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Missed Classic: Trinity - Gyre and Gimble in the Wabe

Written by Joe Pranevich


Welcome back! It was a bit slower going than I had hoped to get here, but we got here nonetheless. Last time around, we jumped into Trinity and an exploration of a near-future Kensington Gardens followed by total nuclear annihilation. Fortunately, we escaped just in the nick of time into a magic door in the middle of a pond and now we are somewhere else. What are we doing there? What is the point of the game? I have no idea, but that lack of knowledge is exciting… also potentially depressing, but I’m going to favor “exciting” for now. If you are confused, just read the previous post and you’ll at least be caught up to where I am because getting this far was quite a ride.

This has been a difficult post to write for several reasons. First and foremost, I struggle to get into the right headspace for this game. The themes are heavy but the puzzles are whimsical; it’s discordant and wonderful. But talking about nuclear annihilation, even when couched in a “fun” adventure game, is difficult to do. I have to force myself to play and then I have to force myself to write about it afterwards because this is a place my head does not want to go. I can only imagine how screwed up Mr. Moriarty must have been having been deep in this game for a year or more, at a time when its terrors seemed even more real than they do today. Add to that my own inadequacy in discussing this game, so beautiful and well-written that my ham-fisted prose seems inadequate. I feel like I am penning a Readers Digest edition of Macbeth. All of our contributors have a tendency to fill in the gaps as we describe our games, to describe how they play in our heads as much as on our screens. With Trinity, it is a very different problem of trying to convey a great game through my own experience. I hope I do it justice.

All that said, this is the first game I have played in forever that has given me nightmares. Is that worth a bonus point in our rating system, or not?

Our friend, the sundial.

We emerge from our door in the fabric of spacetime onto a meadow. The first thing we notice is that it’s not a lifeless world: the air is filled with dragonflies and the sounds of doves. There’s a giant toadstool nearby which just screams Alice in Wonderland and not Super Mario Bros., because I’m a cultured person and the mushroom-world levels (1-3, et al) would not be the first thing to occur to me. Really. From here all we can do is to climb a hill to the north to get a better view on the world and perhaps it is better if I let Moriarty do the talking:

Summit

The hill you climbed lies at the southwest edge of a vast wilderness. Towering forests are broken by long tracks of wasteland, rugged plateaus and marshes shrouded in perpetual mist. A brooding sun fills the distant valleys with a sad, dusty light the color of antique brass.

A giant triangle, thousands of feet high, rises above the eastern treetops. Its vertex casts a long shadow across the wood.

As your eyes sweep the landscape, you notice more of the giant toadstools. There must be hundreds of them. Some sprout in clusters, some grow in solitude among the trees. Their numbers increase dramatically as your gaze moves westward, until the forest is choked with pale domes.

A glare lights up the sky! You look up just in time to see a meteor streak overhead.

As we gather our thoughts and take our bearings, the meteor crashes somewhere far to the east. The sight of a giant triangle in the middle of the world leads me to one conclusion: we are on the sundial from Kensington Gardens or a manifestation of it. Knowing that we are in the southwest helps to orient ourselves, although having a giant gnomon hovering in plain sight is perhaps the best clue. Since I “know” that we are on the sundial, at least until proven wrong and you all laugh at me, I’m going to work my way around the edge clockwise to see what I can see. That’s a good strategy, even if part of me wants to march to the center and see what is there right away. I can always change my mind later.

Heading down off the summit, the first place I discover is a bog with a decaying log. Attempting to pick it up results only in it crumbling in my grasp, but it leaves behind a splinter that I can pick up. The splinter is glowing thanks to the “phosphorescence of decay”. I didn’t think that is a real thing but it turns out to be based on a quote by Charles Baudelaire from a poem that I have never heard of, written in French. I’m not sure if I am uncultured or if that is the kind of crazy abstract wordplay that this game will be throwing at me, but at any rate I have one more point and a glowing stick... and in an adventure game, you can always use a glowing stick.

Like this but after the end of the world.

The Waterfall & Barrow

Following my plan, I head west to find a waterfall splashing into an ice cold pool. It’s too cold to swim in, but there is another one of those giant toadstools here except that this one has a door. A door!? I cannot seem to force it open and knocking politely doesn’t do the trick so I will need to come back later.

