The game genres that typically dominate the discourse of game studies, from role-playing games with their questing heroes to simulation games with their emphasis on settler and/or military aggression, are associated with masculinity. Romance, when it exists at all, is a footnote that follows the same rules of conquest and victory as other models of masculine play: princesses are rescued, lovers are “won.” This article argues that the very decision to design romantic play is an act of feminist game design. Its examination of Plundered Hearts, released by Infocom in 1987 and designed by Amy Briggs, positions the contributions of romantic play as an essential part of the history of feminist games. It traces Briggs's contributions as a feminist designer, including her design of playable women characters and her engagement with nontraditional methods of play in Plundered Hearts,and contrasts her work with that of her peers.
The game genres that typically dominate the discourse of game studies, from role-playing games with their questing heroes to simulation games with their emphasis on settler and/or military aggression, are associated with masculinity. Romance, when it exists at all, is a footnote that follows the same rules of conquest and victory as other models of masculine play: princesses are rescued, lovers are “won.” Examinations of romance as a genre of play have been limited. Shira Chess's feminist critique, one of very few, refers to it as a “strange bedfellow,” noting that “the masculine hegemony of the video game industry creates specific genre expectations about video games” that don't leave much space for love stories.1 Players looking for romantic play would be hard-pressed to find what they seek in gaming stores or review sites. Even AdventureGamers.com, a site dedicated to narrative games with more than two decades of archives, does not list romance as a genre but does have separate headings dedicated to thriller, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy.
Given this hegemony and erasure, the decision to feature romance in play can be viewed as an act of feminist game design, but one not readily recognizable given the genre's own troubled history of traditional femininity and compulsory heterosexuality. This examination of Plundered Hearts, released by Infocom in 1987 and designed by Amy Briggs, positions the contributions of romantic play as an essential part of the history of feminist games. It traces Briggs's contributions as a feminist designer through her work at Infocom, her design of playable women characters, and her engagement with nontraditional methods of play in Plundered Hearts, and contrasts her work with that of her historical peers.
Plundered Hearts falls out of the boxes in which we typically categorize games and games history. The only Infocom text game written by a woman (Liz Cyr-Jones was credited on Beyond Zork  and Hollywood Hijinx , but not as lead), it was an exception and a novelty that one reviewer at the time noted had gone practically un-marketed compared to its well-promoted peers.2,Plundered Hearts was unabashed in its salute of romance novels, made by and for fans of the genre. While text games have received significant attention from scholars, the trajectory of the romance game—from Briggs's intervention to graphical adventures to visual novels and mobile games—has gone mostly unmonitored. The perspectives that dominate video game representations of sexuality are largely male, heterosexual, and conservative.3 By examining titles such as Plundered Hearts and making visible the contributions of women crafting romantic alternatives to the heroic rescues that dominated the love landscape of early games, we can better understand romance as a tool for resisting—but more often perpetuating—patriarchal game design. Establishing an early history of romance games also enables a better understanding of current exemplars of indie romance—such as Florence (Mountains, 2018) and Life Is Strange: Before the Storm (Deck Nine, 2017)—as not outliers, but moments in a longer history. Illuminating these histories encourages us as scholars to look at related spaces where women designers and their contributions to crafting (and resisting) the mechanization of romance have been marginalized and ignored, from romantic hidden-object games to choice-based dating simulators.
Discussions of women as playable lead characters tend to open with three primary exemplars: Rosella in King's Quest IV (Sierra On-Line, 1988), Roberta Williams's first installment of the graphic adventure game series to feature a woman; Samus Aran of Metroid (Nintendo, 1986), whose gender is not revealed until the end of the game; and Lara Croft of Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996), whose later introduction did not prevent her from becoming the poster pinup of gaming. Plundered Hearts's heroine is firmly of the era of emergence, yet perhaps in part due to the lack of visual representation is left out of game studies discussions of female characters. This omission is unfortunate, as her characterization (and the game's emphasis on her desire) is remarkable, particularly when considered alongside other characters of her era. Graham Nelson's excellent book The Craft of the Adventure (1995) cites Plundered Hearts as an example of dropping the player immediately into action, but also notes the game's carefully rendered protagonist as one solution to the “tricky” problem of gender:
Gender is an especially awkward point. In some games the player's character is exactly prescribed: in Plundered Hearts you are a particular girl whisked away by pirates, and have to act in character. Other games take the attitude that anyone who turns up can play, as themselves, with whatever gender or attitudes (and in a dull enough game with no other characters, these don't even matter).4
The place of Plundered Hearts and its heroine in the history of interactive fiction has thus primarily been documented in fan, designer, and archivist-driven histories of Infocom, which I acknowledge and draw from here. In his manifesto pushing for “creative” game studies, Paolo Ruffino observes that games academics are commonly viewed in some spaces as “parasites,” a metaphor that has stuck with me as I work through the existing wealth of fan- and archivist-maintained resources on Infocom and Briggs herself.5 This study draws primarily on online archival research, including an examination of periodicals from around the release of Plundered Hearts; Infocom source code and documents preserved in online archives; preserved copies of the original game and manual; and interviews with Infocom employees conducted by both journalists and, later, games historians. I particularly rely on the work of several historians and archivists who have made significant efforts to document and interview Infocom employees to keep the studio's legacy alive, including Jason Scott and Jimmy Maher, and thus acknowledge my own status as academic parasite—that is, one building on the games history work of the community, but also seeking to reimagine and recontextualize that same history through a feminist lens.
