Alien Adventure (Zett, 1981)   Leave a comment

In space, no one can hear you scream.

Peter Kirsch only did three of the Softside Adventures of the Month in 1981 (we recently played the first installment circa June 1981, Arabian Adventure). While Kirsch wrote quite a few through the span of the series, he didn’t do all of them, and that includes the July 1981 installment by Alan J. Zett. It continues the “codge liberally off a movie” theme.

Ripley from the movie, holding a flamethrower.

It’s got two innovations, one very intentional, one potentially accidental.

The accidental innovation is that because it is based on a movie with a female lead, it’s essentially the first adventure with a defined female lead (the loophole being no explicit mention is made in the game itself).

Adventures with defined characters are still rare in this era. They’ve mostly been ciphers for the player to inhabit; even if there’s a backstory, it’s been handwavy enough to allow the player to “be” in the universe.

With All the Adventures we’ve had well-defined male leads with Alderbaran III, Will O’ the Wisp, and G.F.S. Sorceress and a few more minor implied male leads like Dr. Livingston using the pronoun “he” on what might be describing the player character. (For more discussion, there’s a forum thread here that mentions another potential game with a female lead; that one’s about five away on my queue so you’ll get to decide for yourself if it counts soon.)

The intentional innovation is difficulty levels.

We did see some difficulty levels in Lugi which affected the overall time allotted to finish the game, and we’ve had “self-selected” difficulty with optional points in games like Acheton, but the difficulty here is more elaborate and changes four separate things (I’ll get into details when they come up).

The pod has a cat in it. (From the movie, Ripley and the ship’s cat survive, so this is a direct movie reference.)

Exploring the ship, I found a plethora of items including a flamethrower and a tracker. And here we get to our first (and perhaps most important) difference between difficulty levels:

At higher difficulty levels, the Alien will appear randomly, and you need to use a flamethrower on it. On beginner difficulty the Alien does not appear at all (except in egg form later) so you can ignore the flamethrower.

This affects the feel of the game significantly; there’s an added layer of tension, and of course, the flamethrower fills a position in your inventory. (The maximum is five objects.)

To escape, all you need to do is find a power pack that goes in the escape shuttle where you can CONNECT PACK, then PULL LEVER.

I brought the cat along, which is the source of the 10 points.

To get more, you have to grab treasures from the planet. Getting on the planet requires taking a spacesuit, struggling with verbs for a while trying to wear it, and then realizing you can EXAMINE SUIT first and find the command SUIT UP is given explicitly.

The suit has 80 turns of air at difficulty 1, 160 turns at difficulty 2, and 240 turns at difficulty 3.

After wearing the suit and opening the airlock comes the most evil part of the game. There’s a platform outside that lets you JUMP DOWN to explore, but you find out later this gets you stuck — there’s no way back up to the platform. The appropriate action is to EXAMINE PLATFORM (even though it isn’t described as an object)…

…and then the button will cause the platform to lower and raise itself. This is a softlock of maximum annoyance; examining something in the description is not the norm for this game or games in general at the time and this is the kind of softlock where it’s not obvious you’re in a softlock even once you run into it — I assumed for a long time there was an extra puzzle from the planet that would allow getting back up to the planet. Argh!

On the planet, you can DIG HOLE to get to a DIAMOND, and then DIG HOLE while in the hole to get an ALIEN TELEPORTER; both are treasures, although the teleporter doesn’t work. To get out you needed to have previously known to drop a WINCH AND ROPE (an item from back in the ship) and CONNECT ROPE because otherwise, you’re too deep to get out.

This isn’t quite as evil as it could be, because there’s another hole later. You find an alien ship with an open airlock, some slimy corridors, a skeleton, and a RARE JEWEL.

You get stuck if you GO HOLE, but at least this one feels telegraphed. The right actions are to DROP WINCH, CONNECT ROPE, and GO HOLE.

Messing with the egg is unwise; a small alien pops out and gets you.

With the treasures in hand, you can escape … although you’ll still be a little short on points. To get full marks, you need to take FUEL and OXYGEN with you on the shuttle, and blow up the planet on your way out.

(I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure. Also, this is from the sequel many years later, not the original Alien movie, but it works just as well.)

Back on the ship, there’s a reactor with a helpful button that blows everything up, although I’m unclear why the ship would have such a button in the first place.

25 moves for advanced difficulty, 50 for intermediate, 75 for beginner.

Assuming you have all the treasures and have set things to explode, you can get the full 100 points.

As the move count indicates, my final screenshot was taken on beginner difficulty; after finding all the differences above I found them too annoying to deal with on a final run.

I really was rooting for this one — the atmosphere was generally terrific, the tiered difficulty was interesting, and I did get at least some of the buzz of being in the Alien universe. Unfortunately, while I’ve blitzed by them in this explanation, the softlocks (the deep hole and the platform) ended up dominating my gameplay. With this game (and many in general from this era) it’s like each person was mastering different elements of design, while leaving flaws with other elements, but the mastered and flawed parts are slightly different for each game. Because adventure games were so new, there wasn’t enough knowledge and cross-referencing to collate what was being learned in a collective way.

Just to give an impression of my posting schedule, coming up I have (in some order):

1. an update on Alkemstone, since there’s been a surge of interest lately for reasons I’ll get into

2. a return to Star Trek: 25th Anniversary where I finish the second half of the game

3. Brian Fargo’s first game (you might know him better as the designer of the classic CRPG Wasteland)

Posted July 13, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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It Takes a Thief (1981)   2 comments

We’re back to delightfully obscure territory here, with another game not mentioned on any of my usual sources. I found it amidst a giant stack of TRS-80 disks from Gary Hammond with contents given by index card (thankfully transferred to an Excel spreadsheet).

It Takes a Thief originally looked too short to be an adventure game — less than 8K of space, when most adventures hit at least 12K — but since there were other adventure games on the list, I checked it anyway and hit gold.