To the north, I discover a cemetery containing a crypt and a barrow. My vocabulary doesn’t seem to be up to snuff because in this case the “crypt” seems to be more of an exposed stone coffin (labeled “Wabewalker”) rather than the kind that you can walk around in. I cannot get the lid off, but the text hints that I’ll find something to lever it open with later. Entering the barrow is a trap as a portcullis slams shut behind me immediately. Fortunately, I am carrying that splinter because there is otherwise no light. There is something in the barrow with me and a disembodied voice tells me that it is a “barrow wight”. It’s vaguely human-shaped with an eyeball that is dangling out of its socket on a single protruding optic nerve. Is the idea that I am supposed to help it? Or is it just there to kill me if I stick around too long? In any event, he doesn’t seem to kill me right away. There were some barrow wights in The Lord of the Rings, but I no longer remember what the hobbits had to do to get past them. I’m actually more concerned with that disembodied voice. Who was that? Is it the same voice from London who told me to enter the door? Is someone watching me in my quest? I suspect I’ll get to meet him or her later.

Deeper into the barrow is the ossuary, a bone pit and another one of the toadstools with a door. Searching the bones reveals a key (+1 point), but no other way out. I backtrack to the wight’s room and find a small hole in the wall that I missed, just the right size for a key. I put it in and turn to open a hidden passage. I descend into a cavern covered with icicles and from there… right back through a hidden tunnel behind the waterfall. I am fairly certain I checked for hidden tunnels, but now that I found this one I can get back to the ice cave at any time even if I do not have a reason to yet. Time to keep moving.

Blowing bubbles is very relaxing.

Bubble Boy

Working my way north, I pass a giant Venus flytrap at the northern end of a bog. It doesn’t attack me or seem mobile so I’ll just give it a wide berth for now. At the northwest edge of the map, I make an unexpected discovery: the young boy blowing bubbles from Kensington Gardens is here, except he’s 40 feet high. This just reaffirms that I am somehow on the sundial, but how did he get here and why hasn’t he been vaporized? I cannot talk to him because he’s wearing the same headphones as before and the most we can do is watch him blow bubble after bubble. My first thought is that I need to ride one of the bubbles, but I cannot see how to do it. If I try to climb the kid, he tosses me in a random direction. Once launched, the bubbles are too high to reach. I will have to notate and come back to later.

Working my way east along the edge, I discover “Chasm’s Brink” which gives me an unobstructed view off the edge of whatever I am standing on. Thirty feet away is a little island where I can just make out another one of the giant toadstools, but no way to get there. Can I ride a bubble across? There’s also a single lone oak tree nearby so maybe I’ll have to make a bridge?

There might be a white mailbox, but you’ll never know.

Cabin in the Woods

The far northeast of wherever it is that I am has two major areas of note: a cabin and a crater, the result of that meteor strike that I saw when I first arrived. The cabin itself is remarkable both because it is the first “normal” thing that we have seen since we arrived and well, everything else about it. The best way to describe the interior is “very meta”. The wall has a map that looks very much like the type of map that we might draw to play (or design) an adventure game, while a large book in the center of the room appears to describe my very own path through the game. Here’s an example:

It’s hard to divine the purpose of the calligraphy. Every page begins with a descriptive heading (“In which the Wabewalker meets a Keeper of Birds” for instance) followed by a list of imperatives (prayers? formulae?), each preceded by an arrow-shaped glyph.

The writing ends abruptly on the page you found open, under the heading “In which the Wabewalker happens upon a Book of Hours, and begins to study it.” The last few incantations read:

> Open Door
> E
> Read Book

The whole place reminds me of the fates from Celtic mythology, or at least the ones that I remember filtered down to me thanks to Lloyd Alexander’s books. They weaved together the tapestries of lives. There’s even a bubbling cauldron! Weaving is an old profession, but Moriarty obviously felt that “game designer” was the modern equivalent. I’m not sure how literally we are supposed to read the description from the book, but the ZIL interpreted language of Infocom did have most commands start with the “<” symbol. Is that the “arrow-shaped glyph” or am I looking too deeply?. I also wonder who lives in this cottage. Could it be the “Keeper of Birds” from the beginning of the game? Will we see her again? Or is it the voice that we keep hearing at odd moments? All good questions, but no immediate answers.

Perhaps more importantly: am I the “Wabewalker”? Does that mean that I saw my own crypt? Is it is a title? Is it time travel? Is this area that I am exploring right now the “wabe”?

