Plundered Hearts

by Amy Briggs

Romance , Pirates

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An Arrow in the Sand, January 29, 2024


This is the first line of Plundered Hearts. It is not a player command, but it looks like one. I don't know of any other earlier interactive fiction that begins this way. The text that follows looks like a response from the game, which is followed by a pause captioned with "[Press RETURN or ENTER to begin.]" After that, the game proper commences. The opening paragraphs give every appearance of being an in media res beginning, but they are not -- another actual beginning, also in media res, supplants it after the game's banner is displayed.

Whence that opening interlude? It is never explained within Plundered Hearts, and the scene portrayed, which is clearly not in the same continuity as the rest of the game, is most likely quickly forgotten by the average player. The game comes full circle at the climax moment, however, at which point this very command is the winning move leading to the "best" ending.

My first thoughts were about its similarity to the start of Wishbringer, which opens with the player character's daydream about fighting a dragon. Later, I considered that it might be an extended transition from the instruction booklet's sample transcript, perhaps doubling as hyper-abbreviated tutorial for those who had skipped reading it. Still later, I speculated that it was an excerpt from an alternate version of the scene depicting the player character's first encounter with her love interest, written earlier in the game's development.

According to the game's Invisiclues, the segment's origin is more prosaic: "You are asleep, dreaming this when the pirates attack.", "It's a preview of things to come.", "It's a sample of the writing style of PLUNDERED HEARTS.", and -- perhaps most importantly -- "Romance novels always have teasers of this sort." These are four answers, suggesting four separate purposes. In some ways it seems an echo of the Dreamtime of romance novel genre conventions, deliberately and skillfully inserted straight into the player's subconscious by Briggs (who has studied both psychology and narrative). Based on the Invisiclues answers (which evidence suggests were prepared by Briggs herself), it seems like an attempt to simultaneously reassure the player while preparing them for something different. For the player already familiar with text adventures, a sketch of the protagonist's relatively strong characterization and the game's atypical subject matter. For the player well-versed in romance novels, an illustration of the alien but essential interaction with the parser.

Plundered Hearts is commonly known as Infocom's first (and last) interactive romance novel. Released as the company was leaving its best days behind, it suffered disappointing sales and was widely panned in contemporaneous reviews. Although the marketing department had hoped it would be the bridge to a new market of women players, it sold only about half as well as a typical game. Author Amy Briggs, in an interview with Jason Scott, is blunt in relating that at the time she considered the game to be a failed experiment.

... and yet, here it is in 2023, three and a half decades later, and Plundered Hearts suddenly makes a strong showing on the Interactive Fiction Top 50, placing (alongside others) at a respectable 18th place, where it outshines even Trinity, which was long considered by the community to be Infocom's apex. The game has not changed at all in those years -- so what has?

I can point to Aaron Reed's 2021 analysis of the game as a possible contributor, but I note that Jimmy Maher's broadly similar treatment from 2015 produced no comparable shift in public opinion. Is it just that there's something in the air this year about nautical themes?

Let's look a little more deeply.

Plundered Hearts is remarkably different from most earlier Infocom games. Another review describes it as "story-forward," a useful term to differentiate it from both "puzzleless" and "puzzle" games. There are puzzles here, but they are lightweight by Infocom standards. Every puzzle is eminently fair. Solutions are rooted in the reality of the story world and standard genre tropes -- there is no "moon logic" here, nor anything that comes off more as riddle than as cause-and-effect. In short, these puzzles are not designed to stump; they are designed to engage. Although it is possible to get into an unwinnable state, it is not very likely if even the slightest prudence is exercised. The style of play is very close to the modern norm in which it is simply not possible to become stuck.

Almost shockingly in the context of an Infocom game, several of the significant puzzles have multiple solutions, and by this I mean genuinely viable and effective alternate options for surpassing obstacles. In some previous Infocom games there are false solutions which allow limited progress but will ultimately require restoring or restarting to win (or at least to achieve the maximum score) -- in effect, what looks like an alternate solution turns out to be only a promising-looking dead end, because the story structure takes the form of a maze with only one correct path. Here there is much less of a maze, and the available choices send the player character on separate but equal paths through the story space, enabling different players, using different methods, to finish the story in their own style.