The game was even good enough to give a year and author name on the first line of code: Copyright 1981 Randy Dobkin.

There’s no intro text, but the premise is clear enough: you’re trying to break into a house and take their stuff, armed with a flashlight and pistol.

Games where the protagonist is depicted straightforwardly as a criminal are rare for this era (although Burglar’s Adventure is another one we’ll see from 1981). However, the premise works as a logical way to stay within the Treasure Hunt tradition since many of the other Treasure Hunt games (raiding a pyramid, say) also involve thief protagonists, just they don’t get acknowledged as such.

If you hang out in this location longer than one turn the neighbor calls the police.

To get inside the house you first need to break in the front door; you find keys under the doormat, but trying to then just use them leads to disaster.

R R R I N G !
The alarm went off!
I’ve been caught.
The police are taking me away.

You can climb onto the roof of the house and find an alarm. The alarm is not described as a normal object you can take, which led me to some serious verb-hunting.

I turned out to be correct with DISARM but I wasn’t holding the keys from the doormat; the “I can’t right now” is just indicating that you don’t have the item you need.

Once inside the house, there’s the fairly standard kitchen, living room, utility room, and so forth, but unlike the standard Your House game, there are people sleeping in the bedrooms.

If you try to open the box you’re given away:

S Q E A K !
The thing needed oil!
I’ve been caught.
The police are taking me away.

There’s WD-40 elsewhere which resolves the issue. The box has a DIAMOND RING, PEARL NECKLACE, and RUBY BRACELET which seems like enough of a haul already? Indeed you can just head back to your getaway car now if you want:

I got away in my getaway car.
You got 480 out of a possible 720 points.
You have earned the rank of Filcher.

To get more you need to dig a little deeper; there’s a SAFE behind a PAINTING that requires a combination, and a file cabinet containing a paper with said combination.

That’s still not quite all the loot.

This one’s fairly elaborate and I admit I needed source code diving. The key is to use an AEROSOL CAN. The problem is if you SPRAY AEROSOL CAN you knock yourself out, but if you can protect yourself from its effect you can knock Rover out.

You have to have a COFFEE CAN and a HALLOWEEN MASK from two of the rooms in the house; and the CHARCOAL from outside where the NOSY NEIGHBOR was.

However, the only way to get by the nosy neighbor is … cold-blooded murder. As mentioned earlier, you start the game with a PISTOL, and for some random reason the house has a SILENCER, letting you achieve a DEAD NEIGHBOR.

With the COFFEE CAN, MASK, AND CHARCOAL all in your inventory at the same time, they become a GAS MASK.

This lets you steal the television and video recorder. You know, I’m going to say the owner can keep those.

Ok, the fact I could make the choice to pass on the bit where thievery goes into murder was pretty interesting. And I was fairly shocked by how well the parser worked, considering the 8K constraints. (The only other time we’ve seen something comparable in size is ADV.CAVES, which came off as truncated and incomplete; this was decidedly a full game.) I’ve dropped the source code here and you can try it out online by dropping the source into an online emulator.

Posted July 10, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Alien Adventure: A Sadistic Exercise in Not Giving Feedback   2 comments

Matt and Brian Decker poked at the source code of Chao’s Alien Adventure enough that I decided to make another try.

This was perhaps a mistake, or at least for me. For you reading this, it might be entertaining.

TRS-80 Model III, picture by Zalasem1, CC BY-SA 4.0.

AS A COPING MECHANISM FOR HOW BAD THIS GAME WAS I’M GOING TO WRITE RANDOM STUFF FOR CAPTIONS, OK?

The main thing I was missing was I needed to take the glasses (used to read the message in the opening) up to the second floor. Even trying to do so presented some difficulties.

When toting around the glasses, I tried to get the silver knife.

THE KNIFE GENTLY LEVITATES AND FLOATS OUT OF YOUR REACH.

IT COMES BACK TO REST ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM.

This apparently only happens when you’re carrying the glasses, for no clear reason at all. (The knife, incidentally, can be used to drive away the sepulavite instead of the gun, but you have to use the verb KILL instead of STAB even though both are recognized. STAB sometimes works but sometimes it randomly fails.)

ZUB ZUB ZUB ZUB

The glasses also can’t, again for no apparent reason, be carried up the escalator to the second floor. The game just says “No” if you try with no indication that the glasses are the problem. It also just says “No” if you don’t have the knife, or you haven’t visited some of the rooms (?) or if the phase of the moon is wrong and Mercury is out of alignment.

You have to THROW / GLASSES to get them up the escalator.

The glasses let you see the items at the FEED ME and DRINK ME spots upstairs.

The EAT ME spot had a hamburger. The glasses also let you spot a magic cape which (when carried) causes the aliens to be scared away, so you don’t need the gun or the knife anymore after that.

Last time I was stuck at getting overcome with thirst upon trying to get to a rescue ship. The beer was the right beverage (not the root beer, even though the game describes you drinking the root beer). However, DRINK / BEER just gets I can’t. Matt W. sleuthed out that you needed to open the beer first, but OPEN / BEER got an entirely different error message. I finally hit upon (after dying the first time and going through the whole sequence again) that you can only OPEN / CAN instead of BEER.

SOMETIMES I WORRY IF MY WRITING IS INTERESTING ENOUGH

After quenching the thirst you are overcoming by hunger, but fortunately, EAT / HAMBURGER went over correctly without any parser struggles. Then I knew (from previous source diving) that TURN ON / SHIP was the correct command, but I was told

How can I? I’m a computer, not a magician !

I KNOW EVERYTHING HURTS RIGHT NOW BUT IT’S GOING TO BE OK

A bit more poking in the source code revealed I needed to be holding the gold key; I guess it counts as a door key *and* as a key to opening the ship. It is unclear how this fits into the magician reference.

Key in hand, I gave it another try:

I can’t.

