Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Border Zone

Border Zone
By Marc Blank
Published by Infocom
Release Year: 1987
Version Played: MS-DOS

I've played a lot of Infocom games in my life because I didn't lose my virginity until I was eighteen. Maybe nineteen. Or was it seventeen? It depends on what lie I told you but I assure you I'm not a virgin now. I'm only playing text adventures because sex is so exhausting that I need something to do while my penis heals. Border Zone is not one of the Infocom games I played because just look at that box art. It's fucking boring, right?! Plus it's that weird green or khaki color so it doesn't even match up with all of the other gray on gray with more gray Infocom boxes. Who would want this buggering up the look of their computer game shelf dedicated to Infocom? Aside from that, am I supposed to feel the immediate tension by recognizing those flags and the border dispute it suggests? Probably not because I'm sure one represents the country of Fooblitzky and the other represents the lands of Lord Dimwit Flathead.

Ignoring the purely aesthetic reasons that turned me off from this game, I just wasn't into espionage stories. So if I'm not up on the genre and all of the genre's inherent cliches, how am I going to solve all of the puzzles that demand I know exactly what I'm supposed to do when the guards begin searching all the sleeping compartments on the train?! Am I supposed to put on the fake mustache or just shove the documents straight up my ass? What does the heroic spy usually do?

I have tried to play this game a few times in the intervening years (the ones between the time I was all, "What a suck ass looking Infocom game!", and now where I'm all, "Why am I going to try to play this suck ass looking Infocom game?!") and didn't really enjoy the idea of a timed game. At least I think it was a timed game. Maybe it just felt like a timed game because every move made me think, "Why am I wasting so much time on this game?!" Anyway, it's an Infocom game so I'll probably be hopelessly stuck ten minutes from now.

The main reason I'll probably need to pause the game is to masturbate when I meet the sexy double agent and type, "Fuck sexy double agent then fall asleep".

In the picture above, try not to read the three chapter titles because there's a spoiler in the third one that says "The Assassination." I'm going to forget that's a plot point and start playing "Chapter 1: The Train" because Marc Blank suggested that's what I do.

The protagonist (that's you! The person you play in the game! Or it's me! I'll probably go back and forth using first and second person pronouns so please don't be confused by my amateurish writing style) is just a regular non-spy person who does a little importing and exporting across the Iron Curtain. This game is from 1987 so nobody remembers what the Iron Curtain is anymore. It really wasn't that important anyway, at least not to those of us living on the Western side of it and never had to really think about its implications on the people trapped on the Eastern side of it. Am I supposed to have enough time and compassion to worry about the state of other peoples' worlds when I can barely keep my world from disintegrating?! If you want Levi's, people dumb enough to be born in countries annexed by the USSR after World War II, maybe you should have thought about that up in heaven when God was asking you what uterus you wanted your soul implanted in! Idiots.

The train story begins, as all good espionage train stories do, with a probably dying secret agent breaking into your compartment to hand you the documents that will stop the assassination if only you can get them to another secret agent by responding to a coded phrase with a coded phrase of your own. I think I've practically got this part of the game won! Except I've forgotten both of the phrases already. I should probably restart and make a note of them, right?

Okay, I've figured out what the secret agent will say to me and what I have to respond and I've even translated the sayings into Frobnian because I understand how Infocom games use their non-digital printed material as copy protection! Somebody without the phrase book that comes with the game wouldn't realize that the American agent is telling you the English codes but his contact is Frobnian! I'm so far ahead of Marc Blank right now he would say something like, "Whoa! That guy is super far ahead of me! And totally not a virgin."

As an experienced business man who has dealt with border control for my entire business life (the fictional me in the game! What, you think I actually work for a living?!), I know that I can't just keister the document. The searches at the border are brutal. And I don't have a fake mustache so I'm flummoxed already. Plus the wounded agent left a big blood spatter on the floor of my cabin. So to even make it out off the train so I can meet my contact, I've got to clean up the blood and figure out what to do with the document. The blood was easy but to keep the document, I had to get caught a few times to figure out where the evil trench coat wearing man's interrogation weaknesses lay! Or lie (I knew I should have phrased that differently. Stupid lie/lay is worse than who/whom). Because apparently even if you flush the document down the toilet underneath a huge nervous stomach shit, the border patrol will dig it out and bust you.

