Circle World: Space and a Lot of Stars   Leave a comment

I’ve finished the game. It was a slog, but at least there was one remarkable conceptual idea at the core of Circle World.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

Rather than spoiling what the idea is, I’ll let it build up over my gameplay.

Before continuing with the action, I want to hit something that dmstelzer commented on, which indirectly touched on an important point: Circle World is not so much based on the original Ringworld as the sequel, The Ringworld Engineers.

The 1979 Phantasia Press edition, from eBay.

Fans pointed out that the original Ringworld, being of connected parts, would not be in stable orbit. Larry Niven invented the “ramjet” as the futuristic tech helping keeping the Ringworld intact, and made the plot of his second book revolve around the ramjets failing. The book includes finding a “Mars” area with a control room; in Circle World, the control room is in and you can reach it near a “Mars Island”. If I was previously familiar with the book I would have had an easier time realizing how the control room was linked.

As I mentioned before in my last post, you can ride a “disc” to a “machine city”. There are two other locations the disc can go to: a library…

I incidentally switched to the C64 version, with the same BASIC code, simply because of emulator headaches. The “LUWEEWU” will be important later.

…and a control room.

LOOK VIEW responds with SPACE AND A LOT OF STARS

(It does not go back to the starting area with the altar and volcano, even though I could swear I made it back the first time — I think I was just confused.)

The library was my first useful stop. Reading the yellow book that was there:

POWER SOURCE=MOTOR+GENERATOR+WIRE+SWITCH+FUEL

This gave me an inkling of the foozles that need to be collected to fix the Ring–er, Circleworld. Some of them I knew about already:

  • The generator is right below the library in a “celler”, along with a “silverbox” (with red, blue, and green dials).
  • Some OIL at the machine city counts as fuel.
  • The gold wire (that wouldn’t transport in the disc) counts as the wire.

The motor and switch still eluded me.

West of the library is a GREAT CHASM. The chasm includes a “bridge” that is lowered. If you take the silverbox and turn the blue dial, a “frail” bridge appears. This links the library to the machine city area.

A “zoomed out” view of the overall map up to this point in the story. Dotted connections are teleports.

This means that you can take the gold wire from the machine city back to the library without using the disc; however, you cannot take the generator from the library back over to the machine city (heavy object + frail bridge = bad). This was the first hint there was going to be some complexity in how the sub-areas related to each other.

Bring the gold wire over to the library initially seemed useless — there was still nothing to fix, and although I didn’t know it yet the ultimate goal was to bring all the parts to the Control Room — but east of the library there’s another obstacle.

YOU ARE AT:SUNFLOWER PATCH
A NIGHT SCAVENGER IS BLOCKING YOUR WAY
HE WANTS YOU TO TOSS HIM
SOMETHING OF VALUE
YOU SEE
NOTHING
OBVIOUS EXITS ARE-
WEST

Well, gold is of value?

“THE SCAVENGER TAKES YOUR GIFT AND DISSAPEARS

Except … that loses the wire which I needed. What do I do? (You might be able to guess before I get there.)

Past the night scavenger is a rocky cliff with a closed door; the green knob opens it up.

ASIDE: That’s the last use of the silverbox; here’s what the red knob does.

YOUR COMMAND? TURN KNOB
WHICH ONE?? RED

YOU DIE

How descriptive!

MOVING ON: Inside is a secret tunnel with a RADAR/SONAR unit. Past that is the altar/volcano area at the start of the game! So this is the way to reach that place even though the energizer disc doesn’t go there, it only goes from there.

The altar still had two mysteries left undone: the meaning of the “A HERO’S NAME IS THE KEY” message and what to pray for. I’m pretty sure I was wrong with Hercules and I was just praying for HELP when the game said

SOMETHING OF VALUE

This is a hint as to what to pray for, and also, the exact same text as with the night scavenger where he had to throw our gold wire.

COMMAND? PRAY
WHAT FOR?? GOLD

This makes the gold wire appear. I admit being somewhat impressed by the minimalist hint, but keep in mind this is all conveyed through a fog of misunderstood commands and non-existent descriptions.

For that other puzzle, the solution is in a screenshot from earlier where I looked at an ivory statue of a HELMETEDBIPED.

LUWEEWU

This cases the mirror to swing open and reveal a secret room with a key.

The key can be taken back to the machine city and a tool shed, which opens to reveal a SWITCH, a WRENCH, and SCUBA GEAR. (The SWITCH is one of the missing items for fixing the Circleworld, so we just need the MOTOR.) The scuba gear lets you go into a lake that previously drowned you; there’s a lake shore to the east of the volcano area, and a lake shore to the west of the machine city, but it didn’t occur to me they were the same lake! Having the scuba gear opens up the map connections even more:

You need the SONAR/RADAR to see the AIRLOCK going DOWN.

Going UP from the lake leads to Mars Island, with a frozen waterfall that you can blast with your laser/flashlight…

YOU ARE AT:DRY RIVER BED
YOU SEE
FROZEN WATERFALL
OBVIOUS EXITS ARE-
SOUTH

YOUR COMMAND? BLAST LASER
WATERFALL MELTS

…and a laboratory.

The “alarm” indicates just grabbing the motor is a bad idea. It causes the door to close and lock behind you. What you can do is grab the nylon, work your way around and above, tie the nylon to a beam, and swing down Mission Impossible-style. The alarm still goes off when you get the motor (using the wrench) but you can climb out (don’t forget to grab the cloth mask, as well).