I FOUND THIS QUOTE ATTRIBUTED TO HELEN KELLER ABOUT SUFFERING BUT FOUND NO EVIDENCE SHE ACTUALLY SAID IT, WHY DON’T QUOTE BOOKS GIVE THEIR SOURCES?

I needed to also be carrying a generator. The generator is out on the open on the second floor, but sometimes when you try to pick it up it floats away like the knife earlier. I have no idea the conditions when it floats or doesn’t, but I was finally able to get the generator and come back and find that … the ship was broken.

Fortunately, there are three ships, so I tried each one until coming across the right one.

It’s hard to convey how completely bizarre and frustrating this was to play when the game kept throwing sensical and nonsensical obstacles without any notion of what was going on.

WE SHOULD REMEMBER THIS WAS JUST A TEENAGER AND IN THE DEEP EARLY YEARS OF ADVENTURE GAMES BUT I STILL GOT THE IMPRESSION THE GAME WAS INTENTIONALLY MAKING THINGS HARDER THAN THEY NEEDED TO BE JUST TO ANNOY THE PLAYER

LOOK I FOUND A DIFFERENT ACTUAL SOURCED HELEN KELLER QUOTE FROM A LETTER SHE WROTE TO CLAIRE HEINEMAN IN 1943, LET’S FINISH OFF WITH THAT

I am younger today than I was at twenty-five. Of course the furrows of suffering have been dug deeper, but so have those of understanding, sympathy, and inner happiness. Whatever age may do to my earthly shell, I shall never grow cynical or indifferent — and one cannot measure the reserve power locked up in that assurance.

Posted July 8, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Alien Adventure (Chou, 1981)   11 comments

We’ve had quite a few games by teenagers now, enough so that it’s hardly a surprise when I unearth another one: Alien Adventure is a TRS-80 game written by Thomas Chou,

SOPHOMORE 1980-81
WARREN CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL
VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI

What has been surprising so far is a lack of teenaged “voice”. Barring spelling and grammar errors; the sheer minimalism enforced by computer limits has led to relatively brisk prose. For example, in the game I just played, Interstellar War:

A missile streams out from this space ship, and misses the enemy ship!
The enemy ship returns fire with its own missile!
Your point defense laser system knocks it out of the sky just in time before it reaches you!

Compare with the stand-alone story the game was based on, that is, what the teen-aged author Roger Wilcox was like when he didn’t have to worry about character limits.

“Then what are you waiting for?? Send out an anti- missile!!”

The helmsman didn’t waste time in responding, but simply carried out the order. The small missile streaked toward its intended target, but instead of exploding when it hit, it…melted! That thing must’ve had a temperature of over three thousand degrees celsius!! As the thing continued to race toward Zelta-Dee, the commander gave the order to split it with their most powerful microwelding laser. The laser went through it as a sword through butter, but it did not split in half— instead, it reassembled into a long, narrow cylinder. Now it became obvious—yes it was matter, but in the form of a very hot liquid or gas— probably liquid. The commander made his biggest defensive order: “With the only exception being life support, divert all power to the screen!”

In Alien Adventure, Thomas Chou jettisoned some typical parser amenities (you’ll see specifics shortly) for longer text, but that resulted in a very, ah, high school sophomore kind of read.

Before the game proper even starts there’s an “intro” file which gives credit to a “Cord Coslor” in addition to Chou, asks the player PLEASE INSERT 25 CENTS and prompts the player to type the number 25, and then has a long screen before the game proper starts.

Now this reminds me of the writing of teenagers; the rambling tone, the bragging about the BASIC being machine language quality, the “SINCE YOU’RE CRYING NOW JUST FORGET IT YOU BIG BALL BABY” line and the “MWA” at the end.

The game asks your name and if you’re male or female, and then it’s off to the mission:

The game strongly hinted (in that long opening) you needed to HIT DOOR, so I was quite baffled when I HIT DOOR and the game responded “What ?”

This wasn’t an error message. The parser asks for the verb and noun separately. “Your command” is not referring to a full VERB NOUN combo, but just the verb; then it prompts “What ?” where you enter just the noun.

This was an absolute pain and I kept accidentally typing two-word commands the entire time I was playing, then having to type the noun again. An example from later in the game:

THERE IS A HEAVY DUTY FLASHLIGHT HERE.

Your command ? GET FLASHLIGHT

What ? FLASHLIGHT

(This is incidentally the approach some early Japanese adventure games used, since parsing Japanese is difficult and really only managed successfully when SystemSoft made ports of Infocom games in the 90s.)

Back to the opening: after HIT and then DOOR:

You’re dropped in a space station with lots of bodies and aliens that attack at random.

You have a gun (from the start) which you can use to teleport but not kill the aliens.

There are at least two sepulvadites; a male and female version. Remember, the game asked you to choose a gender at the start; if you are the opposite gender of the sepulvadite you are facing, you can KISS / SPULVADITE to drive it away.

They’re strictly hetero; if you try to kiss the male alien when you’re male or female alien when you’re female, you’re told “Being a member of the same sex, it (Luckily) shows no interest in you.”

Placed randomly, the first floor of the station has a silver knife, a key, a flashlight, a battery, a root beer, and glasses.

The glasses can be used to read a message on the wall.

To escape, you need to get into one of the “hidden passage” rooms using UNLOCK / DOOR followed by OPEN / DOOR while holding a key. Inside the hidden rooms are dark, so you also need a flashlight and a battery and then the commands TURN ON / FLASHLIGHT.

TURN ON I needed to dive the source code for; I was under the impression all verbs were single word commands, so I tried LIGHT (as works in most games) but no: it has to be specifically TURN ON.

Once inside the hidden passage, you can try CLIMB / ESCALATOR but sometimes it doesn’t work and the game says “No”. I don’t understand why; when this happened I would wander the station a little and come back and try again.