So I cleaned up the blood by doing all of the boring and inane steps like turning on the faucet and wetting the towel and turning off the faucet and scrubbing the floor and returning to the bathroom and flushing the towel. In Infocom games, it isn't enough to just tell the protagonist to clean up the blood and then, like a normal adult human being, the protagonist would think, "Oh yeah! I know how to do that! Let me get right to it!" I guess Infocom games are less about ordering some jerk around and more trying to pretend that you are that jerk and that that jerk is kind of stupid.

After cleaning the blood, I had to figure out what to do with the document. No matter where I tried to hide it, border control sniffed it out and traced it back to me. So the only thing to do was to tear it up and shove it up my ass! I mean throw it out the window. But that meant I couldn't complete my mission which really wasn't my mission anyway and why did I care if some ambassador was assassinated?! I didn't ask for this responsibility! It's not my fault if somebody dies today. It's the fault of the clumsy American agent who got himself shot, stumbled upon a useless dolt to complete his mission, and then fell off the roof of the train! I should just throw the document out the window and get on with my life! And maybe I will!

But before I did that — you know, just in case my conscience berates me continuously for the rest of my life — I figured I should probably keep some photographic evidence of the document. After doing so, I couldn't help worrying about how there was another picture left on the roll of film and I was probably going to have to completely restart this stupid game when I realized I needed to take one more picture before removing the film and hiding it up my ass from the border patrol. Stupid Infocom games always have me worried that I'm in a walking dead with a roll of film up my ass scenario!

Being the super chill American businessman turned spy kind of Lothario I am, I totally and easily complete my new mission and probably fuck a hot double agent too! But not the young girl I handed the roll of film to! The double agent was probably older than that!

I know this screenshot is different from the previous screenshot! But the Apple IIe copy I found crashed when you examined your clothes or photographed the document. And the Commodore 64 version seems to think people who play Infocom games are already wasting their lives so why not make every move take an interminable amount of time. So I wound up playing the browser MS-DOS version on

For an Infocom game, that first chapter was simple! All you had to do was act like a boring idiot who totally wasn't involved in political espionage at all and you succeeded! I bet every nerd who tried their hand at this game beat Chapter One. But the next chapter will be different because the player takes on the part of the American spy! What greasy nerd knows how to act suave and sophisticated and super sexy? I mean aside from me! I was born to play this role!

You begin the story of the American Spy after he falls from the roof of the train. He claims he jumped for it but when I was the businessman, I know what I saw! I'm a clumsy oaf! I mean he's a clumsy oaf! No, wait. I guess I am the clumsy oaf! And I'm not clumsy at all! I totally jumped for it and looked hot doing it. Now I just have to survive the freezing weather and try to get past the border patrol or else I'll die out here in the ... BORDER ZONE!

Hopefully I'll also get another chance to fight my rival Viper to the death! Ew, I'll show him! Or her!

Or not! After playing this chapter for about ten minutes, I realize it does every single thing I don't like in text adventures: time limit, characters that go about their business while you're off in other areas, and a puzzle that relies on knowing so much about the timeline that you have to play the scenario dozens of times to work it all out. I feel like I've got the gist of what you have to do (although I'm probably wrong on one key point because I haven't played more than a handful of times) but I'm not sure I'm willing to keep at it. After you bail from the train, the border guards begin searching for you. So you've got some guys in a vehicle driving around and a pack of dogs (not to mention the searchlights and fences at the border) hunting you down. Early on, you have to get to a small house because it has a parka in it to keep you from freezing to death. You have to time this with when the guards arrive to talk to the owner so he's distracted while you sneak in the back. There might be more to do inside the shack other than gather up all the crap in the storage room but, as I mentioned, I haven't really explored the scenario yet in multiple ways.

