Spencer’s floozie: gender and gameplay in Christminster

An in-depth analysis of the role of gender and character in Gareth Rees's Christminster

21 mins read

This article contains major spoilers for Christminster by Gareth Rees, and very minor spoilers for Afflicted by Doug Egan and Infocom’s Zork. It also spoils a relatively early plot element of Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure.

Historical Context

In the mid-90s, interactive fiction was reborn. The commercial companies that had dominated the medium in the 80s had mostly collapsed. But now the internet allowed hobbyist authors to create online spaces where authoring systems and games could be shared and discussed. A pivotal event was the 1993 release of Graham Nelson’s game Curses, which demonstrated that it was possible to rival the older commercial games in terms of size and quality; and the simultaneous release of the authoring system Inform, which enabled anyone to create a game with equal technical sophistication. But while 1993 thus set the stage for the rebirth, it is 1995 that IF historian Jimmy Maher calls ‘the true Year One of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance.’

Why is that? It was the year in which the Interactive Fiction Competition was first organised, and that would turn out to be a community-shaping event. But 1995 is also the year in which the modern canon of interactive fiction begins to take shape. If we look at the 167 games that currently have 50 or more ratings on IFDB, which is a rough indication that they are still regularly played, we find eighteen games from the 70s and 80s. Then we enter a sort of wasteland: in the six years from 1989 to 1994, there is only Curses. But from 1995 onwards, the modern era suddenly springs into full bloom, with six games from 1995 alone.

This is not to say that the mid-90s saw an immediate break with the past. The major works of 1995 – Theatre, Christminster, Jigsaw, A Change in the Weather, and Uncle Zebulon’s Will – are the type of parser puzzle game with which the community was already intimately familiar. A few more years would go by before the epoch of real experimentation began, as can be seen from the release dates of pieces like the puzzleless Photopia (1998) and the conversation game Galatea (2000).

However, in 1995 authors were already eager to engage in much more than mere imitation of the classics. Gareth Rees’s Christminster is a perfect example. For one, it pushes the integration of story, setting, and puzzles beyond almost all earlier adventure games. But it is Christminster’s protagonist, Christabel Spencer, who is especially interesting. To understand what makes her so innovative, we should realise that traditionally, the player characters in IF games had been left more or less blank. If they were not just assumed to belong to the demographic of the author – typically a young Anglo-Saxon male – then these characters were non-characters, certified nobodies whose sole purpose was to be the nexus of potency through which the player could act.

Plundered Hearts – one of the first IF Games with a female protagonist.

Merely having a named and well-defined protagonist was therefore already non-standard, but having a female protagonist was truly rare. Christminster’s most obvious precursor in this respect is Infocom’s 1987 Plundered Hearts, written by Amy Briggs. In this swashbuckling pirate adventure, the protagonist is a young woman whose romantic interest in the dashing captain Jamison lies at the core of the plot. This break with convention did not endear the game to Infocom’s customers. As Aaron Reed explains, many male players and reviewers felt uncomfortable when asked to take on the role of a (heterosexual) woman. Perhaps partly because of this Plundered Hearts was a commercial flop.The negative reception of Plundered Hearts, with which Rees was probably familiar, did not stop him from using a female protagonist in Christminster and from making her gender crucial to the game. Indeed it is not only Christabel’s gender that is important, but also the fact that her gender is negatively perceived by her male-dominated environment. This was a highly innovative move, and the chief topic of analysis in the rest of this article will be Rees’s use of his gendered protagonist.

Lobster and port

In Christminster we follow Christabel Spencer as she comes to the eponymous British university town to visit her brother Malcolm, a junior fellow at Biblioll college. We don’t know whether Christabel expected more than some pleasant punting on the river. There will be punting. But neither the punting, nor anything else about her visit, is pleasant.Rees took the names ‘Christminster’ and ‘Biblioll’ from Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure. The working class protagonist of that book, Jude Fawley, dreams of one day entering the famed university. Once he has established himself as a stonemason in the city of Christminster, Jude writes to several colleges about the possibility of being admitted. Only the Master of Biblioll replies, counseling Jude to keep at his chosen trade rather than seek to enter the university life. Angry and disappointed, Jude engages in an act of late-night vandalism:

The gates were shut, and, by an impulse, he took from his pocket the lump of chalk which as a workman he usually carried there, and wrote along the wall:

‘I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?’ — Job xii. 3. (Jude the Obscure, chapter II-vi.