The second floor has three escape ships. The goal (according to the source code) is to find the correct one of the three ships, TURN ON / SHIP, and fly to victory. I’m saying “the source code” because I never quite managed it, possibly due to a bug.

The problem is when entering the ship room the game is programmed to make the protagonist thirsty.

While dying from thirst, the player can’t use the ship. I drank root beer which had a message indicated the effect was cured, yet the effect kept going. So I suspect there’s a bug here.

I might be missing something. There’s a room with a voice saying DRINK ME

a similar one with a voice saying EAT ME, and a moss that complains about being dry.

However, I haven’t been able to get anything useful to happen at those places, and death results in a reset with the strange non-working escalators, so I’m past my patience enough to throw in the towel here. The alien eats well tonight.

(Still, there’s always someone from my audience who is curious, so you can play the game online here or read the source code here.)

Posted July 7, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Interstellar War: Safe for Peace   6 comments

For those not versed in the ways of Star Trek, a brief supercut of technobabble from Discovery:

Starting in the Next Generation days, writers would often put “(TECH)” in their draft scripts to be later filled in by the science advisor André Bormanis. With technobabble, the audience does not need to understand the actual content of what is being said; it only needs to be conveyed that the characters have confidence in what is going on.

In interactive form, having the audience not understand how things work is significantly more of a problem. Infocom’s Starcross (1982) managed fairly well with the inclusion of realistic physics which could be sussed out by a canny player; Interstellar War’s second part of the game, on the other hand, mostly feels like “magic”.

I left off last time having teleported onto a ship orbiting above the main character’s destroyed planet, and a “treaty”. The room with the treaty also had a red button marked “limbo” and a gold button marked “fire” which did nothing. A bit of poking around yielded a computer room with a “chip shunt”, a “engine room” with an “empty drive box”, and a “vacuum oven” where it’s possible to die in colorful fashion.

You are in a plastic room beside a vacuum oven. Visible items:

Pulled-down lever. Open oven door.

Obvious exits: West

>PUSH LEVER
Ok
Through a window in the door, you see a red glow.
And the heat comes out! You’re fried!

A storage room included a magnetic bottle, field-charged tongs, a lightning rod, and a suit of hardened titanium armor.

Technobabble Moment #1: In the engine room, there’s valve which releases “fusile deuterium” from the engine; in normal circumstances this kills you, but if you’re holding the magnetic bottle, it gets contained inside. There’s no reason to suss this out other than just experiment.

You are in the engine room. Visible items:

Window into engine. Large knob & valve. Empty drive box.

Obvious exits: North

>TURN KNOB
A stream of fusile deuterium shoots out from the engine, and is instantly pulled into the magnetic bottle.

This is still pretty easy to run into accidentally, but here I was terribly stuck and had to resort to periodic checks at Dale Dobson’s walkthrough. (He himself had to check the source code for some things.)

The first thing I missed was that the titanium armor lets you go back to the sandstorm that melted the wrench from last time, and enter it. I admit a failure to visualize; I didn’t think of the sandstorm being an extra “room” it was possible to enter.

You’re right on top of a dangerous whirlpool of sand. The sand is swirling fast enough to grind anything.

Obvious exits: South

>ENTER WHIRLPOOL
You are in the sandy whirlpool. Visible items:

Piece of silicon.

Obvious exits: Up

Technobabble Moment #2: Once you have the silicon you can take it back to the vacuum oven, turn on the oven, and end up with … still the silicon, but also some transistor crystals.

>PUSH LEVER
Ok
Through a window in the door, you see a red glow.

>PULL LEVER
Ok
The glow from the oven window ceases.

>OPEN DOOR
Ok

>GO DOOR
Ok

You are in the vacuum oven. Visible items:

Piece of silicon. Transistor crystals.

Technobabble Moment #3: You can then take the two items and MIX which obtains a computer chip, which is then usable at the chip shunt. This fixes the inactive red and gold buttons. The gold button fires a missile which flies harmlessly into space, while the red button complains the engine isn’t working yet.

>PUSH GOLD
A missile streams out from this space ship, and travels harmlessly into space.

Technobabble Moment #4: To fix the engine requires dropping the bottle with fusile deuterium, getting out the lightning rod and typing THROW ROD.

>DROP BOTTLE
Ok

>THROW ROD
It flies into the air, catches a bolt, and brings it down to the bottle.

The bottle becomes a “reverse-charged bottle” in the process.

Technobabble Moment #5: Now the bottle can be inserted into the empty drive box at the engine, and the engine is now described as full of antimatter. So (begin Trek monologue here) fusile deuterium combined with lightning obtained by throwing a lightning rod should generate sufficient antimatter to run the drive, Captain! (end Trek monologue)

>PUSH RED
A tunnel of seemingly infinite length forms in front of your ship, and it is suddenly whisked into it. Stars pass by at tens of thousands of times the speed of light for a few minutes, and then the “limbo” travel draws to a close.

This flies the ship into a confrontation with the enemy! Fortunately, we have the arsenal of freedom:

>PUSH GOLD
A missile streams out from this space ship, and misses the enemy ship!
The enemy ship returns fire with its own missile!
Your point defense laser system knocks it out of the sky just in time before it reaches you!

>PUSH GOLD
A missile streams out from this space ship, and scores a direct hit!
In a soundless concussion of light, the entire enemy ship is enveloped in a thermonuclear fireball!
You’ve made the systems safe for peace! … For now.

This would have been mostly satisfying without the technobabble blitz. The usual “fix” would be to add more description to the various items so that, e.g., it’d be clear that the lightning rod was a thing you throw. I realize intent was likely to force the player to experiment; while experiment can on occasion be satisfying, the overall narrative effect was of the main character blundering into a working ship.

From the first-draft script for Voyager’s episode Parallax, season 1. You can see the use of (TECH). Image originally from an eBay auction.