As a spy, you have an explosive pen on you. It has a timer which means I have to figure out how long to set the timer for and where to stick the pen to get something further in the story to happen. I feel like I have to stick it on the guard's automobile so that it explodes near the border, distracting the guards at the spotlights so I can make a run for the other side. Realizing that that might be the solution is what has really made me dread continuing with this game.

Another puzzle is to get the dogs to stop following you. I'm fairly certain you do that just by putting on the work boots and trudging through the swamp a ways before leaving the swamp in a new location and leaving the boots behind.

If there are any other puzzles (aside from staunching your bleeding gun shot wound), I haven't found them. I suppose the biggest one is sneaking about to get the pen on the guard's car and figuring out how long to set the timer for. Do I want to bother with that? I feel like that's the big puzzle that allowed Infocom to tack on hours and hours of gameplay to Border Zone. Because now I have to follow the car around to see where it goes and how long I'll need to set the timer for and where I'll need to be when the pen blows up. I have other things to do with my life, Marc Blank! I mean, they're not very important things. But they're things I'd rather be doing than messing around with the timer on my imaginary explosive pen! I'm not cut out to be a spy, especially when that spy has to know things he couldn't possibly know on the first playthrough of this game. Does Marc Blank know how real life works?!

Oh, your argument is that this is a game and not real life and that maybe I should chill out about it?! Well if this game is a game and not real life, why the fuck does everything keep moving along even when I'm not entering any commands?! Who wants to play a text adventure like that?! Even Bioshock doesn't demand that kind of effort out of the player. Bioshock is the only other game I could come up with. It isn't even a fair comparison. If Border Zone were a first person shooter, I'd absolutely finish this chapter! I could see the guards moving and physically hide from them. I could observe how everything moves in the game by following them around. But in a text adventure, it's fucking impossible. Sure, the game tells me if the dogs are to the north or the west. But when I'm hiding behind the shack, it sure would be a lot easier to figure out what I'm doing if I could see the guards interacting with the owner of the shack and milling about searching the premises! I don't think my imagination is good enough to handle this bullshit tension. I'm so fucking stressed out right now!

Apparently you can get close to the border without doing any of the stuff I previously mentioned except stealing everything from the storage room.

It doesn't seem like I've done enough before getting to the border but I guess I should explore this area a little more before writing Marc Blank a letter about how terrible some of his decisions were early in his career. I suppose I need to use my explosive pen here to blow a hole through the fence which I won't be able to climb through because the guards will hear it. Unless I time the explosion to blow when both guards are at the same spot, killing them? Then can I rush through in the chaos?! Figuring out the answer to that means doing math, I bet! That's because you get a timer and a little ASCII display of the guards' motion as you watch them. This is way too hard! I miss the Infocom days when you could just type "kill thief with sword" and hope the random number generator gave you a good result.

Once you get through the fence, you can climb up a guard tower where there's a bolted ladder leading up to a locked door with a guard inside. But even if you can hide on the metal bit bracing the ladder, knock on the door, and shove the stupid guard off of the tower, you still can't jump across the border from the top of the tower. You just wind up dead. Which is when I thought, "Hey! I need the exploding pen for this part! I bet I can just climb over the fence and save the explosives for this scene!" And I was almost completely and absolutely right except for a few small details which would have frustrated the fuck out of me if I hadn't gotten completely lucky on restarting Chapter Two to try out my new solutions.

You see, there's a small shed in the forest near the shack. A small shed that is almost impossible to find due to my apathetic attitude toward mapping Border Zone and the way every location is described as "You move 100 yards north and find you're still in the snowy forest. What did you expect, jerk?!" Sure, the shed has been drawn on the map that came with the game so that people who actually purchased Border Zone would have explored long enough to find it. And I have access to that map because everything is free on the Internet. Right? Am I making a terrible assumption there? Um, anyway, when I restarted, due to not having mapped, I couldn't remember exactly how to get to the shack before the guards got there. While stumbling around lost, I found the shed with the rubber gloves and bolt-cutters inside. And like in most text adventure games that aren't Infocom, the main puzzle was simply finding the right items where they were hidden. Because as soon as I found the bolt-cutters, I knew I had this chapter beat.