Just as Jude cannot overcome the distinctions of class and wealth, so Christabel has no chance of ever being seen as a full member of Christminster society. She is a woman, and Biblioll college is firmly male-only. A sign in one of the halls reads:

Entertaining of females in undergraduate rooms is strictly prohibited on pain of rustication. By order of the Bursar.

And the game adds, somewhat unnecessarily, “You feel distinctly unwelcome.” This feeling of not being welcome is established from the start of the game. The gates of Biblioll college turn out to be as closed to Christabel as they were to Jude. She can gain entrance only by first engaging in an act of vandalism more aggressive than her predecessor’s, and then stealing a key from the unhelpful doctor Halfhide. Things only worsen when she finds that her brother Malcolm has disappeared and that his rooms have been ransacked. She also learns, in one of the tensest scenes of the game, that two unsavoury elder dons, Jarboe and Bungay, are almost certainly implicated in her brother’s disappearance. These villains make their disdain for her perfectly clear:

Jarboe waggles his finger and points it at you. “Just go home and forget all about your little holiday. Did you hear that?” he asks you. “Did it penetrate your stupid little head? Go home, keep your nose out of this.”

It is against this background of animosity that Christabel finds herself, about three quarters through the game, invited to a formal college dinner. To her own surprise she is placed in a seat of honour at the high table, next to the college’s Master and among all the senior dons, including the nefarious Jarboe and Bungay.

What are we to make of this honour? As far as outward appearances are concerned, we are treated with the respect and reverence that are due from gentlemen to a woman. But everything about the dinner reinforces the idea that we do not belong here. First, there’s the conversation. Almost nobody talks to us, and if we ourselves try to say anything, the game tells us that our “words are lost in the hubbub of the dinner.” Second, and rather brilliantly, our non-belonging is strongly emphasised by the food itself. This requires some explanation.

At first glance, the dinner is a typical exposition scene, in which other characters talk and we – as players – learn something about the game world. The design challenge of such a scene is that the player must have something to do while the exposition takes place. How does Rees provide for this? Well, he has the dinner commence with lobster. Christabel sees the animal on her plate, and realises that she has no idea how to open and eat it. And so you’ll spend a sizeable number of turns trying to crack its hard shell, while absolutely nobody at the table offers to help you, or even deigns to notice your discomfort. Having survived the first course, we are then offered snails, which generate the same kind of problem, and the same lack of response from our hosts. (As an added insult, the snail turns out to be still alive – a variation on French cuisine that I’ve only seen before in a Blackadder episode where it was used as a form of torture.)

Finally, we get to the after-dinner drinks. The college’s Master puts the decanter of port next to us… and if we do not know what to do, and we probably do not know what to do, the people around us will start making curious, and curiously unhelpful, remarks.

“Ahem,” says the Master, looking at you meaningfully. You gather that something is expected of you.

“Tell me, Miss Spencer,” says Halfhide, “Do you know the Bishop of Bath and Wells?”

So what is expected of us? And what does the Bishop of Bath and Wells have to do with it? This is perhaps better explained by a source with more knowledge of these customs than I, so I hereby present an extract from the article ‘The Etiquette of Port’ published by the very British website Gentleman’s Journal:

[L]isten up gents. Tradition dictates that the Port decanter should be placed on the table to the right of the host or hostess. It is then passed to the left, going clockwise around the table until it comes to rest at its starting point. Port is never passed across the table or back on itself – it’s only to the left. […] What if the Port decanter comes to a standstill during the round? If this happens, it’s considered bad form to demand it. Rather, a gentleman should ask: “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” This traditionally acts as a subtle push to continue passing it around the table.

