Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Words I Learned From Infocom, Deluxe Edition

As revealed in the comments section of my original Words Infocom Taught Me post, we learn words from lots of unexpected places. Reading Eugene Ehrlich’s Highly Selective Thesaurus has reminded me of many of them. Now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve decided to write a short series of blog posts, detailing words I’ve learned from various geeky sources. First in line is a fuller list of words from Infocom games, this time complete with definitions and comments explaining the context of each word, for those who don’t know the Infocom canon by heart:

  • analgesic: A medicine to reduce pain.
    [The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I can’t quite believe I forgot this one the first time around. You start the game with a “buffered analgesic” in your inventory — in other words, an aspirin. A trip to the dictionary makes the headache puzzle much easier to solve.]
  • burin: A chisel with a sharp point, used for engraving.
    [Spellbreaker. “Featureless white cubes” are the centerpiece objects of this game, and you need to use your magic burin to engrave them with names, so that they can be distinguished from each other.]
  • cyclopean: Massive, enormous.
    [Spellbreaker again. A memorable room is described as littered with “cyclopean blocks of stone.” I took this to mean “huge rocks”, but I see on looking up the word that it also describes a style of masonry in which large irregular blocks of stone are fitted together to create a structure.]
  • EBCDIC: A binary encoding for text used at IBM, infamous for its incomprehensibility.
    [Zork I and Zork II. The Maintenance Room in Zork I contains this sentence: On the wall in front of you is a group of buttons, which are labeled in EBCDIC. In other words, labeled in such a way as to make their labels totally useless. Again in Zork II: Along one wall of the room are three buttons which are, respectively, round, triangular, and square. Naturally, above the buttons are instructions written in EBCDIC.]
  • footpad: A thief.
    [Zork II. A Frobozz Magic Alarm Company alarm has a sign on the wall reading “Hello, Footpad!”, just before it drops a big cage on you.]
  • gazebo: A freestanding pavilion with an open structure, often found in parks or gardens.
    [Zork II features one of these inside a garden room. It even contains a lovely china teapot, and a unicorn grazes nearby.]
  • gnomon: The part of a sundial that casts a shadow.
    [Trinity. The sundial is a central metaphor in Trinity, and a gnomon is a key component to at least one major puzzle. The game even came with a sundial feelie, complete with gnomon.]
  • infidel: An unbeliever, one who rejects the tenets of a faith.
    [Infidel, of course. The title character of the game is one of the first, perhaps the first, unsympathetic player characters in IF. He is an archaeologist who treats his Egyptian assistants with contempt, leading them to drug his drink and leave him to die in the desert.]
  • menhir: A large, upright standing stone.
    [Zork II again. A room description:
    Menhir Room
    This is a large room which was evidently used once as a quarry. Many large limestone chunks lie helter-skelter around the room. Some are rough-hewn and unworked, others smooth and well-finished. One side of the room appears to have been used to quarry building blocks, the other to produce menhirs (standing stones). Obvious passages lead north and south.One particularly large menhir, at least twenty feet tall and eight feet thick, is leaning against the wall blocking a dark opening leading southwest. On this side of the menhir is carved an ornate letter "F".
  • oubliette: A dungeon whose only door is a hatch in the ceiling, too high to reach.
    [Spellbreaker has an oubliette room — escaping from it is one of the game’s puzzles.]
  • reliquary: A container for sacred relics.
    [This is a treasure container in Beyond Zork, owned by the redoubtable “Cardinal Toolbox.”]
  • reticule: A small handbag held closed with a drawstring, which can be worn around one’s wrist.
    [Plundered Hearts was Infocom’s only game in the romance genre, and its 17th-century heroine carried a reticule around her wrist, an elegant in-character solution to inventory management issues. It even contained one as a feelie. (By the way, I just fired up the game to make sure I knew what I was talking about, and noticed that its very first sentence contains the word “arquebus“, an early firearm!)]
  • skink: A type of lizard.
    [One of Trinity‘s most brilliant puzzles involved the inevitable death of a skink.]
  • topiary: Hedges trimmed to particular shapes.
    [Zork II yet again. Just a few rooms south of that gazebo is this:
    This is the southern end of a formal garden. Hedges hide the cavern walls and mosses provide dim illumination. Fantastically shaped hedges and bushes are arrayed with geometric precision. They have not recently been clipped, but you can discern creatures in the shapes of the bushes: There is a dragon, a unicorn, a great serpent, a huge misshapen dog, and several human figures. On the west side of the garden the path leads through a rose arbor into a tunnel.

    Creepily, the animals sometimes move around when you’re not looking.]
  • sarcophagus: A stone coffin.
    [Both Zork I and Infidel contained one of these as a treasure receptacle.]
  • verbose: Given to excessive wordiness.
    [Of course! Every Infocom game offered a VERBOSE command, which would prompt the game to always print room descriptions. I myself switched into VERBOSE mode long ago.]

It looks like Zork II wins the Infocom top vocabulary builder award!


Where’s my VCR, my stereo, my TV show?



1 Comment

  1. Oubliette… wait, was _Labyrinth_ (movie) before or after _Spellbreaker_? (Wikipedia…) After, okay.

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