The most direct consequence of this player-friendly design is a total play time on the order of 2 to 4 hours. This is extremely short by Infocom standards, and it seems that many players and reviewers mistook kindness for weakness -- complaints that the game provided too little entertainment for the money were prominent. But in an interview from the Winter 1987 issue of Infocom's marketing publication "The Status Line" (cited by Aaron Reed), Briggs is clear that she designed "a game that [she] wanted to play" -- the kind of experience that Infocom's marketing had been promising to the world on every box with the claim that their games were "like waking up inside a story." Jimmy Maher sums up her success in this endeavor well: "Plundered Hearts might just be the best expression — ever — of the Infocom *ideal* of interactive fiction... There’s a plot thrust — a narrative urgency — that’s largely missing elsewhere in the Infocom canon, coupled with many more of the sorts of things the uninitiated might actually think of when they hear the term 'interactive fiction.'... Amy Briggs took interactive fiction as Infocom preferred to describe it and made her best good-faith effort to live up to that ideal."

There are four "winning" endings to the game. Each of them yields the full total of 25 possible points, but three of the endings inform the player that "There are other, perhaps more satisfying, conclusions." I can't help but draw the parallel to Inform 7's "end the story" vs. "end the story finally" statements; what is standard convention now was something unheard of in 1987. This was an arrow in the sand, pointing the way to a broader definition of interactive fiction. Even Steve Meretzsky's boundary-breaking A Mind Forever Voyaging doesn't escape the straitjacket of convention calling for an endgame puzzle with a single solution, but Plundered Hearts takes a big step into new territory by granting all four endings equal scores, regardless of the outcome of the climax scene.

The game would fit very well in this year's IFComp if it weren't somewhat underimplemented by modern standards. I hasten to point out that the "under" part of that statement is rooted in a perspective influenced by 35 years of evolution of the form (and its supporting technology) since the game's publication, and that the reduced level of implementation is almost certainly entirely a consequence of 1980s technical limitations. The game file is 126K, which is at the absolute limit of size for Infocom's Z3 games. In the same interview with Jason Scott, Briggs describes the need to edit the original version of the game down to a size that would fit on the microcomputers of the era and says that it took months to accomplish. Despite the implication of drastic editing, production notes show that at its most expansive the compiled game was only about 2.5K larger than its final size. Briggs may be referring to cuts to the design on paper, ideas that never made it to code in the first place.

The decision to stick with Z3 (which in particular seemed intended to preserve access to the Commodore 64 market) meant that Briggs had very definite constraints on the realization of her vision. Perhaps the central challenge in designing this work was that by its nature it calls for extensive characterization and character interaction. According to Briggs, Meretzky warned her not to try this story as her first attempt -- while she does not say what specific challenges were anticipated, the most obvious stem from the difficulties inherent in developing characters. Undeterred, she plowed ahead, placing herself into a position where necessity became the mother of invention (mayhap following a brief dalliance with desperation).

Briggs partially solved the problem through the use of cliche. I do not say this as criticism, because I do not think that significant characterization for so many different characters is achievable within the limits of Z3 except through heavy use of cliche. (If you want a character to be different, you have to illustrate the difference, and that takes text.)

The plot is similarly a collection of standard tropes and beats, but I note that the use of cliche does not preclude effective entertainment. Many of the same elements are present in that other famous pirate adventure game of the era: The Secret of Monkey Island. (In a twist of fate that sounds too good to be true, it turns out that Amy Briggs used to babysit Ron Gilbert, the lead designer of Monkey Island, when she was a young lady. See the video interview of Gilbert cited on Briggs' Wikipedia page.)

Conversation was exceptionally dangerous territory; it was always weak in Infocom games due to the ASK/TELL model. The Achilles heel of ASK/TELL is that the frequency distribution of possible topics has a long tail. An NPC with just a few significant responses seems less like a person and more like the virtual automaton that it is. It takes scores of responses to make a suitably "lifelike" NPC (even assuming that responses to a given topic do not vary), and while some players will delight in an NPC that has a wide range of responses, most players will give up quickly after drawing a few generic replies in a row.