I do not know why Rees changed the diocese involved, but it’s clear what is going on. We are faced with an utterly pointless ritual where part of the ritual is not explaining the ritual, and which thereby serves to signal one’s membership of the in-group of gentlemen… and, of course, serves equally to exclude those who are not gentlemen. While the dinner scene is technically speaking an exposition scene – we do learn or are reminded of one useful fact that will be important in the final parts of the game – its greater purpose is to emphasise exactly how precarious the protagonist’s position in the world of Christminster is, and how comfortable the men around Christabel are with reminding her of this.1

The freedom of floozies

What are the activities of the player character in a typical adventure game? The vast majority of what we do tends to be exploration: we visit locations, examine everything to be found in them, manipulate objects, take anything the game allows us to, then move on to the next area. Often we return again and again to the same places, trying to discover some clue that we missed the first time.

Such inquisitiveness would be highly unusual in almost every real-life situation. I happen to work at a university, but if I went around examining all its rooms and halls the way Christabel Spencer does in Christminster, my colleagues would certainly ask me whether something was amiss. There are many ways in which adventure game authors have attempted to fit this pattern of gameplay into their fictional world. The oldest trick, quite literally, is to choose a location that is deserted – the abandoned space ship, the Egyptian pyramid, the underground caverns where only the occasional murderous dwarf will disturb us – so that there simply is nobody who takes notice of what we are doing. Another possibility is to make other characters expect this inquisitiveness: the archetype is the police inspector who is investigating the scene of the crime. If neither of those solutions is available, then the NPCs are usually turned into solitary, introspective, or isolated individuals, who either do not care about what the player character is doing, or whose agency is so local that it would not matter if they do. The preoccupied aunt from Curses is a good example of this, but the IF corpus is rife with NPCs who are perfectly happy to sit in one location and do absolutely nothing for however long it takes you to solve all the fiendish puzzles around you.

But what if you want to write a game with a plot like that of Christminster, where the protagonist is faced with scheming opponents whose plans she must actively thwart? An abandoned game world, with the antagonists only entering the scene once the exploration has finished, would take away the sense of urgency. Adopting the inspector archetype involves turning the protagonist into a figure of authority, whereas in this type of plot it is the antagonist who must seem to have the upper hand for most of the game.2 And of course we cannot have the antagonists simply hang around watching the protagonist slowly unravel their schemes! So what can we do?

Christminster’s solution to this is utterly effective: by making the protagonist a woman outsider in a deeply misogynist setting, it is entirely natural that the antagonists will underestimate her; or rather, will not even underestimate her, because they will not even consider the idea that any kind of estimation is necessary. We first meet the evil schemers in our brother’s ransacked rooms, just after we have found the lab journal that they themselves were unable to locate. When they discover us, this is the ensuing conversation (of which we already quoted the final part):

“Well, well, well,” says Jarboe to Bungay. “What do we see here? A little girl skulking in Malcolm Spencer’s bedroom. Who is she, then? Spencer’s floozie, come to look for him? Is that what she is? She looks just like his type.”

“No, I rather think she’s his sister,” says Bungay, “Look at the family resemblance. I rather think she’s come up hoping for a nice day out on the river. Well,” and this latter is directed at you, “he’s not here. He’s gone, scarpered, away.”

Jarboe waggles his finger and points it at you. “Just go home and forget all about your little holiday. Did you hear that?” he asks you. “Did it penetrate your stupid little head? Go home, keep your nose out of this.”

And with that they turn around and walk away. Not for a second does it cross their minds that they should do something about us – kidnap us, have us removed from the college, or at the very least keep an eye on us. Sister or slattern, those are the only possible categories, and both are equally dismissive. Thus it is precisely our status as an inconsequential outsider that allows us to wander the premises more or less at will, and therefore to collect everything that we need to stop Jarboe and Bungay from killing our brother.

