Infocom Marathon: Leather Goddesses of Phobos (1986) – Part One

From The Adventure Gamer

Written by Joe Pranevich

Sex sells, but few things market a product better than controversy. Throughout much of the 20th century, it was an adage that a book or a play “Banned in Boston” was guaranteed to sell well elsewhere. Oscar Wilde once said that, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Barbara Streisand discovered that the fastest way to get a lot of people interested in taking photos of her house was telling them that they could not. So it was in that spirit that Steve Meretzky penned A Mind Forever Voyaging as a controversy-magnet, guaranteed to get the conservative pundits wagging their tongues about his leftist pollution of young minds. The controversy never materialized and that game flopped. Unperturbed, he pushed for yet another game that could “go viral”, but this time he aimed to incite the ire of the pundits (and the libido of the players) by embracing sex. Could an assault on decency succeed where AMFV failed?

Whether it was the sex, the return to traditional puzzle-based gameplay, or something else, Leather Goddesses of Phobos garnered enough attention that it became Infocom’s final true “hit”. TBD reviewed the game in 2017 and so I will look at this game through a different lens. Instead of a sequential playthrough and review, I am going to focus on the game’s puzzles. This game is rightly credited as having some of Meretzky’s most clever mind-benders, but does he put them together in a satisfying way? I will also place LGoP in the context of Infocom’s broader story as we progress towards the end of 1986.

My original plan had been for this to come out as a single post, but it turns out that I have more to say about his puzzles than I thought. Rather than cut it down, I’ve decided to split the work into two. Today, we’ll cover the introduction and collect the first four key items. Next week, we’ll conclude with the final puzzles and some thoughts on how the game comes together as a whole.

Another in-joke that got out of hand?

Leather Goddesses of Phobos began as an office in-joke that got out of hand. As early as 1982, Steve Meretzky, still only a game tester rather than designer, scrawled the name onto a whiteboard with a list of upcoming titles before a press event. It was erased quickly, but it became a bit of a catch phrase around the office and would be mentioned whenever a hypothetical game was needed. This repeated meme wound its way into an official Infocom product in 1984 with the re-release of Starcross. As previously discussed, the shift to standard packaging as part of the “corporatization” of Infocom led to changes in all of the earlier titles’ game documentation. The earliest titles, such as Zork and Starcross, received expanded backstories although even later games saw changes. For Starcross, this backstory included a set of the player character’s diary entries that highlighted his boredom before his date with destiny. Tucked away in one such entry is the first public mention of the Leather Goddesses:

M.C.S. STARCROSS 03-28-2186 

Underway less than four weeks and I’m about to go crazy! First, the entertainment tapes were mislabelled. It’s all highbrow stuff like operas and lectures. Leather Goddesses of Phobos was really something about the history of the Terran Union. What a rip-off! I suppose I can always talk to the computer. I can’t stand those tapes. I’ll save them for later in the voyage when I’m really desperate. I’ll play games with the computer to keep amused that way.

Although this furthers my suspicion that Meretzky was the uncredited author of some of these new materials, it wasn’t long before Brian Moriarty got into the swing of things as well. The pleasure arcade in Wishbringer featured a Leather Goddesses of Phobos arcade game. While we never got more than that title tease, the idea spread around the office enough that when Meretzky– just off of his failure of A Mind Forever Voyaging— suggested making the game “for real” that it may have felt fait accompli. Their soon-to-be corporate overlords didn’t object and before long Infocom had its official twenty-first adventure game!

Infocom struggled to find consistent sales from the earliest days.

The mass protests never manifested, but Meretzky still managed to garner a few complaints and a computer store or two that refused to sell the title. Still others were unhappy that a game sold based on sexual content wasn’t pornographic enough. Whether or not the controversy helped, Leather Goddesses sold more than 50,000 copies in the first year and ended its run at 130,000 units total, making it Infocom’s sixth most popular title ever. Not bad for a game released so late in the company’s history! This success guaranteed that it would receive a spinoff, the Infocomic Lane Mastodon vs. the Blubbermen in 1988, plus a proper sequel in 1992. Sierra would even parody the title in Space Quest IV.

