[Wandrell] Infocom takes us back to the times of Cold War, in a classic tale of spies the two blocks collide, and only you can stop an evil plot before time runs out.
[Herr M.] That is, the authors throw you in the role of three of the said spies, who find themselves in a small imaginary country near the west-east border, where a high ranking ambassador is going to be assassinated.
[Mr Creosote] Now, I would bet that at least half of our readers don't even remember the Cold War firsthand. When the game was released in the late 1980s, it was still very much alive, though, in spite of the slowly developing, but still very fragile attempts at Perestroika and Glasnost.
[Wandrell] And that war didn't consist only on fearing the bomb. As any old spies film will show you, and also as its name implies, one of the biggest fears of that time was having a secret war, one where dirty tactics are accepted and which can begin anywhere, played by hidden soldiers.
[Herr M.] So, although it is a fictional tale (noticeable by the action oriented storyline), it did play on very real fears, which shows in the relatively serious setting. Yes there is a slightly humorous touch to it, but to me it seemed to be a comperatively sober Infocom game.
[Mr Creosote] This certainly isn't the Cold War in its James Bond variety, i.e. fast cars and fast girls. Though the game is still not all that far from your typical spy thriller of the time. What's most noticeable is that the game seems to be almost disinterested in its own plot, focussing on typical scenes of the genre instead.
[Wandrell] Yes, there is an important man who is going to get killed, but who he actually is, and even less why he should die, is barely touched. It just moves the events forward, and the plot centers more on each of the three characters and their attempts to stop the crime and survive.
[Herr M.] Which makes the game all the more involving: Putting a focus on the real threat, namely your character getting caught, shot or killed otherwise, does for definitely more tight situations than being told over and over again how important it is to keep the target alive. In a way this also shows you first hand why you should bother preventing the crime from happening, because you wouldn't want to happen something like this to another person.
Be Really Fast
[Mr Creosote] The obvious question now is: How does an action centric approach fit with a text adventure? Even more so than the already evolving graphic adventures, their text-based ancestors always held the distinction of occuring in turn-based fashion. Meaning as long as the game waited for player input, nothing would happen. Border Zone makes quite a bold step in this respect by having the game take place in real time. Meaning time will progress even as the player is thinking.
[Wandrell] Of course, you can slow it down, but still you have a tight time frame to act, and each action will take away even a few vital seconds.
[Herr M.] Though the overall time frame is somewhat generous in the beginning, it gets nearly unforgiving towards the end, which can only be finished in time, if you know exactly what you have to do. That is unless you are a very fast typer, for that's the main factor when it comes to deciding how long an action takes. In some very tight situations, it really pays off to write your commands in advance, since you just might not write fast enough.
[Mr Creosote] You're both mainly talking about planning how long the player actions take, but that far, this game is not different from other text adventures. What makes it special is that time also progresses while there is no action from the player. So there is never any time for long contemplation before you take action like you're used to from the other entries to the genre and it even goes as far as typing speed becoming an issue as you said.
[Wandrell] But that has the biggest effect early, as once you get used to it the pressure is reduced. Still the psychological pressure is there and you will end up making silly mistakes, like suddendly finding you are talking with an enemy agent while your hands are filled with incriminating evidence, or running at random with a bunch of dogs on your trail. All just because you know time will run out if you think too much.
[Herr M.] One of the most interesting aspects is that there are things that simply happen, even if you do nothing. You can stand by and watch the whole action take place, and it makes for a totally different story, than the one you (probably) wanted to happen. You are told by special messages if something time critical takes place (like said dogs, whose position relative to you is constantly changing), and if those are starting to fill up your screen, you probably should start to do something. Yes, there is a certain pressure to it, which tends to cause overreactions.
[Mr Creosote] Apart from the technical changes which were undoubtedly necessary to make this possible, this changes the style of playing tremendously. If you consider a game like Deadline, representing the classic approach of a timing based game, it would indeed be about doing the right things at the right time, too. However, you would have as much time as you liked to consider what the right things would be, how to phrase and commit them. Here, you don't. Appropriately, the puzzles are not all that much of a challenge with regards to complicated or convoluted logic. Most of the player's tasks are very straightforward if you just read them in consecutive order. It's just the time factor which turns them into a challenge.
[Wandrell] On the other hand, you are forced to retry a lot, and keep lots of savegames, as puzzles are made in such a way that, you could say, you have to peel away the skin, revealing the solution part by part. Because there is always something you forgot just due to not taking the time to look around better.