Rees is consistent in portraying almost all characters as incapable of attributing any real agency to us. A less disciplined author might have succumbed to the temptation to include a gloating scene, where we can enjoy the evildoers finally realising that it is we, Christabel Spencer, who have laid their plans to waste! But no such thing happens. Bungay dies before our involvement becomes apparent, while Jarboe, well:

Jarboe throws his weight against the door in an attempt to break it down, but without success. “The cretin!” he shouts, “He locked the door on me!” Then he hears your footsteps and whirls around. “You again!” he screams, “This is all your fault!”

He looks as though he is about to attack you, but then he stops. “Give me the knife, little girl,” he says softly. “You shouldn’t be carrying such a dangerous thing.”

When said little girl slashes him with the knife instead of handing it over, Jarboe still fails to see us as an agent, and runs back into the flames to retrieve a key that we have, by then, already pocketed – a possibility he never so much as imagines. It is only fitting that the victorious end text of the game shows us as a helpless hospital patient and gives no indication that anyone knows what we have been up to.

What we see then is that Christabel, as a woman, tends to be more invisible to the other characters than any spell from the Zork universe might have made her. The hilarious high point of this is the scene where we make the Elixir of Life. The entire game has been working towards this. We have uncovered the history, going back hundreds of years, of a secret sect of alchemists who fled to Biblioll college from France, taking with them the recipes and ingredients necessary for distilling the elixir, but unable to fully understand them or put them in practice. It is clear that our brother Malcolm has been trying to make the elixir; and it is also the life work of Bungay and Jarboe. 

Where all these men have failed, it is Christabel who actually succeeds in brewing the Elixir of Life, no doubt the greatest scholarly and magical accomplishment ever to be achieved within the walls of Biblioll. But once again nobody notices her success. We are in the student room of Edward, a nervous boy who is terribly afraid of almost everything, but most especially of being seen with a woman – no doubt he fears rustication. As the Elixir boils, what Edward notices is a strange smell. Rather than asking us what we have been doing, he immediately classifies it as a woman’s perfume.

“Oh no!” says Edward. “What are you doing? When the dusty3 comes in on Monday she’ll accuse me of having some trollop in here, and if she tells the Bursar I shall be in terrible trouble! Please, take it away!”

And thus our pinnacle achievement is perceived, by the only other character who even knows of it, as merely one more chapter in the inexhaustible history of female harlotry.

Moments of Light

It is, to be sure, not entirely impossible for a woman to become famous in the history of alchemy. The first Western alchemist whom we know by name is a woman, ‘Mary the Jewess’. She lived in Alexandria somewhere from the first to the third century AD, and her name is a household name, at least in the sense that it is familiar to cooking enthusiasts: the method she devised for heating substances gently, by putting them in an inner container that is itself put in an outer container filled with boiling water, is still used in the kitchen to for instance melt chocolate, and is called bain-marie; that is, Mary’s bath.

Mary the Jewess – the first named Western alchemist.

Christabel Spencer is unlikely to follow her illustrious predecessor into the annals of alchemy, since nobody notices her making the Elixir of Life, and she herself seems far too British to brag about it. But there are a few moments in the game where people do notice her existence and do take her seriously as an agent, and these moments get a special lustre from the dark background of misogyny against which they take place. The same mechanisms of exclusion that justify our undisturbed adventuring thus also form the framework within which certain key scenes achieve their emotional resonance.

There is, first and least, Edward, whose insecurities are so great that any other human being – even a woman – seems to him someone more competent than he himself is, and therefore a possible source of succour. Our relationship with him starts off on a bad footing when we ‘accidentally’ let his parrot escape, and our further treatment of him is also less than admirable. It’s for a good cause, of course; but perhaps we do feel a little bit guilty, and if we do, that is precisely because Edward at least treats us as a fellow human.