The term “parasite,” when used as an insult, suggests that academics have nothing to add to these conversations: the work of preservation has been done, and “popular” games history already exists. But Ruffino suggests that we should embrace our dependence on others when working in the quickly dissolving realm of games history: “To become parasites in gaming means rewriting its history, telling different stories and making different differences between the stories we already know. In the end, we might ‘produce nothing,’ but we might become better hosts and guests for whoever comes next.”6 That is my goal with this examination of Plundered Hearts: to put it in the context of feminist game studies discourses on avatars, characters, and agency, where it deservedly belongs, and in so doing to suggest that when we view game studies through the history of popular, masculine-centered titles and genres, we risk ignoring the design contributions that can shape its future. Plundered Hearts provides us with an early exemplar of feminist game design, and demonstrates the importance of reclaiming “pink” games as essential to the history of the medium.
This type of “parasitic” work becomes particularly crucial given the current context of game studies discourse, and indeed games broadly construed. New popular attention is being paid to the labor conditions and industry practices that consume the games industry, and efforts have been made toward diversity (even as companies such as Riot have warranted investigation for toxic, misogynist practices).7 However, such discussions are often tied to the current moment, without historical grounding and acknowledgment of how the industry got to this point—and the ways in which precarious labor has been abused and then erased.8 Plundered Hearts is situated as part of the downfall of Infocom, released in the aftermath of Activision's acquisition and a subsequent broadening of scope that can be cast as one cause of the company's decline. However, this moment also reflects a fundamental change in the history of the industry, when individually powered creative and experimental work emerged in the face of market demands and popular expectations of the expanding corporate game industry.
Complicating this discussion is the positioning of Plundered Hearts within interactive fiction, a term that—while frequently claimed as part of the heritage of games, with Zork: The Great Underground Empire (Infocom, 1980) and Colossal Cave Adventure (Crowther, 1976) as the most cited exemplars—has its own history, communities, and platforms that have frequently operated outside of mainstream gaming spaces. Indeed, the decision to use the term “game” instead of “interactive fiction” suggests arbitrary limits that Nick Montfort decries in his definition in the IF Theory Reader (2011). The terminology of choice in the IF community also resists an easy conflation with the word “games,” even as game studies claims IF as part of the historical framework of games (while usually ignoring more modern iterations of IF, except in subfields centered on narrative subgenres or queer games). Montfort explains why he prefers not to use the more limited term:
A work can present a world that is pleasant to explore but that has no quest or intrigue. There may be no final reply that is a “winning” one, perhaps no final reply at all. Because of this I am often more comfortable referring to a work of IF, rather than calling everything a game at all times. Even when what is being discussed is actually a game, calling it a work can help to signal that our interest is in interactive fiction from all relevant perspectives, rather than interactive fiction only as game.9
But this is a contemporary distinction, and should be understood as such. At the time of Plundered Hearts's release, interactive fiction was a major form of gaming, marketed in the same periodicals and to the same audiences as any other contemporary title. Plundered Hearts is notable for having the only significant playable female character in Infocom's library—all other non-male playable options were simply the same generic character made available with binary swaps of pronouns.10 In the very year Plundered Hearts was released, that landscape was rife with hypermasculinity. The first Final Fantasy game (Square, 1987), Contra (Konami, 1987), Metal Gear (Konami, 1987), and even the second Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1987) all featured similar covers with either white men ready for action, ominous weapons, or both. Among the more narrative games, Lucasfilm's Maniac Mansion (1987) brought several playable women characters to the stage but still featured a classic save-the-cheerleader plot that hinged on the men for most successful outcomes. Meanwhile, Sierra's Al Lowe was releasing a “romance” narrative of his own, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987). Of course, unlike Plundered Hearts, it would never be marketed as such, and questions of whether non-fans of the romance genre would enjoy it were not brought up in reviews.
The decision of what we center from classic games—and what we use to tell the history of genres, including interactive fiction and adventure games—is a decision that shapes the perception of games and the industry forces that have shaped them. “Interactive fiction” struggles with the same literary baggage as “electronic literature,” a term describing born-digital narrative taking advantage of the technical capabilities of the platform, which has a similar era of origin but less immediately game-adjacent roots. The choice of terminology—“fiction” instead of “literature”—is critical, as the term “literature” suggests both aspirations (and an academy) behind it that bring their own histories to the table. Interactive fiction (Infocom's term of choice, and one that has lasted) suggests flexibility, as within the fiction category at the bookstore a number of genres await.
