Infocom and the Atomic Bomb
March 1, 2015 7:25 AM   Subscribe

Over a series of nine blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), Jimmy Maher (previously) reviews and ruminates on Infocom's Trinity: Brian Moriarty's 1986 text adventure about the atomic bomb. Andrew Plotkin (previously) responds. If you weren't keeping up with the latest computer games in 1986, Trinity is playable online at the Internet Archive.
posted by jsnlxndrlv (37 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, man, Trinity is just the best. If you're game for text adventures at all, and you've never played it, please dive in and do so at once, without pausing to go read anything else.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:37 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I loved the Zork and Enchanter trilogies, but I never could get into Trinity. On the other hand, I was 14 when it came out, and not too far removed from my paste-eating days. Clearly it is time for a revisit.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:43 AM on March 1, 2015

It's a lot of bombs.

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

Again reflecting upon how humanity (hopefully) avoiding that wall of mushrooms is down more to luck than anything else.
posted by Artw at 7:52 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

How to play outside your browser:
  1. Install an interpreter for Z-code version 5. My favorite is Gargoyle.
  2. Download the game files (zip archive)
  3. Move TRINITY.DAT somewhere convenient
  4. Rename TRINITY.DAT to trinity.z5 (I guess capital letters are probably okay?)
  5. Open trinity.z5 with Gargoyle
Gargoyle can handle most any text game format, though its support for multimedia games wasn't complete last I checked. Trinity is pure text though.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:00 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh wow, this is PERFECT, cosmically-aligned timing, because a couple months ago I bought the Lost Treasures of Infocom [iTunes store link] for my iPad specifically for Trinity. And while I don't regret having given Activision money for the bundle, I am charmed beyond words that the Internet Archive has it up.

Can't wait to dig into the essays! This post is the best -- thank you so much!
posted by Westringia F. at 8:04 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

> Open trinity.z5 with Gargoyle

For folks who want to play off-line on iOS devices, I believe it should be possible to pull it into Frotz [iTunes store link] the same way. (I'm a big fan of Frotz as an iOS z-Machine emulator generally, and without question it's much nicer than the cheesy Lost Treasures interface.)

IFDB doesn't host .z5 files for any of the commercially produced Infocom games, seemingly regardless of their age (Trinity included). But if the Internet Archive has them up, does that imply they're in the public domain?
posted by Westringia F. at 8:27 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Infocom is one of the best real but fake sounding company names I've encountered.
posted by PHINC at 8:38 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

How can you play without the gnomon?

Related. (Trinity taught me the words "gnomon" and "perambulator")
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:38 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

All prams lead to Kensington Gardens.
posted by linux at 8:48 AM on March 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh my god, I played the crap out of this one.

I can't decide if this or Hitchhiker's were peak Infocom. Maybe I'm wrong, the mystery ones were awesome as well.
posted by Sphinx at 10:10 AM on March 1, 2015

How can you play without the gnomon?

The gnomon (and the introductory comic, and the rest of the feelies) can be had at The Infocom Gallery.
posted by rifflesby at 10:37 AM on March 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

"The can games be art?" debate was settled for me the first time I finished Trinity.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:37 AM on March 1, 2015

Gnomon is an island.
posted by Justinian at 11:55 AM on March 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

</pulls lever for the trap door Justinian is standing on>
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:00 PM on March 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm trying to play it online, but as soon as I do anything that earns me points, it makes some beeping noises and then freezes.
posted by Lucinda at 12:32 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Time and tide wait for gnomon.
posted by Justinian at 12:34 PM on March 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

</tosses grenade into hole>
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:00 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

OK, fine. "Where gnomon has gone before!"
posted by SPrintF at 1:04 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

</shakes head, walks away muttering about "kids these days">
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:09 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

From the response: Trinity could have followed through on its implied promise: you will prevent Trinity. Thus you prevent Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the nuclear detente of the Cold War; and the envisioned nuclear conflict which ends civilization.

This copies one of the most common modern misunderstandings of the Manhattan Project. If you prevent Trinity you don't prevent Hiroshima, because everyone expected -- correctly -- that the much simpler gun-style U235 bomb would work the first time. So preventing Trinity does not result in a nuclear-free Utopia.