Posted July 3, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Interstellar War (1981)   4 comments

This marks this blog’s 9th game by Roger M. Wilcox (see: 123, 456, 7, 8). His best from 1980 is (in both his and my opinion) #7, Vial of Doom. He went on a streak in 1981 and finished nine games. They were “private” games only released to the public much, much, later.

Interstellar War is based on a short story the author wrote when he was 15.

Then, a scientist thought to be mad created an advanced form of the antimatter bomb, which was directional and apparently one-way. The fascinating thing about this bomb was that when the center of the explosion was examined, it had poked a hole in the continuity of space that was two-dimensional and one-sided. Essentially, this was a hyperspace bomb! When the bombs were delivered to the five systems, an unusual and unique idea was developed. The idea was to line up the bombs exactly (within a thousandth of a second) between two systems (starting with A. Centauri and Sol), and firing them simoultaneously. Theoretically, this would make a hyperspace “tunnel” capable of shooting craft (and radio) through it at unmeasurable speeds.

Before long, the five systems had links between them in a circular fashion, formina a rather crude pentagon, and trade had become a way of life. Forevermore, light would be considered extremely slow.

(The spelling is as in the original.) Wilcox later developed a Pentagon War universe with extra background materials and a hexmap game.

I browsed but admittedly did not read closely the materials; no matter what I would have been puzzled at the game’s opening.

You are in a jungle full of dead foliage. Visible items:

Dead fern tree.

It’s unclear at the start who the main character is and how this starting place is related to the Pentagon universe, although both things get revealed later. Given the “private game” status it’s possible the author didn’t have any particular in medias res method in mind and just started writing, but this does (accidentally?) make a moment later in the game where everything locks into place more effective.

After climbing the tree and swinging on a vine, I was locked in for a while in two desert locations.

You are in a desert wasteland. Visible items:

Big pile of rocks.

Obvious exits: North

>N

You are in a desert wasteland. Visible items:

Lower half of a body.

Obvious exits: South

>LOOK BODY

You found something.

This yielded me a wrench, but going back to the rocks and trying to whack at them in various ways with it didn’t help. I finally resorted to KICK ROCKS, which buried me in a landslide, but I was able to DIG and get out.

You are in a completely decimated village. The decimation seems to have been caused by a single weapon.

Obvious exits: North South East West

>S

You are on the outskirts of the village. Technology seems to have been practiced and was thriving here once. Visible items:

Dead body.

Obvious exits: North East

>LOOK BODY
The lower half of his body seems to have been blown far away by the same thing that destroyed this village. The upper half was in the process of pulling down a lever in panic just before the lower half got blown away. A sign above the lever reads: “For emergency use only.” The dead body has bled the lever in place.

Well, there’s the other half of the body. I fruitlessly tried applying the wrench in attempt to turn the lever, but the game told me it was “bled shut”.

This was an interesting piece of distraction; clearly, the original poor soul was trying to use the wrench on the lever, but the wrench here gets used in a much different way.

The open map included a shallow pond, an ammonia-filled area (which causes instant death) and a “dangerous whirlpool of sand” where “the sand is swirling fast enough to grind anything”. I also found a bucket and a curious plastic bag.

You’d have to roll around in order to move while inside it. It can be closed, but only from the inside. Inside it is a small valve control, which opens & closes the valve to a pouch on he outside of the bag.

I went in the bag, closed in, rolled into the ammonia area, opened the valve to let in some ammonia, rolled all the way to the pond, opened the valve, and got myself a puddle of ammonium hydroxide. I was then able to use the bucket to get the hydroxide and clean the bloody lever, although it was still “rusted”.

To take care of the rust, I had to drop the wrench at the sandstorm, which melted it, then pick up the melted part with the bucket (…somehow) and pour the metal onto the lever.

Well, the author is trying hard to subvert expectations at least. The transformation of objects was unusual enough it took me a while to get through the above. Pulling the lever teleported me to a spaceship.

You are in a plastic four-way intersection.

Obvious exits North South East West

I’ve explored the ship and found a “peace” treaty, and the quote marks are there in the game…

“We Alpha-Centaurians and humans agree to terms of peace, even though we want to tear each others’ throats out.
Signed,
James Carter
Holsteader”
Both signatures appear reluctant.

…and this room.

You are in the viewing chamber. Visible items:

Your decimated planet.

Obvious exits: Down

Up to here, it wasn’t clear the protagonist had any investment in what was going on; there’s the implication that the vaporized village was, in fact, the one they lived in, which contextualized the previous events in a way I found startling.

There’s an engine that looks like it needs fixing before I make any further progress, and a “suit of titanium armor”. As I’m stuck and don’t want to spoil any puzzles yet, I’m going to stop off here until next time.

Posted July 2, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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June Hiatus   5 comments

I was planning on taking two weeks off anyway, but there have been many … things … going on lately, such that now is a good time to take a rest.

I still may work on a few posts but I’ll schedule them for the start of July and we can kick back into gear. In the meantime, The Adventure Gamer just started on Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Nathan Manhey has started on Haunt, and Ahab at Data Driven Gamer has dissected the 1982 game The Hobbit. (I haven’t read the latter because I don’t want spoilers, but a brief eyeballing indicates he gets into specifics on how the game’s mechanics work.)

Also, Narrascope is currently in progress and there’s already lots of great videos to watch, including Graham Nelson on developments in Inform 7 and a keynote by Xalavier Nelson Jr. (of the fantastic Hypnospace Outlaw).

Stay safe, everyone!

Posted June 2, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Arabian Adventure (1981)   6 comments

Last time Peter Kirsch came up was regarding his game Kidnapped as published in Softside magazine. I also mentioned despite being obscure now, he has an epic number of adventures attached to his name, because he was the author of quite a few entries in the Softside’s Adventure of the Month series, starting in June 1981 and running all the way through 1984.