What I didn't know was that the border fence I'd previously blown up to get through was electrified! Luckily, I had found the rubber work gloves right there with the bolt-cutters. Marc Blank practically gave that puzzle's solution away for free! Idiot. He should have hid the gloves somewhere in the forest where you weren't ever clued in to dig in the snow. That's more like a proper 80s text adventure! Of course, that's not Infocom's way! Infocom wants you to succeed! They want you to realize you wasted the pen explosive and needed a new solution where you use the pen to blow up the tower so that it falls over the border fence with you inside of it! But at least in the actual solution, you still get to push that stupid Frobnian Nazi off of the tower. Eat snow, grumblebutt!

I'll accept my Champeen of Infocom crown now.

Chapter Three
The first two chapters were way too easy for Infocom games so I'm really nervous about this third chapter. Have I just gotten more brilliant as I've grown older or did Marc Blank save all of his dreadful Infocom ingenuity for this final chapter?! Hopefully this chapter doesn't have dozens of NPCs whom I've got to track across multiple playthroughs just to figure out where I should be every minute of the scenario. I really do prefer text adventure games with static environments that simply react to the things I do. I'm already stressed out thinking about my race against the clock to save the ambassador! Remember when I didn't even care if the ambassador died during the first chapter?! Why am I suddenly invested in saving that asshole?!

In this chapter, I'm the sexy double agent!

The sexy double agent is also — and this is a huge spoiler for all you Infocom fanatics who just haven't, for some reason, gotten around to playing all of the Infocom games — Viper, the man in the trench coat trying to get the documents back from the importer/exporter in the first chapter! If that's the case, you'd think I could just go to a coffee shop and hang out for the rest of the game. If I'm trying to stop the people trying to stop the assassination, then can't I just stop trying to stop those people so they can stop the assassination?! Maybe if I just hit "z" and "enter" until this chapter ends, everything will work out for the best!

Seventeen in-game minutes later, the ambassador has been shot and killed. What the fuck?! How incompetent are the American spies? I guess that's why I'm a double agent. Because I'm double the agent all of these other jerks are. I guess I need to get to work saving the day all by myself! If only that stupid American businessman had given me the documents, I could have saved the day myself. Except when I did get the documents in Chapter One, the game still ended with the ambassador getting assassinated. I should just get on with saving the day already. I bet when I'm done, I'll run into Topaz (that was my secret agent name in Chapter Two, apparently) and we'll share a deep, passionate kiss.

I do run into Topaz chilling at a coffee shop exactly like I was planning to do!

I guess Topaz doesn't feel the same way that I feel about him.

Topaz is probably still important to the story, so I decide to leave him alone for now as I got about my double agent business of stopping the assassination that I put into place. It's actually not too hard to do if I don't mind sacrificing the rest of my double agent career. I meet my contact, learn the sniper's password, figure out what window he's sniping out of (by checking the apartment directory, you just have to find which eastern facing apartment is empty on the fifth floor (maybe other floors sometimes but it always seemed to be the fifth floor on my multiple restarts)), and go shoot him in the back. But that puts a lot of suspicion on you and you wind up pushing papers in Siberia. Better to trick Topaz into stopping the assassination! I guess that's why you have to save his life in Chapter Two.

To do that, you have to get him to chase you back to the sniper's nest without getting caught by him or the local police. At one point, you get to push over a hot dog vendor's cart so it really feels like you're in an action movie and also that you're a fucking prick. Once you lead Topaz back to the sniper, the difficult part was not also being killed by Topaz. After making him a huge hero, he kept shooting me in the face because he's a huge bastard whom I wish I never helped cross the border now! At first I thought, "Well, this is an Infocom game. It was bound to get difficult at some point! And I guess one or two moves away from completing the game is as good a time as any to get stuck." But then I thought, "Well, even though the sniper doesn't let me move or do anything, and the sniper's apartment is completely bare, maybe I can try to hide so Topaz doesn't fucking murder me when he kicks in the door?"