FEMINIST AUTHORSHIP AT INFOCOM
Before diving into Plundered Hearts as a text, we should understand it as a work authored by the first and only woman employed in a lead creative role at Infocom. While feminist game design does not require the authorship of a woman, the decentering of women in game design companies and histories is constant, and feminist games history challenges us to reclaim these figures and their influence not only through their own design work but also on game companies. Infocom had only one other woman in a similar role, the aforementioned Cyr-Jones, who never received full authorial credit on a game but was listed as responsible for the “original concept” in the manual for Hollywood Hijinx.11 Infocom's model sought to empower a single creator—called an implementer—to realize a vision with minimal interference, and thus that author's voice was particularly valued and centered in the company's marketing of games. The source files for Infocom games are particularly human-readable due to the customized language Infocom implementers used:
The implementers' system of developing their games on a DEC mainframe and moving only the completed product to microcomputers enabled them to produce games of much greater complexity than competitors who were bound throughout the development process to the tiny micros on which their games would eventually be sold. On their mainframe, Infocom's authors wrote in a programming language known as ZIL specifically designed for the production of IF games, having realized that the task was so specialized that a customized language was far superior a choice for the application than a more general purpose one.12
It is important not to conflate this single-vision support with a lack of collective input. Implementers might lead a title alone, but the Infocom library suggests that there was cross-pollination, and the designers support this in their interview statements.
Prior to Briggs's selection for the role, Infocom's writers were all men who shared certain genre predilections. A comment by a reporter in a 1984 interview with the five staff writers at the time (all men) included a telling aside: “Infocom people smile knowingly when you ask them about the possibility of Westerns or spy stories. They joke about the idea of a romance series; somehow the moves don't seem appropriate to a computer keyboard.”13 In the same article, Infocom product manager Michael Dornbook commented on the company's success reaching women: “We have a much stronger base among females than other computer software and than computer magazines, but it is still an area we want to work on. … The mysteries are more popular with women than the science-fiction games. We don't know what the results of a Western or an espionage game might be because we don't have them.”14 Similarly, despite their presence in the base there seem to have been no deliberate efforts to recruit a woman onto the team. Briggs credits her discovery of text games to Zork, but came to Infocom thanks to a want ad for a game tester in the Boston Globe.15 After surviving a round of layoffs as an in-house tester, she found a mentor in established implementer Steve Meretzky, who as she recounts to Jason Scott in the interview conducted for his 2010 Get Lamp documentary encouraged her to apply to the 1986 call for a new implementer—in his view, the last such call likely to happen.16 Given nine months to create a game, she came up with a concept for an interactive romance that drew on her existing love of the genre.
Every Infocom game includes an “About the Author” section of some kind in the documentation, but the extent to which the author was highlighted in the marketing varied. The “About the Author” section for Briggs describes her as “born a quarter of a century ago in a small town in western Minnesota. She graduated in 1984 from Macalester College, St. Paul, with a degree in English, specializing in British Literature. Strongly influenced by Jane Austen and Ian Fleming, she has often wondered what would have happened had Elizabeth Bennett met James Bond” (fig. 1). These influences all came to shape the resulting text of Plundered Hearts, a game that no other implementer would have considered making.
Jimmy Maher observes that despite Infocom's “implementer” designation and emphasis on an individual vision, there was still an author-brand tension governing crediting at Infocom: “Even at a progressive publisher like Infocom, there was a lot of debate over whether and to what extent the authors of the games should be highlighted, as opposed to the Infocom brand and the so-called ‘matrix’ of genres and difficulty levels.”17 Infocom stars received more on-box marketing, while Briggs—the last implementer hired prior to the company's acquisition and subsequent decline and closure—was relatively un-marketed. The romance genre has similar tensions: novels from presses such as Harlequin put the brand first, while outside Harlequin's domain, genre fixtures such Nora Roberts became their own brands. Some authors, such as Sharon Kendrick, made the leap from part of the Harlequin brand to their own brand, but most Harlequin authors have always been treated as interchangeable cogs in the production process.
Briggs's work is an exemplar of the “Implementer's Creed,” written by designer Stu Galley as a statement of the Infocom philosophy in 1985. It emphasizes writing and the experience of becoming a character but also a “broad range of reading levels” and “taste”:
My readers should become immersed in the story and forget where they are. They should forget about the keyboard and the screen, forget everything but the experience. My goal is to make the computer invisible. I want as many people as possible to share these experiences. I want a broad range of fictional worlds, and a broad range of “reading levels.” I can categorize our past works and discover where the range needs filling in. I should also seek to expand the categories to reach every popular taste.18
Despite this, core players criticized Briggs's game as too easy, and it never reached many potential new players—a problem that Infocom, and indeed games broadly, wouldn't really begin to resolve until browser-based and mobile casual games opened up new avenues of access and play. Shira Chess's work on women as “Player Two” in a gaming world designed for “Player One” notes that availability, affordability, and assumed time commitment are all part of the appeal of casual and mobile games.19 Picture the computer store of the 1980s, and the likely finder of an Infocom game: then the pathways of discovery players have now (including ubiquitous app stores on devices we already own) simply did not exist. Perhaps the best allegory for the home enthusiast market is the comic book shop, another traditionally male-dominated space historically associated with gatekeeping and exclusionary practices.20
The year 1987 was a turning point for home computer pricing, as Al Fasoldt wrote at the time in an editorial:
No other industry works quite the same way. In the consumer electronics business as a whole, prices have also fallen, but not to the same extent. Only in specialized areas related to computer technology, such as compact disc players, have consumer electronics prices plunged to the same extent. This is all the more amazing when you consider what has happened in other industries. Take the automobile business, for example. Here is a comparison of typical prices of 10 years ago and today, using an Apple II personal computer and a Volkswagen Rabbit (these days, a Golf):
Computer with standard peripherals: 1977 $4,000; 1987 $800.
