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Infidel flashback review


Although I am just about old enough to have played the Infocom text adventure games the first time around, I didn’t. I can clearly remember the striking adverts for games like Zork and Planetfall in the computer magazines I read, but for whatever reason, I did not investigate them further. My sensibilities as a young computer user were undoubtedly more easily swayed by colourful graphics and music. For this reason, the text adventures I did play at least had to feature some illustrations, or better still a whole immersive point-and-click graphical environment.

Recently, however, I was introduced to the excellent podcast, Eaten By A Grue. The brave souls who present this show had decided to play all 35 of the Infocom text adventure games and talk about them. This managed to instill in me a feeling of having missed out on an important part of computer history, so I thought I should at the very least try one of these fabled games. I settled upon the ancient Egyptian pyramid-plundering game Infidel. It seemed a good place to start, being apparently neither too long nor insurmountably difficult.

The story presented is that you are an explorer who has been deserted by your team of local Egyptian helpers in the middle of the desert, somewhere near the River Nile. There is a note to be found that details your various shortcomings as a human being, for which they have decided to leave you to the jackals. Apparently, your plan is to locate and ransack a hidden pyramid, the location of which has been approximately marked on the accompanying game map (originally printed and packaged in with the boxed version of the game as one of the company’s famous feelies).

I should note that although my text adventure experience is not particularly extensive, I am at least very familiar with the standard commands and protocol. The first thing you discover upon checking the rules for Infocom games, however, is the sophistication of the parser system they developed. Typing in standard English in full sentences, with complex commands such as: “Hold the end of the rope and then jump off the stairs to the south” is a revelation after playing games with comparatively rudimentary parsers. Whilst this does not necessarily translate into a richer gaming experience, as it is perfectly possible to play the game using only two-word sentences, it is still fun to experiment with.

Adding to this, the quality of the in-game writing for room locations, responses, and interactions is also of high quality. From what I have learned, Infidel sits somewhere in the lower half of the cannon of Infocom games, in terms of ‘historical reputation’. I am not sure why, having not played - as yet - any of the others, but I found myself very quickly drawn into the sun-baked and sandy world of the game’s setting through the expressive but measured prose. The mix of adventure with touches of comedy from the pens of creators Michael Berlyn and Patricia Fogelman works well. Out in the searing and endless wasteland of the desert, for example, as your character starts to see mirages, or hallucinate due to lack of water, you are told: “A large rainbow trout walks by, holding a pet snail on a leash.” You realise just before you die that you should probably have made a map and, at the very least, taken some water with you.

The deaths, as you soon discover, come hard and fast here. Once you have found your way into the pyramid, having escaped the desert heat and maybe even the crocodiles, you can still expect to die. A lot. Falling from high ledges, being crushed by moving walls or eaten alive by rats, being poisoned or burnt to death, are just some of the harrowing fates that await. This process of learning through your own mistakes is often the only way to solve some of the puzzles, so you’ll need to make sure you save the game often. Add to this the continual requirement to regularly either drink water or top up your torch oil as it burns away, to open and close your rucksack every time you want to get something from it (which will be often), and to keep track of your location - probably by drawing a map - and it can all get a bit much in terms of planning. If you are at all sceptical about games that refuse to make things easy for the player, then you might be better off giving Infidel a wide berth.

Puzzle-wise, I found the game to be a lot of fun. The majority of the situations you face will probably have some level of familiarity to them, being largely based on the well-trodden territory of adventuring and the search for lost treasure, but they are elegantly designed and not always quite as expected. In one area of the pyramid, you have to drop all of your items so that you can lift up one particularly heavy object. However, if you drop your torch too, it’s game over, so where can you safely rest your torch so you still have light by which to complete the puzzle? Along with more interesting but also more traditional adventuring conundrums, practical matters like these occasionally also need to be attended to.

The game features a sort of built-in hint system, in the form of a lexicon of hieroglyphics that can be deciphered as you play to find clues as to their meaning. You start the game with a very basic list of words, and from here you can (if you like, as it did not seem to be essential) deduce the meanings of further words. Doing so means that you can then read the inscriptions on the walls, which give hints and even full solutions to the puzzles in the pyramid. It was a nice touch although I only managed to work out approximately 35% of the total lexicon and was still able to solve all of the puzzles (well, almost all of them anyway) without resorting to online hints.

And the ending? Well, let’s just say it is justly divisive.

Infidel is, I think, a very good introduction to the games of Infocom if you are interested in exploring their catalogue. It has just about the right balance of qualities, such as difficulty, size, and familiarity. It does not bring much that is original or startlingly new to the ancient Egyptian mythos, and I can say with confidence that there are better and more interesting text adventures out there - Infidel features no other in-game characters, for example. However, it is well worth trying, and after finishing I am even keener to explore more of the games this fascinating company has left us.

Gameplay note: The Infocom games were originally made available for nearly all of the major computer systems that were available in the 1980s and 1990s. I played the Amstrad CPC version of Infidel as I already had a CPC emulator installed, and set the monitor to look like a green screen CRT, for a sense of authenticity. However, many of the games can now be played online too.


Infidel is available at:

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NOTE: Flashback reviews are evaluations to see if games of the past have held up well enough for players to enjoy playing today given the limitations of the available technology on initial release. They are not intended to represent the verdict at the time that the game was released.
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