[Herr M.] It's getting to the point where you simply can't solve a puzzle without failing at it at least once. There are situations which only make sense when you take a more retroactive look at them. Especially one puzzle in the middle, about a falling tower, comes to my mind. It makes absolutely no sense until you saw how things went. In a way it is somewhat more interesting, since it adds a 'fourth' dimension to the puzzles, but at times it does need an unusual amount of trial and error.
[Mr Creosote] So, in conclusion, you could say that this is quite a successful attempt at making an action game in text adventure format. Or at least as close it could possibly get.
[Wandrell] Even though there are a few weird experiments, such as the 'actionish' minigames in the second chapter, the game for the most part works great. Still I would say being so easy and relatively short helps a lot, and in that respect it goes as far as including a hints system to stop you from ever getting stuck for too long. You can't make action complicated.
[Herr M.] It might be short and somewhat easy, but it invites you to try different approaches and get as many endings as possible. There is quite a lot you can do beside following the main story line, which cries for some experimenting.
Three Points of View
[Herr M.] Still, while the game does offer a somewhat clichéd plot, there is something else besides its presentation that does make for an interesting twist: It's seperated into three chapters, with each of them telling you a small part of a larger story, and you will only get the bigger picture after finishing all of them.
[Warning: The following passages contain minor spoilers! If you want to avoid them go right to The Whole Story]
[Mr Creosote] The first episode puts the player in the shoes of a businessman on the way back to the 'west'. The setting is one of the classic ones of the spy genre: a train coming close to the border. All of a sudden, a secret agent enters his compartment. The man is badly wounded.
[Herr M.] This setup actually is that classic that in an instance I knew what to do. The first chapter probably is really the easiest if you think inside a spy film kind of frame.
[Wandrell] But it is also the most tense one, as you know the enemy agent is getting closer while combing the wagon, and you have to get rid of the documents. The way of handling the problem is very clear, but still the first time I got a funny scene where he entered my room and saw it full of incriminating evidence.
[Mr Creosote] Agreed, it's a great introduction, because the player's task is very straightforward: Smuggle the documents the agent gave you across the border without arousing the suspicion of the secret police. You see the enemy agents checking up on everybody on the train, so the danger and time limit are communicated clearly.
[Herr M.] It is also a very obvious threat, while the threats in the other ones are a bit more subtle and in the last part not necessarily directed at you.
[Wandrell] Still it makes a mistake from my point of view. The last objective, meeting the contact, is completely random. The passcode is random, and the encounters are mostly random. Also it took me a long time finding you have to quote the passcode for it to work.
[Mr Creosote] So what's the problem with that? You get the phrasebook with the game.
[Wandrell] The problem is I always said 'say passcode', and you have to say 'say "passcode"'.
[Herr M.] It's also not that obvious when you say the right word.
[Wandrell] Still, once you know the quoting thing you can just say the word to everybody you meet.
[Mr Creosote] OK, the thing about the quotation marks is a typical text adventure fallacy, I guess: The game being picky about the input where it shouldn't be.
The other thing which struck me about the first episode, though, is that this sort of time pressure would probably have worked just as well in a classic turn-based fashion, i.e. with the secret police advancing towards your compartment. What do you think?
[Herr M.] No, actually I think here the real-time elements work the best, since you have an active time limit. It really felt like trying to outsmart that agent.
[Wandrell] I think, as I had said, that the time pressure is mostly psychological here.
[Herr M.] Exactly.
[Mr Creosote] So what would be different psychologically if you just had a turn limit?
[Wandrell] It's just the feeling of the agent coming. It may sound silly, but just knowing he is coming, instead of knowing there is a number of turns before he comes changes things.
[Herr M.] The difference is also that with a turn based setup you have time to think. You would think a lot about what to do.
[Mr Creosote] Well, I used the PAUSE command generously.
[Herr M.] Pausing in this game is actually cheating. And it cuts you out of said feeling of urgency.
[Mr Creosote] OK, I seem to be in the minority here, as even a turn limit would give me that pressure. In any case, what is stopping me from thinking about the issue while I'm not even playing the game? That's not really different, is it?
[Herr M.] Yes you could think about it while you aren't playing, but the feeling while playing would still be a different one.
[Wandrell] Well, the time pressure erodes as you keep retrying, that's for sure.
[Herr M.] Yes, because you notice you have an abundance of time.
[Mr Creosote] This is all quite different in the second episode: In this one, you take over the role of said American agent who now just got rid of the compromising documents and who then jumped from the train. He's still being chased, though, and he has to make it across the border. So the whole episode is one frantic chase scene.
[Wandrell] Dogs chasing, a car travelling through the road and a border fence filled with soldiers. Dangers everywhere.