What it does do is radically alter the calculus of the postwar conflict between the US and USSR, because Trinity was about Russia much more than it was about Japan. The gun style bomb could only be made with U235 because if you try to make one with Plutonium, it blows itself apart before the chain reaction can run to completion (as the North Koreans found out the hard way). So if you want to make Plutonium bombs, you have to make the much more complicated implosion scheme work.

This was important because there was no way we could do isotope separation fast enough to make the Bomb a credible existential threat to a nation the size of the USSR. We could make Plutonium a lot faster so creating Curtis LeMay's capability to "kill a nation" required making a Plutonium bomb work, and that was Trinity.

Without Trinity, it's likely that the US and USSR would have gone to not-so-cold war by the 1960's because there would be no credible threat of omniversal annihilation to deter us. How that war would have gone with just a handful of U235 gun bombs in the atomic arsenal is anybody's guess, but it's pretty certain the latter half of the 20th century would have looked a lot different than the one I lived through.

Oh, back in the day one of my better essays for some other site was on this topic.
posted by localroger at 1:38 PM on March 1, 2015 [9 favorites]

Can't we just get beyond gnomon?
posted by JHarris at 2:54 PM on March 1, 2015

posted by salvia at 4:59 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Gnomon can kill us.
posted by Pronoiac at 5:00 PM on March 1, 2015

A friend and I played Trinity obsessively for weeks. He was a better problem-solver, but I knew what a gnomon, a Mobius strip, and a Klein bottle were, and had the history to fill in the gaps. A high point of text adventure, and fond memories.
The "sense of wonder" when we moved the sun I can still feel.
posted by librosegretti at 6:57 PM on March 1, 2015

localroger: “Oh, back in the day one of my better essays for some other site was on this topic.”
You are too modest. This is excellent. Thanks.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:56 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been playing this today and so far it's amazing.

Just a question as I delve deeper. Does the game frequently give you fail situations where the game is unwinnable, but doesn't let you know? For example, in the opening section, I threw the soccer ball into the grass, where it disappeared without a trace. Turns out you need the soccer ball to continue, so I was just floundering around trying things for a bit (until I died, entertainingly.) Now that's all well and good, because it's a self-contained introduction without many possibilities. But if that sort of thing keeps happening, I'm worried I'm going to save my game after I've permanently screwed up.
posted by naju at 10:56 PM on March 1, 2015

I've not played Trinity, but every classic Infocom game I've ever seen allowed stuff like that. The only real defense not involving FAQs is to keep multiple saves.
posted by JHarris at 11:28 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yep, that's how IFs are -- a maze of twisty passages, all alike. More than once in recent play I've wished I'd been tracking my moves with git....

omg i am a giant nerd
posted by Westringia F. at 11:52 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, Infocom games were before the advent of being kind to the player like the games LucasArts made. Not only can you create unwinnable situations, you can create them far in advance of when you'll realize, and without notification or death. Save often, and make a new save file every time you do, and try to give them useful names (instead of just numbering them like I do).
posted by rifflesby at 5:34 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think that's what stopped me completing Planetfall in the end.
posted by Artw at 7:33 AM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

No problem. I'm already drawing overcomplicated maps, I'll set up an overcomplicated saving system too!
posted by naju at 9:02 AM on March 2, 2015

Infocom's famed Invisiclues hint books are available online nowadays, for the low, low price of $9.950.00 per booklet! (The Trinity book is incomplete, natch.)

Infocom's games (and I say this as a huge fan, obviously) have unwinnability and frustration as design features. On Plotkin's cruelty scale, very few would probably rate less than a Tough. (Trinity is unrated at IFDB but I would consider it Nasty; YMMV.) I usually prefer to play my games unspoiled, but I think some of the classic Infocom puzzles can get in the way of my enjoyment of everything else they have going for them enough that there's no shame in reaching for the hint book.