Activision may have eventually become a bit squeamish about the title. Inexplicably, they did not include it in either of the two Lost Treasures of Infocom sets from 1991 and 1992. Purchasers of the second set could order the game via a special coupon, but at $9.95 (roughly $19 today), that was no small sum for a six-year old text adventure. It was also not included in any of the 1995 compilation box sets, but would finally be included in the Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom (1996). That box set was also the first to include non-Infocom games released alongside Infocom ones, but that will be a conversation for another day. It was not until 2012 when Leather Goddesses was finally included in an official Lost Treasures set, the much-loved but now dead release for iOS. I am still angry at Activision for refusing to update that app for 64-bit devices.

Also note the first appearance of the “Infocomix” branding!

Much like their other titles, Leather Goddesses included “feelies” including a Lane Mastodon comic, a scratch-and-sniff pad, and even a map of one of the game’s dungeons. As usual for this period, the comic is required reading as it includes copy protection solutions for several of the game’s puzzles. The comic was drawn by Richard Howell, known for stints at both Marvel and DC as well as helming his own independent comics company. He may be best known for his work on Vision & Scarlet Witch, a series that serves as one of the inspirations for the upcoming WandaVision TV show. The comic was converted to 3-D by Ray Zone, a pioneer in commercializing red-blue 3-D art and who produced many such works during the 80s and 90s. Howell also produced illustrations for the hint book.

The manual tries to place the game in the Zork universe, at least in a tongue-in-cheek way. There are references to Zorkmids and even Dimwit Flathead. While the two previous games that mentioned the Leather Goddesses (Starcross and Wishbringer) were “Zork universe” games, I just cannot buy the technology in this game making sense in the sci-fi worlds of Starcross or Planetfall. I’m going to hold my personal head-canon that Leather Goddesses is popular fiction in the Zork universe and you can all snicker at me that I would even think about this enough to care. There is also a mail-away coupon in the manual for self-help books like you would find advertised in old comics. The address on the coupon is in Somerville, Massachusetts (the next town over from Infocom’s offices near Boston), but the street name doesn’t appear to exist. I’m at a loss to explain what they were doing here as they should either have gone with a very fictional address (so that it was obviously fake) or a real one (so that they could sell some unexpected “feelies”); an address that looks mostly real but doesn’t lead anywhere is very strange. It is also possible that Somerville renamed that street in the last three decades.

Downtown Upper Sandusky, circa 2009.

Our game begins– after a warning that the software we are about to play should not be played by the prudish– outside of Joe’s Bar in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. If you are a child, as I am, of that part of the midwest then your mind immediately went to just how awesome a place Sandusky, Ohio always seemed. On the shores of Lake Erie, Sandusky is the home of Cedar Point, one of the oldest and greatest amusement parks in the United States. Pittsburghers know that Kennywood is even better, but Cedar Point was still a pretty cool place. However, Meretsky fooled us: the game takes place in Upper Sandusky, a town along the Sandusky River a bit more than an hour south and completely devoid of amusement parks.

The primary purpose of the bar is to give us a chance to customize our Leather Goddesses experience. After a night of drinking, we have to relieve ourselves and to do so we have to select whether we are going into the Ladies’ room or the Men’s room. Inside we find a stool which we’d better grab and then do our business. That will set our gender for the remainder of the game. I’ve played through as both male and female, but other than swapping the genders of our comrade-in-arms (either Trent or Tiffany, always the same gender as you) and a few other (ahem) partners along the way, it doesn’t change much. A few turns later, the Leather Goddesses abduct us and lock us in a cell on their spaceship.

Escaping the cell is simplistic as the Goddesses simply left the door unlocked. They also left behind a surprising number of adventure game provisions (including a painting of a cat, flashlight, blanket, metal tray, and piece of chocolate). From there, we can explore their ship, easily rescue a ditsy-but-genius new friend from the cell across the hall, and teleport ourselves towards adventure. A couple of  seconds after rescuing her/him, Tiffany/Trent will have an eureka moment and work out a plan to build a device that can defeat the Leather Goddesses and save the Earth, but we’ll need to find eight surprisingly mundane objects to complete the task. These consist of: a common household blender, six-feet of rubber hose, a pair of cotton balls, an eighty-two degree angle, a headlight from a 1933 Ford, a white mouse, a photo of Douglas Fairbanks, and a copy of the Cleveland phone book. Why these items? We have to play the game to find out.