Auto with normal options: 1977 $4,500; 1987 $11,000.21
These prices would not continue to fall, as Fasoldt predicted (thanks to the push toward more and more powerful machines, which would leave home PC gamers continually buying to keep up with the demands of software), but they did suggest an entry point on the horizon. Time magazine had declared the personal computer the “Machine of the Year” in 1983, but household adoption then was still relatively low and scattered.22 As of 1989, only 15 percent of US homes had access to personal computers, a number unlikely to include the players Plundered Hearts imagined (internet access, on the other hand, wouldn't be measured until 1997).23
It was with perhaps a too-rosy vision of this marketspace that Briggs worked on Plundered Hearts, seeing herself as the audience. This was an ambitious goal, given that the men of Infocom and game design more broadly were continually writing for themselves. Robin Potanin has termed this the “I” methodology.24 As Briggs noted in an interview in Infocom's in-house advertising publication, Status Line: “C. S. Lewis said he had to write The Chronicles of Narnia because they were books he wanted to read, and nobody else had written them yet. Plundered Hearts was a game I wanted to play.”25 The game that resulted differed notably from other Infocom projects from the source code up, suggesting a vocabulary of player interactions and an emphasis on the social that makes it still a standout in the annals of interactive fiction.
FEMINIST DESIGN ENACTED IN
Plundered Hearts, released in 1987, was one of Infocom's last games and Briggs's first and only title. It was neither marketed nor received as a feminist work, but through Briggs's engagement with and commentary on women's social positioning and the romance genre, it offers an early model of feminist game design. It was first and foremost a romance novel, and very much a product of the 1980s: Rita Hubbard notes that the 1980s were a time of change in relationship style representation in romance novels, shifting to more equity between leads (at least compared to earlier romances, where women were allowed only minor rebellions).26 B. Ruby Rich likewise has called the 1980s a time for the recuperation of romance from a feminist perspective.27 In 1985 Leslie Rabine declared Harlequin romance novels a dominant form of “the age of electronics,” despite initially specializing in an apparently repetitious and formulaic model that its own authors rebelled against: “Harlequin thought of everything—except the readers, the authors, and the creative freedom which has traditionally been the cornerstone of literature in Western culture. This publishing giant molded romantic aspirations into superrationalist forms of communication, the very antithesis of the readers' desires.”28
The cover of Plundered Hearts (fig. 2) is itself a nod to this 1980s romantic style: excessively colorful, with turquoise and green contrasting beneath the bright orange font and romance-novel-ready portraits of the characters and pirate ship. The back of the box invites the player unapologetically into the gaze of the heroine:
You barely survive an encounter with pirates, whose plans for you include a fate worse than death. The explosives, the rocky reefs, the vicious crocodile—all these are obstacles which you must overcome with cunning and agility. True, it's not easy: but at least you can control your fate. What you cannot control is much more dangerous: your passion for Nicholas Jamison, the handsome pirate captain.
The rhetorical choice of “you” was common to Infocom games, but the specificity of the player's character is notable here and represents a shift in approach away from the generic gaze to a gendered character with her own clear desires and goals. The emphasis on violence (and the euphemism of “a fate worse than death”) seems to promise players that despite the genre, the action associated with interactive fiction still awaits.
Contempt for readers of romance novels has historically even come from within feminist discourse, as Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff noted in 2006, looking at the continual attacks on women fans of the genre: “Second wave feminist antipathy and dismissiveness towards romantic fiction extended to its readers who were regarded as passive, dependent, and addicted to trivial, escapist fantasies. Feminine romance readers were frequently counterposed against heroic feminist figures who had renounced any investment in femininity or romance.”29 Romance formulas of the time certainly formed the backdrop of Plundered Hearts's own narrative:
The tales are set in an “enchanted space” in which the heroine is socially dislocated—perhaps on holiday, having gone away from friends and family to recover from a traumatic event, or even waking from a coma (to find herself staying at the hero's villa or castle). Stories are constructed around a series of obstacles that must be overcome in order for the hero and the heroine to fall in love—these include class, national, or racial differences, inhibitions, stubbornness and, last but not least, their mutual loathing!30
The discourse even at Plundered Hearts's release similarly pushed at the question of feminism, particularly given the game's association with a genre that (while mostly written and consumed by women) was still viewed as insufficiently feminist. In her Status Line interview, Briggs commented on her character's portrayal as feminist in response to a fairly hostile question: “You can't get anywhere in Plundered Hearts if you act as an air-head. There's your father to be rescued (don't believe that Captain Jamison can do it alone)! There's the hero to be saved from certain death—several times! One doesn't have to be Miss Simper to enjoy dancing (or necking in the gazebo) or be Ms. Rambo to defeat the bad guys. Just be yourself, and do both.”31 The dichotomy Briggs presents—“Miss Simper” versus “Ms. Rambo”—is tellingly of the time, and also a false binary that 1980s portrayals of women were still grappling with (and that video games certainly hadn't begun to confront). As a fan of the genre, Briggs was firm in her assertion that feminism and romance could coexist: “Feminism does not rule out romance, and romance does not necessarily have to make women weak in the cliché sense of romance novels.”32
The analysis that follows draws on both the playable game and the source code, recently released on GitHub as part of a collection of historical source code maintained by the Internet Archive.33 Given its human readability, the code provides both a valuable codex to understanding Briggs's approach as a designer and an easy reference for apprehending the full text (which is too voluminous to be experienced on any one traversal). Exploring this complete version also offers more entry points into the humor: one example of the meta-humor resides in the hint file (hints.ph) of responses to the question “Good Gracious! What is this extremely improper scene at the very beginning?” which leads to this set of replies:
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.