To contribute to the meta nature of the area, I shouldn’t forget to mention that the room also contains a magpie in a birdcage. A Colossal Cave reference perhaps? Opening the cage causes the bird to fly away so I restore and keep him around. He spouts random nonsense and occasionally repeats commands that I typed. In the rear of the cottage is an herb garden and trash pit, plus another one of the toadstools. I search the pit to find a clove of garlic which I pocket.

Continuing my exploration, the nearby crater contains a still superheated meteorite chunk (about the size of a grapefruit) half-buried in the ground. It’s too hot to pick up and there are no obvious ways to dig it out. When I stand nearby, my gnomon is attracted to it. I can attack it to the rock and it sticks, but when I do I’m just told that my umbrella is attracted to it as well. My guess is that it is magnetic, although not so strongly magnetic that I can use that to pull it out of the ground with the umbrella.

Ticket please... Next!

Come Sail Away?

Between the cottage and the crater is one more location, a tree containing a beehive filled with particularly aggressive bees. In pure Winnie the Pooh fashion, I try to steal the honey but that only causes one bee to follow me around continuously. I expect that he’ll eventually catch up to me and sting me, but I immediately know what to do: take it to the Venus flytrap. That works! The bee is dead, the plant fed, and now I can take some honey. Since I don’t have any containers, it just sticks to my hand. I cannot even drop it! What do I need the honey for? I may have to restore and do this later if the honey on my hand interferes with any of the other puzzles.

The far southeast corner of the “wabe” is bisected by a wide river that I am unable to cross. If we wait around on the banks very long at all, we will catch a glimpse of an oarsman rowing towards us. When he arrives at the bank, ghostly figures will appear and board the boat. He’ll take a coin from each of them. Once everyone is aboard, the oarsman leaves. A few minutes later, he’ll return and do it all again. If I try to board the boat, he kicks me out immediately-- but not because I don’t have payment, but rather because (the game tells me) that he doesn’t like my “London vacation shorts”. The obvious implication is that I’ll need to dress the part to board his boat. Will the wight lend me a change of clothing? My guess is that the 20p coin I have been carrying around since London will suffice as payment.

“Well, that is your name, isn't it? Calvin Klein? It's written all over your underwear.”

Klein Bottle

In the far south, we find a garden surrounded by high hedges. At the center of the garden is a statue of a “klein bottle” (see illustration above) and an inscription attributing it to Felix Klein. If you are not familiar, a klein bottle is a mathematical construct in topology where a single line appears to travel across both the interior and the exterior of the shape. It warps back in on itself. It’s difficult to explain, but the shape just looks like a bottle with a handle. It doesn’t take more than a moment more exploring the garden to realize that the whole thing is a Klein bottle and we find ourselves on the ceiling. There is a silver axe up there; I grab it and head back down.

I come down to discover that the world has gone screwy: west and east have been swapped! My entire map appears to be backwards and even the inscription on the statue reads “NIELK XILEF”. One more circuit through the arboretum and everything turns back to normal again. Is this just a simple thing to screw up our map or is there a puzzle hidden here somewhere? I don’t know yet.

Where gnomon has gone before.

The Center!

Heading west from the garden, I find myself back where I began. From here I had a brilliant strategy to explore a bit further in, but actually the wabe isn’t all that big and I pretty much explored the whole thing just by going around the edge. That only leaves the triangle-shaped obelisk in the center. Thankfully, the triangle was designed for visitors because there is a convenient stairwell up and onto a very chilly mesa. The temperature is below freezing and I’m not clear whether we can stay here very long. The good news is that there is a great view: not only can we see the shape of the world, we can also see the long shadow cast by the triangle. It is currently pointing straight north.

More importantly, the top of the sundial is… another sundial. If I zoom in, could I see another sundial on that one? Probably not because this sundial is much like the one in Kensington Gardens except that it doesn’t have its gnomon. I naturally try to attach the one that I have been carrying, but it doesn’t fit: the thread doesn’t match up. That’s very strange. Is there a second one to find somewhere? Multiple sundials?

Surrounding the sundial is a brass ring. I discover that if you turn it, the whole world turns. At least, I think it does because the position of the sun changes very quickly. It might be time speeding up, but it’s very difficult to tell. I try to see if maybe the sun now sets in the south instead of the west, but I do not have the patience to stand around and find out. Other than repositioning the sun (and therefore the shadow), I do not see immediately how this helps me.