The primary thrust of the game will be to explore Mars and Venus, as well as a bit of Earth and other locations, as we track down the key items. The design of the planets are heavily influenced by the work of astronomer Percival Lowell who, in the 19th century, popularized the idea that Mars may have been an arid landscape cross-crossed by canals. This was then used and reused, perhaps most famously by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his John Carpenter series of books. This game’s depiction of nations on Mars in a state of decay may also have been inspired by Burroughs. Most of this exploration is done by locating and using “black circles” which are scattered literally everywhere; entering one will take you to some other location, usually with no immediate way back. In this way, the game keeps up tension and you are forced into situations where the only way out is to progress forward until you can locate the next circle. Gradually, we develop a network of such portals that allow us to explore at will. Once on Mars, we will eventually discover a royal barge that can be used on the still-intact canals to float downstream. Passing by each canal dock only once (until an alternate method of transportation is discovered near the end of the game), we again feel the tension of needing to do everything and explore everything carefully because there is no way back once we leave. While I may not love the setting, we have to give Meretzky credit for building a not-quite-open world in a new and interesting way and unlocking new areas to explore incrementally. It’s well done. Let’s dig into the puzzles.

Second game in a row with a killer Venus Flytrap!

Puzzle #1 – Venus Fly Trap
One of the two black circles that we can discover on the Leather Goddesses’ ship leads to a jungle on Venus and our first real puzzle. It also happens to be one of my least favorite, an example both of how clever Meretzky can be and also how he can overdo it. I suspect that playtesters had difficulty with this one because they added a second solution that is at least more straight-forward than the first.

Immediately after we arrive, a Venus flytrap approaches. It blocks a path to the west, so you know going west must be important. As it chases us east, we quickly reach a fork in the road where the path circles around a pit in the ground. My immediate thought is that we are supposed to get the pit between us and the flytrap, perhaps lure it to the other side then sidle around so that we can go west without it catching us. That idea was completely wrong. If we hide in the pit, the plant will go away, but she comes back when we emerge. How are we to get past her?

At the beginning of the game, we found a piece of paper with a grid of letters on it in Tiffany’s cell. She claimed to not know what it was and that she wrote it in her sleep. Converted to a spreadsheet for easy editing, the grid looks like this:


My first guess was that it was a code, especially as a code is mentioned in the Lane Mastodon comic. Unfortunately, that is a dead end. My break came when I noticed the word “HEADLIGHT” in the second row from the bottom. When we first discovered the paper, Tiffany had not yet had her “eureka!” moment, but by now we know that a headlight (from a 1933 Ford) is one of the key items that we have to find. Searching carefully, we realize that this matrix is a word search puzzle and some variant on the names of each of the eight objects can be found inside. If we find and remove them all, a secret message is revealed:

The message reads: “HISSING FRIGHTENS FLY TRAPS”. I follow its instructions to hiss at the flytrap chasing us and it is destroyed, allowing me to reach the western edge of the jungle. There, we find a can of “untangling cream” and a circle leading to the hold of a mysterious spaceship. More on those later. If we had not worked out the word search, we could eventually discover a wooden trellis and a bag of leaves. By combining those over the put, we create a flytrap trap that has the same effect.

I wish I loved this puzzle because the idea of a word search isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t make any sense in context. Tiffany wrote it before she designed the anti-Leather Goddesses weapon and it’s strange that she would have embedded a solution to a completely unrelated puzzle inside. Tiffany’s subconscious may be clever, but this feels a bit too clever. If there had been a hint somewhere– perhaps Tiffany remarking about a dream that she had while we were running away from the flytrap– it would have worked better for me. As it is, I solved it on my own but it wasn’t as easy as it looks.