[Herr M.] And besides knowing that there is a border nearby, you have no real clue what to do, where to go! Actually I felt totally lost… which was kind of fitting.
[Mr Creosote] Well, there are pressing issues right away: a gaping bullet wound and you're freezing to death. So apart from the 'long term' goal of crossing the border, you are somehow lead towards the obvious steps.
[Wandrell] It took me a long time getting to the wood storage shed. I knew where it was, it appears on the map, but I always ended back in the forest.
[Herr M.] Oh yes, the wooden shed! It also took me ages to 'find' it. Especially since there is no clue you should go there (besides it being on the map), or even why.
[Wandrell] And don't forget the cold. Actually I got the clothes fast enough to forget about that part, and then the dogs appeared…
[Herr M.] The dogs were one of the few times I actually had to look something up in the hint system. They got me every time!
[Mr Creosote] Oh, come on, have you never watched a prison escape movie?
[Herr M.] Well yes, but it did work somehow different to that.
[Mr Creosote] Getting rid off the dogs? Exactly like in those movies, I would say.
[Herr M.] OK, I just didn't think cineastically enough then. I simply thougt I had to be fast enough.
[Wandrell] I just went into the swamps. Why? Because I had the boots, and there was a swamp. Later I found out it was what I had to do. But it was just applying game logic.
I had problems later, just because I didn't think about examining the pen. Well, I thought it would be for the tourniquet, but as I didn't need it I forgot about it.
[Herr M.] Well I think that's the problem: You have to do a lot of things here, more than in the other chapters, and you can easily miss something important.
[Mr Creosote] All that is nothing, in my opinion, against the finale of this episode, though: First you have to run through the blind spots of searchlights moving at different paces, avoid guards and plant some explosives while timing all this exactly right with at least three cross-dependencies.
[Wandrell] That part is very random, sometimes they see you, others they don't. And crossing the headlights was just trying to go north until you managed to cross.
[Herr M.] Actually there is a pattern to the searchlights, but I didn't bother to find it out: Simply dashing through was just too effecitve.
[Mr Creosote] Each part (e.g. the pattern of the searchlights), seen for itself, is mathematically solvable, but the combination (with the movements of the guards and the explosion) is pretty deadly. It took me countless attempts. Especially in the portion with the searchlights, though, I got the distinct impression that this would be more convenient to do in a graphical game. Similar scenes with searchlights and guards can be found in various other games. Noctropolis comes to mind. The same sequence is a piece of cake there, as the information what is facing where can be picked up much more intuitively.
[Herr M.] The border really is the trickiest part. And I wholeheartedly agree, that this scene would have benefited from graphics! And the falling tower, as said above, must be the weakest puzzle of them all.
[Mr Creosote] The falling tower is definitely backwards logic.
[Wandrell] Well, it's clear what to do there, just not where to do it.
[Herr M.] Was any of you fast enough to solve the tower puzzle without pretyping the commands?
[Wandrell] You can make macros?
[Mr Creosote] You can chain commands w endith full stops.
[Herr M.] So you did write the commands one after another?
[Wandrell] I did. I just waited until both guards had their backs facing the tower. Still, it's very random when they see you or not.
[Mr Creosote] Actually, though, I had the problem of having too much time in this sequence. The guards kept breaking into the tower to get me.
[Wandrell] When I got inside the tower the guards yelled that I had 15 seconds left. Actually, there were 12 seconds until the bomb exploded.
[Mr Creosote] The guards warn you that they will kill you if you don't come out in 15 seconds. If your bomb timer runs out before that, you win. If it comes after that, you lose.
[Wandrell] Still, it's not hard to set the timer correctly, as it's always a number of minutes.
[Herr M.] Furthermore, I think this chapter was a lot more fun, when you did things you weren't supposed to do. Like placing the detonator where it isn't intended to go off.
[Wandrell] On the car for example? I managed to blow it up, but never had time to take a look, with the dogs around and all.
[Herr M.] Yes, for example. I even tried to blow up the dogs by dropping the detonator next to my shoes. That was before I learned how to throw them of my tracks the 'official' way.
[Mr Creosote] I agree, it is impressive how many theoretical options are implemented in the game.
[Herr M.] I think it's even one of the most impressive features. I can only advise anyone to try doing as many crazy things as possible.
[Wandrell] But there is only one right way. The other ones end in a not-so-bad ending, but still not the good one.
[Herr M.] And I think that's one of its main flaws too, because in the end it still feels very railroaded: You can leave the tracks, but this leads you nowhere.