With nothing else to do, I head back down and double check every location and exit until I have a complete map. The whole place is roughly six rooms by four, plus some extra in the cottage and the gardens for a total of thirty-one rooms. It’s a good size for exploring but also giving us a finite solution space. From a game design perspective, I approve! But now, we need to solve some puzzles.

Plus one room that I haven’t technically found yet...

Puzzle Time!

I’m not going to narrate all of my trial and error and running around like crazy. This section, much like the best Infocom adventures, has a middle phase where we run around and try random things until we find something that works. As we solve puzzles, the search space for the other puzzles gradually decreases until the game is cracked! This is almost exactly the way the early Zork games worked and it is a welcome return to form after so many games complicated the formula with scripted sequences or unnecessary plot. I like that it’s just me in a strange land, trying to make sense out of it.
  • The first thing that I learn is that I can use the silver axe (from the Klein bottle) to chop down the tree in the northern part of the wabe and push it forward to make a bridge. I guessed that it might be something like that, although the other side just contains yet another toadstool and nothing else.
  • Returning to the cottage now reveals that the map on the wall has changed with the addition of new squiggly lines. Of course, the game provides no more details and I end up re-exploring absolutely everything to see if there are any new exits or locations. There are none. I even go through the Klein bottle again and explore the entire world “backwards” to see if anything opens up that way, but it was not to be.
  • All the mucking about with the cottage and I’ve heard more of the magpie’s speech now. He seems to be ranting about some sort of concoction that goes “boom”. The ingredients are milk, honey, garlic, and a lizard. Since I have the garlic and honey already, I try adding them to the already boiling pot. The garlic goes in (and I gain a point!), but I cannot seem to drop the honey because it is still stuck on my hand. Eventually, I get the “brilliant” idea to just dip my hand in the boiling water. Somehow, that works and I get more points. Now, where will I find a lizard and milk?
  • After spending time with the bubble-blowing boy, I work out that I can climb into his soap dish and fly off in a bubble that way… except physics takes over and I don’t soar as I had hoped but instead seem to bob just above the ground. I can make it four turns away from the boy, but I do not find anything interesting to do within those four turns yet to justify doing so.
  • I don’t make any further progress with the sundial, the ferryman, the ice cave, toadstools, or the garden.

My big break came almost by accident. I noticed that when I went up and around through the arboretum, the statue at the bottom’s text reversed. I try dropping the umbrella on the ground and going around and it’s text reverses too! Even better, I can take the umbrella with me even after I reset the directions of the world again and the text is still reversed! I have no idea how or why that would work, but it does. From there, I decide to reverse the gnomon. Although the sundial never said or implied that the thread was reversed, it is possible that I am in some sort of “mirror universe” (to borrow from both Star Trek and Through the Looking Glass). I use this technique to flip the polarity of the gnomon and take it back up to the sundial. That works!

This opens up a few new actions that remind me of the trolley puzzle at the end of Dungeon and Zork III. A new lever that appears can be used both as a means of stopping time and as a pointer: when you lower it, it points at one of the seven symbols but the sun also stops moving in the sky. From there, we can rotate the world using the ring to point the shadow anywhere we want, or more importantly to point the lever to one of the seven symbols. Time is not completely stopped because the boy still blows bubbles, but the sun has stopped.

I think of the island mesa to the north and point the shadow there. When I arrive, the toadstool door is open! I know how to open the doors! I’ll just need to find all of the matching toadstools and pay attention to where the lever is pointing for each. Before I get in to that, I bravely (with a recent saved game) step through the door:

Scaffold

Whoever threw this place together wasn’t worried about permanence. Tin walls rise on flimsy studs to a ceiling that sags under its own weight. It reminds you of a prefab tool shed, several stories high.

You’re standing beside a monstrous conglomeration of pipes, compressors, and pressure valves that fills most of the building. The only familiar equipment is the open white door set into one of the storage tanks.

A stairway leads downward.

We’ve left the wabe and I have a feeling that I have been transported back to the location of one of the bomb tests. How exciting!

Time played: 3 hr 50 min
Total time: 5 hr 10 min

Inventory: piece of paper, bag of crumbs, small coin (20p), credit card, umbrella, wristwatch, birdcage with magpie, and silver axe. (Not all being carried at once.)
Score: 34 of 100 (34%)

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