More meaningfully, there is Doctor Wilderspin the archaeologist. While he initially considers us hardly worth his time, we can impress him by first giving him a book he has been unable to locate, and then uncovering a secret tunnel right in his room. Once we do that, he immediately accepts us as an equal in discovery, and enthusiastically joins us for part of the adventure. It is notable that he is also the only character to show any personal interest in us during the dinner. I suspect every player ends up liking Wilderspin, even though the total amount of interaction we have with him is quite limited. The simple fact that he acknowledges our successes is enough.

But the most moving sign of someone taking us seriously is found in the lab book of our brother Malcolm. The lab book is written in code. From another source we learn that the encoding is probably based on a keyword. What keyword could that be? What word would our brother have chosen to be the key for his best-kept secrets? The answer is, of course, ‘Christabel’. I take it that the idea is not, or at least not only, that our name was the first thing he thought of when deciding on a cipher. Rather, he chose it precisely so that we, and only we, would be able to decode his writings if anything happened to him. While Malcolm isn’t there to tell us anything during the game – we only hear him briefly in the epilogue – he still manages to let us know that we are the one person he trusts with his discoveries and his life. It’s an important emotional touch deftly embedded in the solution to a puzzle, the place where one least expects it.

On Integration

Let me turn briefly to the integration of story, setting, and puzzles, a theme that I will also tentatively connect to Christabel’s gender. Much early and even not-so-early interactive fiction seems to have been created out of random elements. Here’s a white house, and underneath it are caves which feature both a Cyclops and a flood control dam; and, oh yes, you are here to collect random treasures for reasons unknown. Perhaps it is unfair to use these examples from Zork I, which is not entirely typical: many later games at least try to make their contents fit the same overall genre and setting. But it is one thing to make sure that everything in a game fits, say, the standard tropes of medieval European fantasy; and it is something else to have a game where puzzles, setting and story are integrated in the sense that they actively shed light on each other.

In Christminster, it is not just that a secret tunnel fits the setting of a mediaeval college. Rather, we know exactly who made the tunnel at which point of the college’s history for what purpose; we understand why the NPC who helps us discover it is not only interested in such things but even the perfect companion to have along on an exploration of it; and what we find at the end of the tunnel is not a random item needed to solve some other puzzle, but information that helps us understand yet other aspects the college. There is a sense in which all the puzzles of Christminster combine into one large puzzle, the puzzle, namely, of understanding this strange place.

I do not know exactly how groundbreaking Christminster was in this regard, but its approach still feels fresh and relevant. It was clearly seen as innovative at the time of its release: Christminster is the central positive example of integrated design in Roger S. G. Sorolla’s 1996 essay Crimes Against Mimesis. Sorolla claims that puzzles, story and setting working together in a realistic way lead to an experience that is more satisfying because then the coherence of the fictional world is not broken. This is surely debatable – among other things, most well-crafted narratives would seem to be unrealistically coherent and none the worse for that, while on the other hand there are superb puzzle games that care not a whit about fictional coherence – but this article is not the place to debate the idea of mimesis (or crimes against it) in general.

Rather, I want to put forward a hypothesis for why integrated design works so well specifically in Christminster. The reason is that it is an essential part of the story that Christabel, the woman who does not belong, gets to understand the inner workings of the hostile college environment – and indeed gets to know them better than her in-crowd adversaries. At the end of the game there is a very real sense in which we grasp Biblioll better than Jarboe and Bungay do, having seen hidden connections that they never noticed. And it is our superior understanding of the very setting that attempted to exclude us as an eternal outsider that allows us to defeat the villains. This is, of course, supremely satisfying. We thus see that Christabel’s gender resonates even with the overall shape of the game’s plot and puzzle design.4

Like most adventure games, Christminster ends up being something of a power fantasy. In this case, not only does the marginalised person win, but it is her marginalisation that allows her to win. This makes it hard to see the game as a straight-up exploration of gender relations. Its mode is romance, not realism, and it could perhaps be criticised for coming to a conclusion that is too comforting for comfort. And yet it seems to me that such criticism would miss the point. Rees does not allow us a traditional victory scene, and he strongly hints that our exploits will never be known to the world. No matter how smart Christabel has been, no matter what she has accomplished, in the eyes of the college she will remain what she always was: a woman, invisible.