Romance novels always have teasers of this sort.
This statement works on multiple levels, but also points to the designer's awareness of (and willingness to parody) the genre. Likewise, the presence and inclusion of certain verbs (such as “clean” and “dance”) in the verbs file (verbs.zil) indicates the gender performativity at hand:
.FUNCT V-CLEAN SET ‘AWAITING-REPLY,2 CALL QUEUE,I-REPLY,2 PRINTR “Do you also do windows?” ?CCL15: PRINTR “One cannot dance the minuet alone.” ?CCL12: PRINTI “Dancing with” CALL APRINT,PRSO PRINTR “is an early symptom of the plague.”
Plundered Hearts is solidly in line with romance novel conventions, which Briggs described as “about as historically accurate as an Errol Flynn movie.”34 However, its modeling of aspects of women's political and social history is perhaps far more realistic than that of any of its counterparts, particularly the embedded consciousness of the character about social obstacles she must face to move forward. Briggs described this as part of the influence of having a woman as the main character on the game play: “The priorities are different from those of other games, I believe. In Plundered Hearts you don't go around collecting treasure (an activity I've always found boring in adventure games); you're trying to save people. I like to think my puzzles are more about relationships between characters than being player versus objects.”35
This dynamic is reflected in the coded emphasis on social nuance embedded in the elaborate clothing system. Decisions on what to wear influence characters' reactions as well as one's ability to progress in certain spaces, due to questions of both mobility and challenges to social norms. Even modern video games rarely address this dynamic, instead giving the player mostly meaningless choices of clothing and thus reinforcing the idea of clothing as aesthetic rather than socially driven and necessary to relationships. When placed in conversation with dress codes as a feminist question, and the need for dress reform as a push for greater equality, Briggs's embedded system becomes a compelling commentary. Interactive fiction that addresses clothing at all usually sees the player as in one of two states, dressed or undressed, which anyone navigating public spaces in a female-presenting body knows is insufficiently complex. The game reinforces the rules that women already live with, and that feminist movements have pushed to change.
Tellingly, one of the game's source files is dedicated entirely to clothing (clothes.zil), and indicates the gender presentation associated with different items. Attention is given to “unmentionables,” which are named as such in the code and can only be interacted with to evoke silence:
<ROUTINE UNMENTIONABLES-F ()
“Shh! Why do you think they're called” D,
UNMENTIONABLES “?” CR>
If the player puts on pants to avoid the movement penalties of female-coded clothing options, a message displays indicating the perceived trade-offs of aesthetics and mobility:
“into the pants. You look a little fat, but now you can move freely”, PCR>)
Character reactions to states of dress are also coded and play out in one's ability to win support and romance, as in this moment (in hero.zap) where if the player did not acquire pants (coded in the variables as “BOY-DRESS”) she will be underdressed for the occasion:
FSET? CHEMISE,EVERYBIT /?CCL14 PRINTI “If –”“ ” PRINTEYES-RAKE PRINTI “, ”“somewhat underdressed” JUMP ?CND12 ?CCL14: ZERO? BOY-DRESS? /?CCL16 PRINTI “And so ingeniously dressed” JUMP ?CND12
While costume changes are not unknown in interactive fiction, the extent to which the wardrobe determines the player's mobility in Plundered Hearts reflects a notably gendered and class-driven approach to examining spatial limitations. Frequently the player is barred from moving forward unless the appropriate wardrobe (ranging from this “boy dress” to a ball gown) is procured and donned. Emily Short commented on the novelty of the dress-up mechanics in her review:
I'd played other games where the gameplay required a disguise. But I'd rarely played any with puzzles about fitting in socially or meeting a dress code. And to some extent, the dress-up scene I loved was just a symbolic stand-in for something deeper that I was unconsciously looking for then and have been more intentionally seeking ever since: gameplay that spoke as much about interpersonal dynamics as about physics or combat.36
Later adventure games would use mechanics of disguise (one of the most notorious being a puzzle involving a cat-hair mustache in Gabriel Knight 3 [Sierra, 1999]), but rarely in such conscious social hierarchies or with such clear political and historical intent.37