This Sinbad tribute game seems more based on the Harryhausen movies than any sort of original source material, and since skeleton combat makes an appearance, here’s a brief clip from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958):

The games were released on a monthly basis for Apple II, Atari 800, and TRS-80, although only the Atari folks seem to have a complete collection, so I’ll mostly be playing on that platform.

The game tries to be structured “cinematically” with brief “cutscenes” like the opening above. If you ENTER PALACE you hear screams coming from upstairs, and then if you go upstairs, as the game narrates:

You run to the window and just manage to see Princess Jasmine flown off on a giant roc in the grasp of Rex, wizard of darkness.

(Side note: as the editors at CASA Solution Archive point out, Jasmine is not a name found in the original stories; it also isn’t in any of the Harryhausen movies. However, this is related to the Disney folks only coincidentally; the Jasmine in Disney’s 1991 movie Aladdin is named after the actress Jasmine Guy.)

The wizard left behind a “magic lamp” which you can rub to have a genie give you a rare arabian riyal. The Riyal can be taken to a pawn shop and traded for regular riyals, which then can be used to buy a carpet. I think you can guess where this is going.

SAY FLY

Carpet slowly lifts off, then speeds up and carries you off to some far off location.

The carpet takes you to a mashed-up area with a desert, forest, and beach next to a “Whistling Sea”.

You see a roc lift off from a mountain in the distance carrying a shrieking princess. It disappears across the ‘Whistling Sea’

While there’s an oar at the beach, there’s no boat; you have to go to the mountain first (grabbing some TWINE laying around in the forest on the way), and fight some skeletons.

You just type KILL SKELETON over and over and eventually they go from six to zero; sometimes you miss. I get the impression the intent is to again be “cinematic” with the hitting/missing being a proxy for a more elaborate combat situation like in the movie. In terms of actual gameplay it’s just repetitive.

Past the skeletons you can find a cave with an AXE, a FISHING POLE, and a MAGNET. There’s also an IRON KEY stuck in a SHALLOW ‘SEA OF DECEIVE’.

I’m guessing (adding in the TWINE I already mentioned) you know how to get the key, but the actual command took me a while: you’re supposed to TIE MAGNET. TIE POLE or MAKE POLE or ATTACH MAGNET don’t work. After that, GET KEY now maps onto the command “GET KEY BY USING THE FISHING POLE” rather than “GET KEY BY DIVING IN AND DYING”, although I admit I was rather nervous at first because the change in command is non-obvious and I could see THROW POLE or some other oddity being the solution.

(If you remember my Parallel Universes Problem post from Kidnapped, in that game it was possible to threaten the kidnapper with a gun at the same time as picking something up — that is, the command GET DOLLAR did both things — as long as you had a weapon at hand; it was non-obvious that a particular item in inventory would cause the extra action. Here is a similar situation, where GET implies two entirely different actions based on held inventory.)

The key unlocks a chest with some more riyals. Leaving the cave, I was able to take those riyals back to the shops I missed and buy a SAUCER and a COCONUT, for no other reason than they happened to be there.

Moving on: I was able to chop the trees in the forest, and then had to look up that BUILD RAFT was a command (I did try MAKE RAFT, grrr). I was then able to take the raft to the sea and paddle my way forth, whereupon I met sea monster.

More cinema! Like the skeletons, there’s some randomization; you’re just supposed to draw your sword, and sometimes you miss when you try to attack.

After the serpent comes another beach, a cyclops, and the most absurd puzzle of the game.

You see, the magic lamp at the start get you (rather underwhelmingly) a rare riyal that could be traded for 5 regular riyals. Any subsequent attempts of RUB LAMP just lead to a snoring sound and being asked to go away.

Unless you’re being chased by the Cyclops. After meeting the cyclops, you can “run away” to the west, then climb up CYCLOPS MOUNTAIN until you can go no farther…

…and then, and only then, are you able to RUB LAMP.

Then you can EAT BANANA and DROP PEEL.

There are lots of weird exceptions so don’t take this as Absolute Theory, but there are two essential opposing methods to adventure writing: simulationist and cinematic. Simulationist would be something like Adventure or Zork where the world comes first, and the interactions are embedded within, and plot moments (like the thief in Zork stealing your treasures mere steps to safety) are products of the system. Cinematic is where the player is expected to run through particular scenes, and the adventure plot loosely follows a “script” of action. The first King’s Quest game I’d call simulationist (just wander, the witch can pop up anywhere) and the first Police Quest game (follow the police procedures exactly or you lose) I’d call cinematic.

Styles can switch back and forth and there are lateral directions like ramping up the characters rather than the world, but the distinction is sufficient for the point I’m about to make: by my reckoning, the big flaw with the cyclops puzzle stemmed from the author thinking in a cinematic sense. Cue music: the player spots the fierce cyclops and runs away, going up a mountain with the cyclops close behind, before being cornered at the top. What do they do? At their last thread, they try their lamp again, and miracle of miracles, it works! But for a moment of humor, rather than some conventional item (like a spear of eye-gouging) out comes a banana. A light-hearted relief!

However, there is no in-game reason to think that the lamp’s action would be different on top of the mountain! This kind of has a fix; the genie, instead of just telling you to go away, could say something like “only use me again if you’re desperate”. This would clue in the fact the lamp will have a purpose somewhere, and it sets up the cinematic scene while still in “simulationist mode”.

Essentially, the cinematic aspect can be fixed by thinking what happens in terms of the raw sense of playing through the world. Problems in simulationist worlds (like frustrating randomness or timing) can sometimes be fixed by considering a cinematic lens; forget realism for a moment, what would cause the most drama?

Moving on, once passing the cyclops you can get into the palace of the evil wizard.