There is something quaint, for us in 2023, about Christabel; not because she is not a nameless blanks – we have come to expect IF protagonists to be specific people – but because her character is built up in a way very different from what we usually see nowadays. The contemporary parser protagonist tends to display much more personality than Christabel ever does. In Christminster, by contrast, we learn almost nothing about Christabel.

We don’t know what it would be like to be in a conversation with her, or what her opinions are about anything. (The only topic the game allows her to express opinions on is alchemy, which she dismisses as hogwash, but since she goes on to successfully execute the very recipe she disparages, it is hard to really take this seriously.) And yet the entire game is structured by who Christabel is. The who that she is, however, is not so much a history or a voice or a personality, but her relationship to the setting as a whole and to the characters that inhabit it. As we have seen, this allows Rees to set up highly effective resonances between story, puzzles, setting, and character. It is a design space that we have not explored enough; and one where Christminster can still point the way.


There is a wonderful and to me entirely unexpected historical line of influence which I must share with you, even though it does not belong to the main text of this analysis. The in-depth, spoilery piece about Christminster that you have just read was written to be one of the first articles for The Rosebush. I chose the game for no special reason. I simply had been planning to play it for a long time, and it seemed the sort of piece that would repay careful attention.

Now when I started organising this magazine, it was in part because I wanted to recreate something that had been lost to the community: the SPAG Specifics. These were in-depth, spoilery analyses of specific pieces of interactive fiction that appeared in the online magazine SPAG. Today, I found out that the first SPAG Specifics appeared in SPAG #20, in 2000. Paul O’Brian explains in his editorial in that issue that he was inspired to start the Specifics section by a letter to the editor that appeared five years earlier, in SPAG #6. This letter to the editor ends with the following lines:

I think criticism of adventure games needs to get beyond the generalities and into specifics. At the moment we have a state of affairs where we all have our own ideas about which games are good and why, but we have no effective means of communicating our separate understandings to each other.

I would like to see SPAG containing a few in-depth reviews, especially if they contain major spoilers.

The author of the letter from 1995? Gareth Rees.


  1. Amusingly, Rees may have also had an additional, more pragmatic reason to plan a dinner scene. He writes in a 1996 review of Andrew Plotkin’s A Change in the Weather, in SPAG Magazine #8: “I was reminded of my decision in Christminster to keep the player indoors from seven p.m. until ten so that I didn’t have to write descriptions of the sun going down!”[back]
  2. One game which actually does make this archetype work in the face of powerful opponents is Afflicted (Doug Egan, 2008), but it does it through a humorous mismatch between the problem you face and the type of inspector you are.[back]
  3. ‘Dusty’, we are informed by the helpful history of bug reports Gareth Rees keeps on his website, is a neologism for a cleaning lady suggested by Graham Nelson with the comment that it has ‘the right precious, somewhat patronising ring to it.’[back]
  4. The hypothesis just put forward also explains why the one puzzle that does not take place in Biblioll itself, the convoluted initial scene in which we must gain entrance to the college, is the weakest by far – to the point that it could easily turn off a modern player who might well enjoy everything else about Christminster. In this puzzle Rees follows the logic of the traditional adventure game. We throw a stone at a window because we have a stone and there is a window. There’s no integration to speak of. But how could there be? Before Christabel enters the college, she cannot engage in the hermeneutic battle for its soul that will occupy her for the rest of the game. It is easy to see how the weakness of this puzzle was almost necessary, given the overall set-up.[back]


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Victor Gijsbers

Victor Gijsbers is a philosopher and interactive fiction writer from the Netherlands. He has written both parser games, including The Baron (2006) and Kerkerkruip (2011), and choice games, including Turandot (2019). Victor has a long-standing interest in writing interactive fiction criticism and used to publish pieces in SPAG magazine and on his old blog The Gaming Philosopher.