Oh fuck. Easy as that, was it?!

And with that final move to hide in plain sight, I fucking defeat Marc Blank! You stupid son of a bitch! You thought you were so clever, didn't you? "Oh, look at me! I'm an Infocom imp! I write the hardest text adventure games in the world and I only mattered for like four years in the early to mid eighties because I hitched my star to the most boring entertainment ever! Only stupid virgin assholes would keep playing the games I wrote, the dumb bastards!"

Hey! Fuck you, Marc Blank! How did that Marc Blank imaginary soliloquy get away from me so badly?! Anyway, suck on this, Marc:

Seriously though. I can't believe I beat this game without any hints. I'm fucking chuffed.


Game Title: Not great since it basically drove me away from this game for years. I suppose if you're into espionage stories, it's a great title because it's so evocative of crossing a border! That's like the hardest challenge in the espionage genre! I think. I'm not a fan so what the fuck do I know? My favorite espionage movie is Run, Lola, Run. Does that count as espionage? I guess that's more heist fucks time travel while fingering romance's anus.
Puzzles: As far as modern day Interactive Fiction "rules" go, the puzzles in Border Zone are terrible. Nearly all of them rely on playing through and losing dozens of times to see how the NPCs react to different situations. It's the only way to learn how they behave so you can act accordingly. But compared to a non-Infocom game, the puzzles were generally satisfying. Because of the way the game works, I'm not even sure some of the things I did were solutions to puzzles or just wasting my time. Did I have to go through the swamp to lose the dogs or could I have just done everything quicker? Were there alternate ways to solve puzzles or were things like the binoculars and the wood saw in Chapter Two just red herrings? Generally, once I saw the way the other characters reacted, it wasn't long before I figured out how to thwart them. I believe Marc Blank was relying on some puzzles to be difficult due to the player losing track of the story. Like in Chapter One, you can get all the way to the end and still get caught when you try to pass the documents to your contact because you were wearing the stupid white carnation the entire time. But once you realize you seem to have done everything correctly and some guy on the platform is still following you, it's not hard to realize you need to not stand out and to keister that stupid flower until you actually need it.
Gameplay: Fucking annoying. I hate adventure games where the story continues no matter what you do. I hate timed adventure games. Border Zone decided not only to use those two aspects I hate but to invent a third one that — Hey! Guess what?! — I hated even more: time passes even when you're not typing! Is there a word that means both "innovative" and "Goddamned fucking annoying as fuck"? Whatever it is, Marc Blank should copyright it.
Graphics: Normally for a text adventure, I'd say none and be done with it. But this one did have graphics! It had a little ASCII bit to show two guards marching around the base of three towers! And it absolutely did nothing for me because the dumb guards barely even notice you when you cut through the fence silently instead of blowing a huge hole in it. Hell, even after blowing a hole in the fence, the idiots keep to their regular patrol only slightly more alert due to hearing an explosion.
Concept: I think I more than adequately covered my apathy toward the concept. I will compliment Marc Blank for his work in making a game about a really stressful experience into a really stressful experience. Good job, jerk!
Fun Time: I keep forgetting to track the amount of time it takes me to play these games. Maybe I'll get better at it eventually. But I think I spent maybe six hours (at most. I might even drop that to four or five) playing this game over the last week and a half? I did think about it more than that though. But not a lot more. And the third chapter which I thought would be dreadfully hard took the least amount of time of all. Probably not even an hour. The good news is that the amount of "fun time" I had with this game is equal to the amount of time I played it. That doesn't often happen. Usually the "fun time" gets expended quickly and I force myself to trudge through the rest of the game, adding the experience to the long list of things I'll regret when a doctor finally says to me, "You have three months to live due to your malignant finger cancer caused by typing."

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