There’s some items like FLOUR, POWDER, a BOOK (with a recipe I’ll talk about in a moment), a LASSO, and a MIRROR. Obstacles include:

a.) a “hairy, red-eyed, slime spitting tarantula” guarding a tiny key

b.) the princess has been shrunk to doll-size; this is from the movie

and the princess is trapped in a cage, which requires the tiny key

c.) you occasionally get attacked by something invisible — this is the wizard!

d.) after going upstairs (where the princess is) when you go downstairs you find the main door has been locked

To tackle the wizard (problem c.) you need to THROW FLOUR when he’s present. He sometimes does a hit-and-run strategy so you might THROW FLOUR and get nothing, but once it works, you need to DRAW SWORD one last time to cut him down.

His body has a large key which works to solve problem d. For the tarantula, you can take the MIRROR I mentioned earlier and drop it at the tarantula, and then they are transfixed by their own gaze. (There is no hint or reference to Narcissus or anything, but this comes late enough in the game there aren’t many actions to try.)

The tarantula has at tiny key so you can resolve b.) except the princess is still small.

The BOOK I mentioned earlier gives an antidote to shrinking: milk plus the POWDER, but they have to be mixed in a dark place. For the MILK you need to combine the SAUCER and the COCONUT (and use a giant rock to break open the coconut to get at the milk).

But the “dark place” is kind of a dilemma — unlike a lot of games in this era, there’s not much that’s dark. You can’t finish the mixture while at the evil wizard’s palace. What you can do is go outside and lasso a roc:

which takes you back to the place where you parked your rug, so you can fly back to the home palace.

Downstairs in the opening palace, there was a cellar with a “very small” window that previously seemed useless. Here is where it’s handy — the room is dark! I admit to liking this puzzle as a combination of thinking outside the box (in a normal adventure the cure for smallness would be made at the wizard’s palace) but also simultaneously forcing a narrative move, where the player has to return where they started.

Arabian Adventure’s parser was deeply frustrating and it had some slightly off-kilter puzzles, but fortunately, it didn’t make me dread trying Peter Kirsch games, which is good, because there are 21 games to go, including 2 more from 1981.

If nothing else, I hope the Softside games catch a microcosm of author development — these one-shot slightly-off games have been frustrating in the knowledge that an author could develop but we won’t see it, so here we’ll get to see Kirsch’s up and downs.

Posted May 29, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Raaka-Tu: Finished!   2 comments

In the end, all you need to do is find five treasures from the temple, escape with them outside, and head back to the starting room; your score will double from 25 out of 50 to 50 out of 50. There is no victory message so you have to invent your own.

I ended up looking up two hints; one I regret checking, the other I do not.

From Mobygames.

The first thing I figured out from last time was the gargoyle. To give some context, here is what fighting the gargoyle is like. (I have added the > marks for clarity.)

YOU ARE IN A LARGE ROOM WHICH SMELLS OF DECAYING FLESH. THERE ARE EXITS NORTH AND SOUTH. THERE IS A HIDEOUS STONE GARGOYLE PERCHED ON A LEDGE ABOVE THE NORTH PASSAGE.
>N
THE GARGOYLE COMES TO LIFE AND JUMPS DOWN TO BLOCK YOUR WAY! THE CLAWS OF THE GARGOYLE RIP THROUGH YOUR ARM IN AN ATTEMPT TO REACH YOUR BODY!
>KILL GARGOYLE
BLOOD RUSHES FORTH AS YOU HAVE SLASHED THE GARGOYLE IN THE ARM! YOU DODGE THE GARGOYLE’S HORN.
>KILL GARGOYLE
BLOOD RUSHES FORTH AS YOU HAVE SLASHED THE GARGOYLE IN THE ARM! THE GARGOYLE LUNCHES AT YOUR FACE BUT YOU PULL BACK. HE BITES YOUR SHOULDER INSTEAD! YOU PASS OUT. WHEN YOU AWAKEN, YOU FIND YOURSELF CHAINED TO A BLOOD STAINED ALTAR. A PRIEST IS KNEELING OVER YOU WITH A KNIFE. IT LOOKS LIKE THIS IS IT. YOU’RE DEAD. TRY AGAIN.

There’s one item I didn’t mention, a candle, because I hadn’t played with it yet.

>LIGHT CANDLE WITH LAMP
THE CANDLE IS NOW BURNING, A SWEET SCENT PERMEATES THE ROOM. THE LIGHT FROM THE CANDLE SEEMS TO BE GROWING DIMMER.

If you stay nearby the “sweet scent” after you light it, eventually you fall over and die.

THE LIGHT FROM THE CANDLE SEEMS TO BE GROWING DIMMER. YOU PASS OUT.

The candle works on the gargoyle equally well! So you just need to light the candle, drop it with the gargoyle, leave for a bit, and wait.

A CANDLE IS BURNING DIMLY. THERE IS THE DEAD CARCASS OF AN UGLY GARGOYLE HERE. THE LIGHT FROM THE CANDLE SEEMS TO BE GROWING DIMMER.

Past the gargoyle is a treasure, a GOLDEN CHOPSTICK.

The second thing I solved in a meta-way. The manual mentions you can PUT THE —- UNDER THE —-. This implied to me UNDER worked as a preposition, so LOOK UNDER was a possible action.

I remembered the sacrificial altar from last time (where I fought the snake) seemed suspicious.

>EXAMINE ALTAR
THERE’S NOTHING SPECIAL ABOUT THE BLOOD STAINED ALTAR.
>LOOK UNDER ALTAR
UGH! WITH GREAT DIFFICULTY YOU MANAGE TO MOVE THE ALTAR AND YOU DISCOVER A SECRET PASSAGE.

The passage leads outside; since I had three treasures (the golden chopstick, a golden idol from the altar room, and the gold ring from last time that caused teleportation) I knew I just needed the last two in order to win.

Here is where I got horribly stuck. The hint I don’t regret checking at all is that there’s a hidden gem randomly placed somewhere on the map, so you have to EXAMINE ROOM in each and every room until you find it.

YOU ARE IN A DARK PASSAGE WAY WHICH SLOPES UP AND TO THE SOUTH.
>EXAMINE ROOM
YOU DISCOVER A PRECIOUS GEM HIDDEN IN A CREVICE.