Puzzle #2 – Weird Science

The second major puzzle on Venus is easier but requires trial and error as we navigate a tricky scripted event. We stumble on a mad scientist’s lab in the jungle and are led inside and forced to participate in one of his experiments. We are taken down to the basement where we discover a cage with two gorillas inside (one male and one female), next to a slab covered in strange equipment. We also immediately notice that the cage contains a six-foot length of rubber hose, the first of our key items. We are quickly strapped to the slab and the scientist presses a button. We immediately discover ourselves in the cage, in a gorilla’s body, with an amorous gorilla of the opposite sex nearby.

While the scientist watches carefully, we are given the choice whether or not we want to “frolic” with our gorilla counterpart. Is it bestiality to have sex with a gorilla while you are a gorilla? I have no idea. Regardless of how we choose, the scientist notes our response with excitement and leaves us in the cage.

Escaping is the most difficult part. We do not have the strength to bend the bars, but the game implies that we almost do. How can we get a little more strength? The answer relies on us figuring out the properties of one of the items we found earlier: the chocolate bar delivered with our food way back when we arrived in the Leather Goddesses’ cell. If we had eaten it at any point, we would have received a bit of a “buzz” thanks to the sugar. If we eat it right now, the added sugar and energy it provides is enough to allow our gorilla-self to bend the bars. Unfortunately, the bar is being held by our human-self so that means that we need to quickly put it in the cage during a brief window (1-2 turns) after we are brought downstairs but before we are strapped to the table. Once we are free, we can push the red button to return to our own body, but we should not do so until we (as a gorilla) take the hose out of the cage and untie our human-self. Otherwise, we just wasted time and the game is unwinnable.

This is a fun “on rails” puzzle to solve, but it’s all trial and error and passing items into the cage during that brief window. I worked it out but honestly thought that gorillas (like many other animals) were unable to eat chocolate. Once we get the timing down and do everything we need to do, it’s a fun sequence.

Before we leave Venus, we’ll need to finish exploring the jungle. There’s a coin hidden in an old phone booth, a “Tee Remover” that can be bought off of a traveling salesman, as well as a black circle that gets us back to the main ship. Experienced players may have more difficulty with the traveling salesman than it would appear since he will only accept the flashlight as trade; I was very reluctant to trade my only light source in fear that there would be other dark areas to explore and so only did this when I was stuck elsewhere.

Poor King Midas!

Puzzle #3 – King Mitre
Mars is the largest explorable area of the game, although we will have to navigate some puzzles to get to much of it. The area that we are dropped into initially consists of several ruined castles and deserts, surrounded on three sides by a martian canal system. There’s a canal boat north of King Mitre’s castle– more on him in a moment– but the canal is a one-way trip and can land us in an unwinnable state. The first puzzle we find is perhaps the most famous puzzle of the game: King Mitre.

When we arrive in Mitre’s throne room, we get a long infodump where we learn that the Earth legend of King Midas who turned all that he touched into gold is just a corrupted form of the story of King Mitre who turned everything he touched into forty-five degree angles. The game itself admits that this makes no sense, but we go with it for the sake of the puzzle. Much like in the legend, the now depressed king has turned nearly everything, including his daughter, into a forty-five degree angle. He needs some help. What are we to do?

The answer lies in the odd machine that we bought off the salesman on Venus, the “Tee Remover”:

‘It’s a TEE remover,’ he explains. You ponder what it removes — tea stains, hall T-intersections — even TV star Mr. T crosses your mind, until you recall that it’s only 1936.

The “Tee Remover” is a small device with a door and a button. You place something inside, shut the door, push the button, and it will have all of it’s “T’s” removed. It’s quite clever. Later on, we’ll be able to turn a rabbit into a rabbi and many other fun jokes, but for now the key thing is to realize that the “untangling cream” that we discovered in the Venusian jungle can quickly become “unangling cream” when we remove its t’s. If we apply that to King Mitre’s daughter, she reverts to normal. The king becomes so overjoyed that he provides us with an eighty-two degree angle in reward. How he did this when he can only create 45-degree angles is left as an exercise for the reader. We take it and continue on our quest.