Excavating the source code is also a reminder of the elegance of Briggs's implementation of Plundered Hearts, which was more restrained than that of some of her contemporaries due to her limitation to a 128K Z-Machine: essentially this sets the file's maximum size at 128K, forcing the designer to cut material to fit. This type of platform constraint by necessity limits the nuance, leaving the reader to wonder what might have been eliminated in the process of cutting to meet the spatial needs: “As with many Infocom games, particularly in the latter half of the company's history, much of the process of developing Plundered Hearts came down to cutting out all those pieces that wouldn't fit into the 128 K Z-Machine. Briggs says that she finished the game inside six months, and then spent the remaining three cutting, cutting, and painfully cutting some more.”38
To accomplish her goals within these constraints, Briggs often relied on sections of pre-constructed dialogue (rather than simulating complex conversations) and used variable cues from elements such as clothing to determine the success of various efforts. Jimmy Maher, looking back on the game, noted:
The game works so well because Briggs places the interactive emphasis on things that IF is very good at, and largely pre-scripts the game's “touchy-feely” aspects. Stacking the deck in her favor she may be, but the results are thoroughly satisfying, and the technique has been much-emulated since. Its plucky, likable heroine is so well characterized, both in the game itself and in its accompanying documentation, that the game's admitted railroading of the player seems perfectly unforced. Plundered is in fact among the best of Infocom's later efforts, absolutely drenched in period and genre atmosphere and, with Infocom's years of design experience to draw upon, impeccably constructed as a game. It is one of Infocom's most under-played and under-appreciated titles.39
Such sequences appear in the source code as printed passages that offer perspective on a narrative moment filtered through the lens of the character, and notably often indicating her desires clearly:
?CND4:PRINTI“. You catch a glimpse of the hard masculinity of his broad shoulders, the implied power in the scar that etches the stranger's jaw, and feel tremors course through your veins. Then you realize how ragged are his shirt, patched breeches and high boots. Intuitively, you understand – he is the dreaded Falcon, scourge of the sea! Alas, your fate is sealed. Resigned, you meet his sea-blue eyes.”
This passage (from hero.zil) is also emblematic of the reality that the game is hardly without its clichés and normativity. The twenty-five-point score system evokes gendered terminology, with scores ranging from the low points of “Damsel in Distress” and “Missish Minx” to the more lauded “Daring Demoiselle” and “Lady Leman.” The final ranking suggests a particularly compulsory heteronormative ending as aspirational: Plundered Hearts has four endings, one clearly “happy” and the others flawed in various ways depending on the player's final decisions. The endings are explained in the hint file and culminate in “Happily Ever After,” achieved by shooting the pirate who has tormented your character throughout the game.
Ultimately, traversing the code of Plundered Hearts offers a strong testament to the game's personalization around its embodied heroine, a strength that reviewer Graeme Cree noted in 1995:
In most Infocom games, who YOU are is either unimportant or doesn't affect the plot much. In Zork, you're just some anonymous guy who was walking by the white house. You have no particular personality, or history before this point. Planetfall makes an effort to paint your character with the enclosed diary, but it is all chrome. None of it really affects the story once you're in it. As a result, I always sort of imagined myself as the main character. To some extent this was Infocom's intention; much of their early advertising talked about imagining yourself waking up inside a story. Plundered Hearts, more than any other game gave me the feeling of really being inside someone ELSE'S head. Throughout the game, who you are plays an important part.40
But this same specificity was likely the game's downfall, as this 1988 review by Steve Panak particularly drives home:
I have a lot of trouble recommending this game to everyone. This is because romance is my least favorite literary form. My personal tastes, firmly ingrained by a childhood filled with Twilight Zone, Star Trek and bad B movies, run toward horror, fantasy and science fiction. So, it should not come as a surprise that I didn't care much for the story. Newcomers will find the puzzles to be standard Infocom fare, and advanced players will find it relatively easy.41
Panak's comments reflect an ongoing problem with men reviewing games made by and arguably for women as a primary audience: the reviews tend to be dismissive, and the language regarding “easiness” is particularly telling for its condescension. Placing Plundered Hearts alongside its contemporaries is a stark reminder of how much this set of “personal” tastes—which are frequently conflated with gamer identity and gamer culture more broadly—shaped not only the successes of games in the 1980s, but also the histories we tell about those games.