The IF genre has been described as "a narrative at war with a crossword puzzle" and, while I enjoy both of these things, Trinity is to me the best example of how this tension doomed the genre commercially. It's unquestionably Infocom's greatest achievement but there's no way I'd suggest it to people as an introduction to interactive fiction; there are too many grues.
posted by Zeinab Badawi's Twenty Hotels at 2:02 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

(On preview, I would strongly recommend Maher's King of Shreds and Patches as the game that got me back into IF after a long hiatus; it's about as ambitious and well-finished as anything I've played by anyone not called "Emily Short" or "Andrew Plotkin".)
posted by Zeinab Badawi's Twenty Hotels at 2:06 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I first played this (like nearly all the Infocom games) when I they were first released and I was a teenager. These games helped me understand the kinds of true art experiences technology could provide, and showed that video games could be more than Atari 2600 pew-pew.

I really should go back and play some of these again...I've tried before and simply haven't had the patience.

Planetfall is absolutely worth finishing. Seriously. And one should absolutely play Suspended (the original packaging with the plastic face was amazing) and Starcross.
posted by Jinsai at 2:19 PM on March 2, 2015

Suspended was fantastic, and quite unlike everything else, even other Infocom games. I still have the Contra Central Mentality Lottery Card in my wallet.
posted by rifflesby at 2:26 PM on March 2, 2015

Seconding Starcross, although you do have to keep lots of saves.
posted by JHarris at 3:39 PM on March 2, 2015

Following up on my previous comment, I've been entertaining what might have really happened if Trinity was sabotaged. It wouldn't have affected WW2 much anyway; most likely we would have worded the Potsdam Declaration differently so as to get it over with before the Russians could get much of a claim in on the Japanese spoils. But then how does the US-USSR standoff unfold?

Without implosion bombs you don't get either fusion boosted or hydrogen bombs, so everything is limited to 20 kilotons or so and 5 to 10 tons delivery weight. So no ICBM's since there's no point with such a small and heavy payload.

Assuming our psychopathic nut jobs retain the same motivations, they would concentrate on long-term production, and the USSR would certainly follow. The gun bomb is an impossible secret to keep, much simpler than Fat Man but requiring a larger industrial effort. With the demonstration at Hiroshima the Soviets would know the effort to be worthwhile and necessary, though. So throughout the 40's and 50's we would be producing a bomb every month or two, giving us an arsenal of maybe 100 Little Boys by 1960. Russia probably wouldn't be far behind. We would still be depending on airplanes for delivery and air defence for defence.

A hundred 20 kt bombs are enough to throughly ruin your whole day but are not capable of destroying the entire fabric of a society the size of the US or USSR. Drop Little Boy on Manhattan and most of the boroughs will just be sweeping up broken glass and checking their radiation meters for fallout the next day. They also aren't really very effective in a major ground hot war offensive like D-day, because it's too easy to scatter the troops thinly enough that a single bomb can only get some small fraction of the line.

So it seems likely the conflict would have turned conventionally hot much sooner and intensely than it did in our world, probably in Europe where tensions would be super high and the population and industrial density would highlight the bomb's strengths.

Under such circumstances I think it's likely we'd probably take at least a couple more stabs at implosion before giving up. If we posit that Trinity wasn't just sabotaged but that implosion just isn't workable, that leaves the theoretical possibility of using a Little Boy as the trigger for a Teller-Ulam hydrogen bomb. It seems likely that such a bomb would have to be large; you would lose Howard Morland's "gadgets the size of surfboards that knock down cities," but you might still have the double-digit megaton blockbusters that were the rage in the 1950's delivered by really freaking huge airplanes.

One of those could knock down a city the size of NYC, but its almost certainly a suicide run for the crew and it would have to make a long and perilous journey through air defenses to make its target. It seems that the kind of worry such a reality would create would be very different from what we lived through in the 1960's and 1970's, though. There would be no serious worry that a rogue radar reflection or faulty integrated circuit could inadvertently start a war that would be over in 45 minutes with no real possibility of defense.

It seems like the result might be a pretty dreary dystopia, but not one where the risk exists of random warning-free omnicidal obliteration. I find it interesting to speculate what a citizen of that US or USSR would think of the idea of their country as it existed in our world with less overt shooting war and more freedom at least in the US but that existential threat always lurking in the background.
posted by localroger at 5:31 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

« Older The $3,500 Shirt   |   Aphex Waits: Tom vs Computer Control mashed up by... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments