Platform: DOS, Mac, Amiga, Commodore 128, Atari ST, Apple II
On the heels of A Mind Forever Voyaging, Infocom told another story about a nightmare future brought down on us by power and hubris. But rather than a projected future brought along by Reaganomics (which is still pretty damn accurate, dangit), this game explores the impacts of Project Trinity, the first detonation of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. While the examination of atomic history is impressively accurate and subtly powerful, the game itself gets in the way, with the fallout leaving a pernicious impact on its emotional resonance.
The game begins as you are on vacation in London, taking in the sights of Kensington Gardens. Within the hour, you are witness to and a victim of a nuclear attack that presumably begins World War III. Successfully avoiding the attack entails escaping the gardens through a magic portal into a fantasy world filled with giant mushrooms, incredible but twisted landscapes, and a slew of innocent animals. It is clear fairly quickly that this world is a metaphor for Earth’s atomic history and that your goal is to try to make things right. In order to travel back in time to visit the Trinity test site, you must first visit other atomic sites such as Nagasaki and the Bikini Atoll.
Brian Moriarty (author of Wishbringer and Loom), does an excellent job of portraying the subject matter earnestly and without sanctimony. There is no judgment leveled on any character or any political power. The symbolism in the fantasy world is neither overwrought nor heavy-handed. He even manages to weave in poignant quotes from Lewis Carroll to Walt Whitman to Emily Dickenson that help this world feel less cold and dark.
There’s a very puzzly game to be played to get to all the good parts. In a sense, the decision to include a lot of puzzles helped Trinity from becoming just a political statement. The game’s protagonist isn’t on some mission of glory; he’s just caught in the situation and fumbling through to survive. Unfortunately, there are so many missteps with the puzzles that the game’s poignant moments had to fight for brain space with my endless frustration with the gaming experience.
The first problem, and an expected one in 1986, was that so many puzzles require dying in order to learn what to do. While this can work well in comedy or light-hearted adventures (especially if the deaths are quick), here it just continually disrupts the mood. To be clear, dying is an important and I would say necessary part of Trinity for its core message to come across. But the need for random, non-atomic related deaths (such as running into an angry barrow wight) just isn’t there.
I can’t even count how many walking dead situations I encountered, including a couple that require restarting the game completely and obtaining items that are not exactly out of the way but also not obviously important either. While again this is expected for an 80s game, it still hurts the spirit of the experience to suggest the reason you aren’t able to save the world from atomic destruction is because you didn’t pick up a piece of paper in London right before the bomb dropped.
One ridiculous game mechanic that leads to many deaths and walking dead scenarios is the inventory limit. Yes, carrying a heavy axe in real life would prevent me from carrying much else. But the axe is needed often and unpredictably and so deciding when or where not to take it with you is an impossible guessing game. And it all could have been solved with a simple rucksack. There are some types of game where deciding what to bring with you is a fun, logical puzzle. Trinity is the exact opposite of this type of game.
Finally, I encountered a bug that I couldn’t find reproduced anywhere on the internet. One of the portals to a past atomic site becomes completely unavailable if you do things in an arbitrarily different order. So yet again I had to restart almost the entire game for no good reason.
All of the said, there are still many fun puzzles! If you have the correct items with you and are in the right place at the right time, they are generally entertaining and not overly difficult. The endgame is easily the best part as Moriarty meticulously recreated the Trinity test site and implemented, for the most part, organic puzzles that help you immerse yourself in the timeline. Again, you still have to have a couple of arbitrarily correct items in your possession. And the time limits in this area are a bit cruel. But all in all it was still satisfying, with an ending that has been well debated but completely satisfied my sensibilities.
Despite all of my frustrations, I rated the game as high as I did because of how well Moriarty handled the subject matter. It inspired me to read a lot about the Trinity project as well as the world history of atomic testing, including an enormous seven-part series by Jimmy Maher over at the Digital Antiquarian. I’m glad to have played Trinity. I’m just not sure I could bear doing it again.