LEISURE SUITS AND LEATHER GODDESSES
Plundered Hearts is not merely an anomaly in the Infocom catalog: it is a work in conversation with other Infocom games of the time, just as Briggs herself was mentored by Steve Meretzky. Infocom had another significant release from Meretzky just a year before Plundered Hearts hit the scene: Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Considering Plundered Hearts's reception and marketing alongside that of Leather Goddesses of Phobos is telling. The cover of the latter makes clear that it is selling sex, not romance, with a male gaze implied in both the title and the visual imagery (fig. 3). As Mia Consalvo observes, such games are typically lavish in their marketing but highly conservative in their approach to gender and sexuality: “Sex and sexuality have been integral (if subtextual) parts of many games, and their expression generally reifies conservative beliefs about heterosexuality and ‘proper’ romance.”42
That same binary was clearly on Infocom's marketing team's minds as they sought to promote Plundered Hearts to their usual player base. The issue of Infocom's Status Line following Plundered Hearts's release opened with a series of review quotes, including this rather on-target example: “I was a little afraid that I wouldn't like the game at first, being male and playing it as a female, but once you got started it was NO PROBLEM! I enjoyed it!!”43 The article accompanying these review reassurances to Infocom's base further describes Briggs's approach to preparing to write the work: “To research this historical adventure, Amy spent many of her formative years reading trashy romances, studied vast tomes of costume design through the ages, and ran away from home to join a pirate band.” The copy that follows notes that the game “breaks stereotypes about computer games and the people who play them,” suggesting a marketing team well aware of the resistance the game would meet with some reviewers and players.44
At the time, the game was priced at $39.95 in Infocom's catalog, appearing alongside other recent titles such as Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Related merchandise advertised at the back of the catalog suggests the relative popularity of that game: a Leather Goddesses T-shirt with “A Dirty Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” is listed for $9.95 alongside a $5.95 poster featuring the goddesses themselves in classic exploitation style. At no point does the marketing for Leather Goddesses of Phobos hasten to reassure women that they will enjoy the play experience despite its marketing thrust (pardon the expression) toward heterosexual men, and the choice of “sex level” mode the game offers at the opening does not seem to accompany any meaningful attempt to make the game of interest to a broader audience.
Briggs's work is typically ignored in discussions of the first playable female game heroines, but she does get a nod in a list of firsts from PC Gamer.45 Notably, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards appears on that same list—for the “first score,” meaning a sequence with a prostitute that plays out in old-school animation under a censor bar. A contemporary peer of both Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Plundered Hearts, Leisure Suit Larry has outlasted both as an academic and critical touchstone. Interestingly, both Plundered Hearts and Leisure Suit Larry were reviewed in the same issue of ST-Log in June 1988. A reader turning to page 90 might have seen Betty DeMunn's review of Plundered Hearts, in which she declares the romance plotline “sexist”: “Amy Briggs is a talent, but, in my opinion, wasted on this sexist plot. Sexist because one of the levels you attain on your way to Happy Ending is ‘Lady Leman.’ Sexist because it's difficult to relate to a woman who doesn't know one end of a rapier from another and isn't allowed to handle a pistol or to sharpen her dagger.”46
Meanwhile, only a few pages away on 84, a review of Leisure Suit Larry declares the game “by far the best” of recent adult games, while warning: “It's still not a terrific gift for the leader of the local chapter of NOW or a member of the Moral Majority, but it guarantees hours of lighthearted adventuring for more open-minded adults.”47 Leisure Suit Larry's persistence as a touchstone of “adult” gaming is not surprising, particularly given the series' longevity, but its predominance in scholarly discourse also centers its masculine, heteronormative take on desire and success. The integration of Larry's pursuit of scores (as highlighted on the cover, fig. 4) on a point system is particularly reductive, and while his attempts at conquest are frequently thwarted, his persistence is continually cast as a virtue.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos obviously shares far more DNA with Leisure Suit Larry than with Plundered Hearts despite the corporate authorship model Infocom's name still evokes. Compare the covers reproduced here as figures 2 and 3. The cover of Leather Goddesses of Phobos has a vaguely phallic space temple under the large-print words of the title and the promise of “alluring 3-D and scent-sational scratch n sniff” alongside the announcement of “tame,” “suggestive,” and “lewd” play modes. The back text promises adventure, sex, and the apparent perspective of the everyman:
How did you, a regular at Joe's Bar in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, end up on a Martian moon? Can you prevent the hideous space creature from abducting the naked heiress? Why does scratch ‘n’ sniff #2 smell so familiar? How many uses can you find for a rubber hose? Is it easy to remove a brass bikini? Is it hard to outsmart a robotoid sumo wrestler? Can you stop the Leather Goddesses' fiendish plan to turn all Earthlings into sex slaves?
Compared to Plundered Hearts, Leather Goddesses of Phobos has—perhaps surprisingly given its premise and B-movie associations—received an impressive amount of attention from academics. This is perhaps in part thanks to its evocative inclusion of feelies (fig. 5). Feelies are, as Carly Kocurek's historical examination of their use notes, in cases such as this an integral part of the experience of play that itself becomes a source of nostalgia and meaning.48 This was perhaps the earliest example of scent-based interaction in games (starting a trend in erotic games that would continue in Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail ).49 Recalling the work of John Waters (whose addition of scent to cinema was part of his overall camp aesthetic), Leather Goddesses of Phobos was decidedly over-the-top in a grand camp tradition as well.
At the same time, Leather Goddesses of Phobos did not push any envelopes in its treatment and representation of gender. Notably, the reliance of the gender system on binaries (and the heteronormativity that ensues) is hard-coded, as Nick Montfort observes: “Steven Meretzky's Leather Goddesses of Phobos (Infocom, 1986) was similarly gender-sensitive, with the PC's [player character's] gender determined by whether the PC enters the men's or women's bathroom at the beginning of the game.”50 A 1996 article referenced Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Leisure Suit Larry as part of a trend toward erotic games: “Sex games do not seem to be produced by or for women,” it notes, perhaps because “cybersex reiterates the old sexist structures of the passive female and the active male, who literally ‘scores’ when he penetrates her.”51 Plundered Hearts goes unmentioned.