The Double Agent
[Mr Creosote] Finally, the third episode puts you in the shoes of an apparent member of the eastern secret police who, in fact, is a double agent working for the western side. So he has to double cross basically everybody, preventing the assassination while making it appear as if he did his duty in front of his superiors.
[Wandrell] He is the enemy agent on the first part, isn't he?
[Mr Creosote] Yes.
[Herr M.] From a story point of view I think this is the most ingenious part, because it sheds a whole new light on the other ones.
[Mr Creosote] Indeed, it makes it clear that the ruse the businessman tried was in fact seen through by the enemy agent – just that he wasn't an enemy agent. That explains why he goes so easy. Even if you raise too much suspicion in the first part he never stops you, unless it's obvious you have the documents.
[Herr M.] But the reappearence of the character from the second part makes for an interesting change of view, too. And it's played to a very interesting effect. Actually it adds a whole lot of depth to the rather simple setup.
[Wandrell] Yes, the character in the second chapter changes a lot when it is seen from the enemy's perspective.
[Mr Creosote] Plot-wise, I have to agree that this construction is very clever. Gameplay-wise, I had issues with this episode.
[Herr M.] For example?
[Mr Creosote] You mentioned it earlier with respects to the second episode; this third one was the one which I could only solve by chaining as many commands as possible. This 'slow chase' (trying to keep the enemy agent on one's trail, but not letting him catch you) was really tough.
[Wandrell] You have the exact time for it.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, and not one second more.
[Wandrell] As long as you don't visit the contact, and don't get the vital password, all is fine.
[Herr M.] Funnily, I had no problems there, I even had to wait for him to catch up.
[Mr Creosote] To make matters worse, it's not really completely clear which apartment the assassin is in.
[Herr M.] Isn't it? I think I could always tell.
[Wandrell] According to the hints, it's the one that is empty.
[Mr Creosote] Sometimes, there are two empty apartments right next to each other which both fit the description.
[Wandrell] I think the real solution is checking each one. After noticing the open windows.
But also, I think the position changes each time you play, doesn't it?
[Herr M.] Yes it's random, so it could be that there are sometimes two empty ones, though it never happened to me.
But another thing I find interesting in this episode is, that there are two somewhat 'good' endings, though in one of them your character does face some consequences, which are still not that severe than in the other ones.
[Wandrell] I wouldn't consider it good, because he sacrifices his career.
[Herr M.] Yes, but he lives, and the crime is prevented.
[Mr Creosote] Well, each ending is interesting. So replayability is definitely there, not just because of being forced to try and retry.
[Spoilers end here.]
The Whole Story
[Herr M.] Which really is a good thing, since the game is relatively short. How long did the episodes actually take you to finish?
[Mr Creosote] If you know what to do and don't run into too many timing problems, each episode probably takes about ten minutes, I would say.
[Wandrell] I would say it takes one afternoon each. But yes, knowing what to do, minutes, maybe more for the second.
[Mr Creosote] And as I said earlier, learning what you have to do is not all that complicated as there aren't even that many options.
[Herr M.] But I think it's also a good thing insofar as that it would be really hard to keep up the tension much longer. And you would need hundreds of savegames.
[Wandrell] Just 28 savegames in my case.
[Mr Creosote] It is one of the shorter Infocom games, but not in the same extreme as Witness. I would say it was a good decision not too make things too complex in such an experimental game.
[Wandrell] But you have to replay a few times to get it all clear in your head.
[Herr M.] It's fascinating, how not only the puzzles, but also the whole game works retroactively. A lot of things only make sense in hindsight.
[Wandrell] Such as why the enemy agent goes soft on you if he sees evidences in the first chapter.
[Mr Creosote] This is interesting, because each episode does a good job of getting you focused on the character you're playing. You know about as much as this character would and nothing more.
[Herr M.] At least you don't need to know more than your character does, to finish the episode, which also is a sign of a good design.
[Mr Creosote] The progression of the three protagonists is interesting anyway: First, you have the classic Hitchcockian hero, i.e. an unsuspecting man being thrown into a crazy situation. Second, you have the professional agent who seems to be the classic tough guy lead. Third, you have the even more sophisticated agent who plays them all.
[Wandrell] The last part feels a bit like Day of the Jackal, but with the characters mixed.
[Mr Creosote] While the first part is The Lady Vanishes, or even more appropriately the lesser known Background to Danger (very similar). Any bets for the second part?
[Herr M.] Well I wish I could come up with something for that one. I have to say though, that the overall plot really is a fine blend of archetypical spy film clichés.
[Mr Creosote] In this respect, I have absolutely no complaints. The plot turns out to be much more intricate than you'd first expect. The interweaving of the episodes is excellent.
[Wandrell] It feels like a spy thriller.
[Mr Creosote] And I can add that I love this kind of novel/film.
[Herr M.] Actually I am not all that into those films, but I still enjoyed the game very much. Which does say something about its qualities.
[Mr Creosote] I also have to admit that I appreciate the boldness of going at this genre without any compromises, i.e. going straight for the action. As far as the execution of this action is concerned, I'm much less enthusiastic, though.
[Wandrell] Apart from the final part on the second chapter, I don't think that was handled badly.
[Herr M.] Considering the age of the game, I think even that part wasn't all that bad.
[Mr Creosote] I wouldn't say it was handled badly. Actually, it was probably handled as well as it could possibly have been. I wouldn't really know how to improve it in general. It's just that for me, this game does show the limits of the text format. Tasks which should be trivial suddenly become quite a chore.
[Wandrell] Well, that's why graphical adventures appeared after all.
[Mr Creosote] I would argue that this was not the reason why graphic adventures finally killed text-based ones
[Herr M.] It might not be the final reason, but it certainly was one of the reasons, why graphic adventures are a lot more popular. Or why there weren't any real-time text adventures after that. Or were there?
[Mr Creosote] There are other real-time text games, one major database lists (at the time of writing) 44 of them. Still, compared to thousands of text adventures on the whole, this is quite a tiny niche.
[Wandrell] IF works better with slow interaction, I guess.
[Herr M.] When you have time enough to actually read and think.
[Mr Creosote] I really like the first episode. Unfortunately, just that one alone is too short and it's, as we said, on a very basic introductory level. Both the following episodes, while interesting from the plot point of view and ultimately still relatively fair, have sequences which are a little too annoying rather than thrilling.
All of these scenes I dislike are well embedded into the spy genre, so it's hard to criticise them, but what the hell – in the end, it's about the player's fun.
[Wandrell] I don't have any problem with the third, except for being so tight on time that you have to skip things you shouldn't.
[Mr Creosote] On the drawing board, though, this game is really well constructed. So it's hard to criticise it on a factual level.
[Herr M.] I also liked the first the best, closely followed by the third and somewhat off a rather weak second chapter. The last one probably for the action-sequences, which really don't work all that well.
[Wandrell] I suppose we all think the same on that respect.
[Mr Creosote] Certainly, this was an ambitious game, probably driven by the market pressure on the text adventure genre in general at the time. Turns out it was not the idea which saved the genre commercially, though.
[Wandrell] When decent graphics started to become common, there was no saving. But yes, this was a good attempt.
[Mr Creosote] Infocom's own final attempts went into the direction of having still pictures along with the scenes and exposing the parser, i.e. turning it into a multiple choice menu. No further real-time games from them.
[Herr M.] Well, to sum things up a bit: What would you say is the ultimate pros and cons of this game? Why should the readers pick it up? Is there a reason to avoid it?
[Mr Creosote] It's definitely not the right game for beginners of the text adventure genre. Although the puzzles are easy to solve intellectually, they are quite devious to carry out the solution.
[Wandrell] I would say this is noob friendly. I have not played that many IFs, yet I had few problems here, and the hint system solves anything left. Except for a few things, like not knowing how to write an instruction, there was no real IF related issue.
[Herr M.] Actually I think the hint system is rather a downside to the game: It's far to tempting to look things up. But yes, it does make it beginner-friendly.
[Mr Creosote] What was your background with this genre prior to Border Zone?
[Herr M.] Well I would name those old Sierra parser games, which are kind of text adventures with some 'graphics' stuck on top of them. Besides that I have finished the Zork series and a couple of other Infocom games. So I would say somewhere in the middle: Neither a beginner, nor a real veteran.
Still I noticed, that things do run a bit different here than in the other Infocom titles.
[Wandrell] I must say I think I have played more Inform7 and other modern languages IFs than classical ones.
[Mr Creosote] Interesting. So seeing especially Wandrell's statement, I'm probably wrong thinking this is not beginner friendly. Still, I would always recommend newbies to try something like Moonmist rather than this one.
[Herr M.] I think, no matter what kind of text adventure experience you have, it surely will appeal to you, if you like a lot of experimenting combined with a story with quite some interesting twists.
[Mr Creosote] I would recommend it for its treatment of its spy theme any time, though. It's much more interesting in this respect than most similarly-themed adventure games I've played.
[Herr M.] Yes, it does capture the feeling of such movies perfectly.
[Mr Creosote] So, for me, an interesting game, but not one of the really great ones.
[Wandrell] I think that anybody who feels curious about why the hell people played text games should take a look at this one, and probably will get surprised.