The manual does not mention EXAMINE ROOM is even possible. I’ve seen it once before in Temple of the Sun, but there it was a command in the instructions and there are enough hidden objects it doesn’t take too long for the command to be useful. With Raaka-Tu I only found the gem after examining nearly every room in the game.

The “good” puzzle is at the vault, which I mentioned last time, but I’ll repeat the description of here:

YOU ARE IN A VAULT WITH A LARGE DOOR TO THE SOUTH. A BEJEWELED LEVER IS ON ONE WALL. THERE IS A PLAQUE ON THE WALL ABOVE THE LEVER. THE DOOR CLOSES BEHIND YOU.

Pulling the lever opens a trapdoor which kills the player via burial in gold dust. I tried various ways of moving the lever only briefly, or throwing something at it, but it does make some sense the lever wouldn’t react in that way (it’s meant to be a trap, after all).

Remember, our goal is simply to escape with the fifth treasure. What should you do? Assuming you’ve read this far, you know enough to solve the puzzle, so I’ll provide my map of the inside of the temple to give you time to think about it.

The lever is described as jeweled. The lever itself is a treasure. You can just take it!

GET LEVER
BEJEWELED LEVER TAKEN.

I think the fact BREAK LEVER doesn’t work isn’t quite fair, as the verb is unrecognized (although HIT LEVER works), but — I’d still give this puzzle a thumbs-up rather than thumbs-down.

As I said before, there’s no winning screen; to end, you just find the random jungle spot you started at and type SCORE.

OUT OF A POSSIBLE FIFTY, YOUR SCORE IS 50.

Including the lore from the manual about leading a team of anthropologists, the player character was oddly amoral (I mean, moreso than usual). The original goal was to find a lost tribe for “research” but the actual plot of the game involves sneaking in and stealing their goods, including a golden idol. If we point to the group’s use of human sacrifice as justification, then why isn’t the plot to try to stop them, or get some authorities involved?

The setting attempts to mitigate the story being a generic treasure hunt, but I’d argue the plot exposed the weaknesses of relying on treasure hunts. We’ve had some decent stories in the mold now (Zork II likely the best) but the form which could previously be put out without pretense starts to seem outdated when more substantial plot and character are required. There was still some juice left in the idea, most prominently in Infocom’s game Infidel (1983, by Michael Berlyn and Patricia Fogleman) which leaned into the amorality as an essential part of the main character. (Incidentally, if you haven’t played Infidel, and ever plan to, do not read anything about it — not Jimmy Maher’s essay, nor even the Wikipedia page — until you’ve tried it.)

“Limit thy powerful greed” does make me think Arnstein was thinking — at least in a minor way — along the same lines as Berlyn.

The back cover of the game, from Figment Fly. I’d like to know who the artist is but they aren’t listed in the manual.

Posted May 21, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Raaka-Tu: Limit Thy Powerful Greed   2 comments

Since last time, I’ve attempted to raid the temple of Raaka-Tu.

I’ve mostly died in creative ways.

From Figment Fly.

The game does a good job of advertising its traps ahead of time, but still having you fall in them nonetheless. There have been three so far. Here is the first:

If you stop to examine the door you can find the words DO NOT ENTER on it, and the rug is described rather oddly as spanning the entire room, so: not a shocking death? JUMP OVER RUG gets the same result; I suspect it is not possible to get by here at all.

The second trap is even more clever, in that it’s fairly obvious at first…

…in fact, the transcript above is for demonstration purposes, because a statue pointing a bow and arrow at a particular door is a strong enough warning for even me, your humble correspondent who blunders into everything.

If you drop a coin in the slot, the bow-and-arrow turns to face the west door; now the east door is safe but not the west.

The “Triangular Room” has the trap.

Here’s the clever part: notice the “T-Shaped Room” / “Grey Stone Walls” / “Round Room” that repeat shape on the map above. The second Round Room has a gold ring. If you pick up the ring, you get teleported to the first Round Room without any indication it happened. Then if you try to proceed as if nothing changed by going west, north, and east, you walk right into the Triangular Room, and get shot by the arrow that now points at the west door!

You can incidentally make your way past the issue by dropping the gold ring and picking it up again — it teleports you back. This reminds me of the truly awful puzzle from Arnstein’s Haunted House which leveraged a lack of feedback when going in a direction that wasn’t recognized; Arnstein managed to redeem the same idea in a way that makes much more sense.

The third trap involves a vault.

BE WARY THOUGH, NO MATTER WHAT THY CREED, THAT THOU HARNESS AND LIMIT THY POWERFUL GREED.

The door has a nice physicality to it — it closes behind you when you enter, and you have to re-enter to exit. (It also gives a hint as to what the trap is.)

There’s definitely a big danger sign on this one but to find out what’s happening, the lever still needs to be pulled.

I’m reminded of how good interactive fiction comedy is often participatory, not just telling a joke but having the player do an action that’s part of the joke. (A good example would be the opening of Mystery Fun House which coaxes the player into thinking a FIVE DOLLAR BILL is money.) The same idea applies here; there’s enough of a hint as to what’s going on with the traps that after each death I felt like I deserved it.

I haven’t made much more progress, unfortunately. I fought a serpent and won (just using a sword and a randomized battle system) and fought a gargoyle and lost (trying to use the sword again; even with save states I was getting torn apart).

Nepal is one of the places where human sacrifice did historically happen, and in modern times they still have a (controversial) festival where they mass sacrifice animals.

I’ve also found a lamp that says “something is written” on it, but when I try to read it I find the lamp is too covered with tarnish. RUB LAMP gets

THE LAMP GOES OUT. YOU MUST HAVE RUBBED IT THE WRONG WAY!

No hints yet, though (not even ROT13), but I’ll inquire next time if I’m horribly stuck.

Posted May 19, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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