As you leave, you hear behind you the sound like a forty-five degree angle landing on a pile of forty-five degree angles. “Oh shit! Not again!”, you hear Mitre moan.

The joy in this puzzle comes from working out what the “Tee Remover” does and how we can apply it to the situation. Depending on whether the player went to Mars or Venus first, it’s possible that this puzzle could have remained a mystery for a while. Unfortunately, this is the only case where the Tee Remover comes in useful; while there are other t’s to remove for added humor (“rabbit” into “rabbi” is my favorite), there are no more where we need it to solve a puzzle. Overall, this deserves its reputation of being the most “fun” puzzle in the game, but it still doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Elsewhere on Mars, we can discover a marsmouse on “Hickory-Dickory Dock”. As a mouse is one of the key items, we try to pick it up and fail. Despite the name suggesting that this puzzle would have something to do with a clock, the actual solution is trivial: show the mouse the picture of a cat and it will become stunned enough to pick up. It’s a bit of a letdown really, but that is two key objects in just a few minutes!

Pittsburgers call Cleveland “The Mistake on the Lake”

Puzzle #4 – Cleveland Rocks!

In a desert east of Mitre’s castle, we discover a fountain and a black circle that has been drained of color. If we use the black stain that we discovered on Venus, we can re-power the circle and are transported to the mythical land of… Cleveland!

Cleveland is, literally, a joke. After the sprawling expanses of Venus and Mars, we suddenly find ourselves cramped in a tiny suburban area that is somehow cut off from the rest of the world. Meretzky pokes fun at this, but the minimalism of this area feels jarring compared to the dynamic environments elsewhere. I’m sure that was deliberate:

You suddenly find yourself longing for the slime pits of Venus or the sandstorms of Mars. This particular section of Cleveland has exits to the northeast and south.

We can explore two backyards and enter one tiny house. The yards have a bag of leaves and a wooden trellis that we can take, both of which could be used in the alternate Venus Flytrap solution. As it is, the sack is only useful for me as a way to ease the inventory limit.

Inside the house, we find a bedroom with a window open to a neighboring street. Just outside is a 1933 Ford with an intact headlight– one of our key items! If this had been a real location, it would be simple to just go around to the public street where the Ford is parked and pick up the headlight. Instead, we can only get there by climbing out a second-story window. How can we do that? Searching the room, we discover a sheet on the nearby bed. We can tie it to the bedpost, but it’s not long enough to reach the window. We cannot move the bed or tie the sheet to anything closer. The solution is to make the sheet longer by ripping it into strips and then tying them together to create a makeshift rope, then tie the assembled rope to the bed. We are too heavy for the rope, but Tiffany will agree to go down instead. Doing so seems like a mistake:

Tiffany climbs down the rope and unscrews the headlight. Suddenly, a truck barrels down the road and hits Tiffany, carrying her out of sight. Moments later, you hear an explosion. As the smoke drifts past the window, your eyes fill with tears. You hang your head in sorrow for a moment to honor your brave, loyal companion who gave her life that humanity might be safe from the terrible scourge of the Leather Goddesses of Phobos.

Of course, she is revealed to have survived the blast a turn or two later after a misadventure with miners on Pluto or something similarly nonsensical. I could not solve this puzzle on my own and had to take a hint. I worked out that I could tie things to the bed and I was trying to use the sheet as a rope, but I never thought to rip the sheet into strips and assemble them that way. I suspect that I have not watched enough jailbreak movies. Tiffany also usually ignores you when you ask for help, but she leaps to it this time.

My biggest issue with this puzzle is how unnecessary it seems. We’re in Cleveland. The car is parked on a public street. It breaks my sense of immersion in the game to have such a clearly constructed puzzle only make sense within the realm of a game. Had Meretzky had duplicated the exact same puzzle in a motel on Ganymede, I am certain I would have enjoyed it more. Either way, we have picked up our fourth key item. Only four more to go!

But… we’ll just have to wait until next week for our shocking conclusion.

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