a moment ago, I did spent the majority of the game carrying around a seven-foot long ship’s mast with no apparent difficulty. My score: 4.

Story and Setting - Where to begin? The story was the least effective part of this game, serving as an unwelcome distraction at the beginning and a colossal middle-finger at the end. There was no progression with this character. The setting was done well with many Egyptian allusions which I suspect made more sense to someone steeped in Egyptian history and myths, but I do not know how much faith I can put into someone’s research when they can’t even bother to look up the correct location of the Nile on a map. My score: 2.

Ancient Egyptian for "Burma Shave"

Sound and Graphics - The perpetual use of ASCII art for the hieroglyphics, and to have those be an integral part of the meta-puzzle of the game, was great. Not quite a point, but worthy of a round-up pity point. My score: 1.

Environment and Atmosphere - Meandering through an ancient pyramid and temple was a ton of fun and a lot of effort was put into getting the details right, or at least believable. While the game was empty, devoid of even a grue to keep me company, that fit to the setting that Mike Berlyn was trying to build. For all that I did not like the story, the environment that he built was well-done. I just wish that it had contributed more to the story. My score: 5.

Dialog and Acting - The prose was, as usual, fantastic and Mike Berlyn’s style came out in the room descriptions and puzzles. The initial section where my character seemed to be going insane (remember the strange response when I tried to look into a hole?) was pretty much forgotten about by the time we made it into the pyramid, which is a good thing. Without any NPCs to interact with, I don’t think I can go too high here. My score: 4.

Final tally: (5+4+2+1+5+4)/.6 = 35! I am going to use my discretion points to subtract 2 points because no matter how technically good it was, I cannot recommend a game that screws with its players like this. The ending soiled what could have been an otherwise great addition to the Infocom canon. Even more so than Suspended, this is the first Infocom game that I came out disliking. I want to love Mr. Berlyn’s games, but I suspect they are not for me.

With a score of 33, that places this game just above Suspended and Zork II. I would recommend either of those games before this one, but it’s really just the framing and ending that makes me so down on this game. Ignoring that, this is a competent adventure with a great code breaking meta-puzzle, something that I’ve never seen in an adventure game before. Maybe taken in that light, this game doesn’t suck as much. I can’t wait to see what Mike Berlyn does when he has a decent framing. The third time will be a charm, right?

The average guess was 36 which implies that most readers either expected me to like this more or were unaware of the ending. (I was really hoping for the surprise to be aliens.) Ilmari managed to guess the lowest score and get it right on the nose. Congratulations! You’ll have to give yourselves CAPs after the next mainline game.

Up next for the Zork Marathon, I’m going to take a cold shower and try to convince myself to keep playing. I hope the first set of Infocom gamebooks will be a palate cleanser because I’m fried after this one.

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