Although later non-commercial works such as Galatea, Anchorhead or Lost Pig show that ASK/TELL can work reasonably well, they also show that it requires large amounts of text to be dedicated to conversation. (Compare Lost Pig's single NPC and 279K file size.) The standard dodge was (and often still is) to create an in-game reason that serves as an excuse for an NPC's poor conversation skills -- and indeed this method is used for the characters of Cookie (who is nearly deaf) and the "butler" (who exhibits a stock combination of quiet menace and bland formality).

In the context of ZIL and Z3, where every byte matters, devoting substantial text to responses that have a low probability of being discovered by any single player is simply a bad bet when weighed against the other needs of the game. It is unsuprising that Plundered Heart's ASK/TELL conversation doesn't fare any better than the Infocom average, but Briggs makes use of a new invention for the most critical interaction with NPCs: the YES/NO conversation model, in which the PC must respond to yes/no questions from the NPC. Only an embryonic version of the technique is on display -- fewer than a score of these interactions occur -- but they demonstrate a way to add characterization to both PC and NPC in a very economical manner from the perspective of the programmer. Although similar code can be found in other Infocom games, the technique is generally used to conduct humorous and/or snide metaconversational exchanges between the parser/narrator and the human player; the exception is A Mind Forever Voyaging, where in a minority of instances the technique is deployed to interact with other characters. Plundered Hearts seems to be the first to use YES/NO responses primarily to drive player character actions. (Andrew Plotkin would later use the YES/NO conversation model to great effect in Spider and Web.)

Another innovation worth noting in passing is the game's implementation of clothing -- and layered clothing at that. Though the layering has little functional significance, it seems that the clothing system was a substantial development effort with its own module of about a thousand lines of code (around 5% of the total source by line count). Changing clothes is more than mere disguise, it is a social act within the game, and NPCs frequently react to the PC's outfit -- providing a way of squeezing a little more characterization out of the limited interaction that was possible.

In a further departure from contemporary Infocom norms, hallmarks of the house style of humor are conspicously absent. As pointed out by Jimmy Maher: "There aren’t 69,105 of anything here, no 'hello, sailor' jokes, no plethora of names that start with Zorkian syllables like 'Frob,' no response to 'xyzzy'..." The only whiff of that vein of humor to be found is in the player character's family name of Dimsford, and it is soon forgotten if it is even noticed in the first place. (Exhaustive interaction with the environment will yield a smattering of other jokes in the Infocom style, such as the motto on the Jamison family ring and the name of the piece being played by the band in the ballroom, but these are exceptions that are easy to miss.) The game's playability today is much improved by this choice.

It is very interesting to wonder about what the game would have looked like had Briggs been given the freedom of the Z4 format with its expanded capacity. There are hints due to the release of the Infocom hard drive, such as: the name for a fifth ending called "Femme Fatale," which an associated comment describes as "You desert -- Lafond dead"; a spyglass with a special interaction from the crow's nest of the ship; the possibility of the protagonist injuring her ankle and approaching the mansion along the road north of it; a number of interactions involving Lafond's hat; snipped objects such as a bent key, a candle, and hoops for your frock; and suggestions of a somewhat more lurid style in certain places.

We know that Briggs wanted to do more. In the Jason Scott interview, Briggs recounts her reaction to seeing "Pirates of the Caribbean" for the first time: "*That's* what I was trying to do. That *movie* is what I was trying to get my game to play like -- that whole experience." She wasn't the only one who wanted more action, in a separate anecdote she recounts: "I remember one reviewer just lit into the game because she was trying to karate chop and to do tough guy stuff, and the game wouldn't let her." It simply wasn't possible to do much more than she managed with the materials at hand in 1987.

In the end, the collapse of Infocom and the shift to graphical games was a turning in the tide of history, and Briggs' arrow in the sand was washed away... but not before it was noticed, not before it turned eyes to the horizon and kindled dreams of what distant shores might lie beyond it. Now, in a time when those shores have been charted, pirate-themed interactive fiction continues to be produced in a steady stream -- but has any of it managed to do better than this pioneering first?

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