These representations existed alongside a broader cultural discussion of apparent declines in intimacy, while even progressive media depictions of the 1980s reinforced traditional power dynamics: “We speculate that in reality the negotiation of heterosexual intimacy has remained closer to traditional form than most would care to acknowledge. That is, in the realm of power relations or decision-making, men continue to wield authority over women.”52 Certainly 1980s video games reinforce that perception: in Leisure Suit Larry, pursuit of that power is the player's guiding goal, the source of points. In Leather Goddesses of Phobos, the fear of having that power taken away motivates the plot line. Even in Plundered Hearts, the player is continually navigating fear of men, with several bad endings resulting in rape.
Questions of whose nostalgia dominates game studies go hand in hand with questions of whose romance and eroticism govern games themselves. Plundered Hearts is deemed by some players unreadable for its expectation that the player brings a desiring female gaze, even though that gaze does not result in eroticism, judging by a search of the code. For a romance novel, the word “sex” only appears four times, primarily in ways that do not refer to the act but rather function euphemistically, as in this example from globals.zil: “It's been rather a long time since any of the crew have dealt with the fairer sex, and they are a bit rough, despite Rodney Quick's exhortations.”
By contrast, the word “sex” appears fifteen times in the source code for Leather Goddesses, primarily in the context of variables to handle the choice of sex (governed by entering a gendered bathroom) and for describing certain scenes (such as the notable “FROG-SEX-SCENE”).53 At the same time, the Leisure Suit Larry word list suggests an obsession with not only sex but other anatomical euphemisms. The number of words that parse to “hump” is telling:
.s seduce hump .s sleep$with hump .s make$love hump .s jump$her$bones hump .s lay hump .s screw hump .s fuck hump .s copulate hump .s fucking hump .s mount$up hump .s mount hump .s sex hump54
The dominant heteronormativity and sense of the male gaze literally encoded in the colorful variety of word choices here extends throughout Leisure Suit Larry's word list, which also includes “hooker,” “whore,” “slut,” “broad,” and “prostitute,” all resolving in the parser as “girl.” Meanwhile, “pussy,” “cunt,” “clit,” “crack,” and several similar terms all resolve as “pussy” under the code comment section “dirty words.” Such attitudes toward sex, and particularly toward women, are a far cry indeed from Briggs's choice to stave off players investigating the heroine's body too closely with the inclusion of “unmentionables.”
The history of Infocom ended abruptly not long after the release of Plundered Hearts, and Briggs left the industry for other endeavors after a short involvement with a doomed sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Infocom, 1984).55 This is not an unfamiliar narrative: other women famous in this era of game design, including Roberta Williams, would likewise disappear from the public face of gaming as the industry shifted direction toward three-dimensional graphics games putting mechanics and action at the forefront.56 Years later, in a 2006 SIGGRAPH panel, Briggs's mentor Steve Meretzky pointed to the very spaces Briggs had worked in as a model for where games might look to their future:
There are areas where innovation is still possible: casual games, mobile games, and the “indie” game movement. Even old-fashioned board games are undergoing a renaissance. The lower budgets, smaller teams, and shorter development cycles mean that more chances can be taken. Also, an “auteur” model of game development is still possible, where a single person's vision can have a significant impact on the course of the game, which doesn't guarantee innovation, but makes it significantly more likely.57
While shaping that future, it is important to unearth contributions like Plundered Hearts that exemplify early feminist approaches to game design, centering a female gaze and pushing against dominant discourses of games eroticism in small but crucial ways. The decentering of such games in our history (and the relative visibility of works such as Leisure Suit Larry, with the nostalgia and reboots such a game invites) is a reminder of the continual centering in games and game studies of what Shira Chess describes as “Player One.” This inevitably does an ensuing disservice to games like Plundered Hearts that envision a very different player and purpose:
If Player One is the—also designed—white, cis-, heterosexual, young, abled, and middle-class male, then Player Two becomes his counterpart as a mode of designed identity. … The games made for Player Two appear to be limiting and limited—small in scope and absurd in meaning. These games do not appear to be about life-and-death issues; they represent small stories with small outcomes. And yet these games are important.58
Emily Short's 2008 review of Plundered Hearts in the Interactive Fiction Database is a surprisingly powerful testament to its longevity:
Plundered Hearts also has a lot more plot than most other Infocom games, and often feels surprisingly modern, more like the product of late 90s design than of the late 80s. The landscape is not mysteriously empty, but crowded with characters, many of whom have lively personalities. And some flexibility about the ending is available, as well. PH is a remarkable bit of interactive storytelling for its time, and there are still some techniques worth our reviewing and learning from now. And if, like me, you read a lot of Georgette Heyer, Baroness Orczy, and Rafael Sabatini at an impressionable age, you'll probably love it.59
This “surprisingly modern” feel is a feminist ethos of design in formation, admittedly limited by genre expectations and perhaps even by the very scale of the platform, but no less crucial to forming an understanding of feminist games history and the power of design for intervention.