So, that’s all the parts: time to be heroic? I realized by this time the control room was the ultimate destination, but still couldn’t get the gold wire there with teleportation. However, there was still the “hatch” in the lake left unexplored. This leads to the aforementioned control room, connecting up the entire map.

Using the system I remembered from Escape from Mars, I dropped everything off and was able to PUSH SWITCH.

SUPERGRID IS ON

For the ramjets, it’s a lot less complicated — there’s just a lever there and you pull it, but “YOU CAN’T QUITE REACH IT”. It seems kind of ridiculous when you think about all the heavy stuff you’ve been toting around, but the only way to reach the lever is the CHAIR found back at the library. One long toting trip later — fortunately, if things are timed, it isn’t super-tight — and

RAMJETS ON!

…and no expected victory message. You have to go all the way back to the altar and check the CRT one last time.

Most of the Aardvark games have gotten creative with geography:

  • Nuclear Sub had the entire map get flooded as part of the escape, changing the nature of the map
  • Escape from Mars had two hidden entrances to the same place (and you didn’t need to find both)
  • Deathship had a puzzle where two items need to be brought together, but neither item can make it all the way; the solution is to have them meet in the middle
  • Trek Adventure let you enter some rooms from a duct system, but later let you enter the same rooms in a “normal” way
  • Pyramid had a trap that only triggered if one passed “through” the room, that is, entering from one side and exiting the other, but it was safe entering and leaving from the same side

Circle World falls in the same category, for which I’m glad, because it’s the element that sustained me to the end. In most adventures from this period, all of these areas would be entirely distinct (like Timequest) but here, all of places you can teleport to are connected, and in order to win you need to “unite the map”. Structurally (and admittedly, only structurally) I found the game very satisfying.

Unfortunately, Circle World also shares the dodgy implementation of the other games; arguably, a good game trapped inside a bad one. I just wish the Aardvark crew had the chance to try their ideas on something more modern, without having to cram extra-tight BASIC code into a tiny disk capacity.

Posted October 27, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Circle World: Something of Value   8 comments

Huzzah, my Kzin problem is solved. I think.

A Kzin, from the graphic novel version of Ringworld illustrated by Sean Lam. Larry Niven also put in them in an episode of the Star Trek Animated Series, so they’re technically crossover into that universe, too.

Voltgloss found out that if you have the mysterious NIPWEED in your inventory, and you get raided by the Kzin, it takes the nipweed back to its lair and goes to sleep. By my stealth method of “peeking at the source code” I have determined this (probably) means the obstacle is no more.

Voltgloss also deciphered his way past my verb frustration with the LASER/FLASHLIGHT object. When you LOOK LASER (you can’t refer to the noun as a FLASHLIGHT) the message is

FLASHLIGHT ON/OFF OR BLAST

which is meant to suggest literal syntax. You can type

FLASHLIGHT ON

to turn on the flashlight part of the device, or

BLAST LASER

to fire the laser. This is really bizarre at a theoretical level — not only is the same object treated separately with two nouns, one which normally doesn’t work, but the format for the secondary mode is is NOUN-VERB instead of VERB-NOUN, and “ON” is only sort-of a verb (it gets used in this era as an abbreviation akin to “N” for north or “I” for inventory).

(By the way, this game doesn’t let you type N for north. You have to type GO NORTH in full, or since you only need the first two letters of each word, GO NO. I am trying hard to not linger so much on the parser this time like I’ve done with other Aardvark games, but jeepers, they’re making it hard.)

From the Museum for Computer Adventure Games. We’ll see the gizmo the protagonist is using in a moment.

The flashlight is enough to combine with the “THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST” clue to get to a PARACHUTE hidden in the dark forest. Once I had this parachute, I went back to the volcano where I slipped a fell last time (due to the rope not being long enough) and managed to make it safely down.

This is another bizarre move for the game, and I’m not talking about the ENERGIZE typo. The disc is right there in the room. You can GO DISC and EN DISC. (I already had the ID card from digging at a beach.)

This is another new area, with a RAMJET #3, a GOLD WIRE, some OIL, a locked door, and a chasm.

I haven’t made progress with any of them. The gold wire is interesting in that you can’t take it back with you on the disc. Trying to GO DISC with it in your inventory leads to:

YOU CAN’T TRANSPORT WITH THAT

In the usual cryptic form of the game, it doesn’t tell you what “that” is, but I only had the one new item; when I dropped it I was able to board and zip back. I wanted to transport the gold wire in particular because of one other puzzle I solved. Back at the altar I mentioned a book with a “hero” message.

A HERO’S NAME IS THE KEY
SPEAK IT OUT, I TO ME

If you try to PRAY at the altar the game asks what you want to pray for, so I went through some heroes and hit gold with HERCULES. (Any hero that starts “HE”, like, uh, “HERO” will work.) The game then said

SOMETHING OF VALUE

and left it at that. Was that just a clue? Did an item appear somewhere? I have no idea. What is the status of the message even in a meta-sense; am I supposed to imagine some booming voice spoke it, or it was a whisper in my head, or am I literally listening to the computer narrator injecting themselves into the story? I thought, perhaps, the gold wire was “of value” and holding it while praying would be of use, but that’s clearly off the table.

Graham Nelson famously wrote that adventure games are a “crossword at war with a narrative” but with Circle World, it’s like the referee entered the fight and knocked both the crossword and narrative senseless with a chair.

ADD: Now that I’m back in the game, after the Machine World the disk is going to multiple locations but not the starting volcano. I could have swore it just warped back, but this game is disorienting. That means (while I can’t go back yet) there are some more locations to go to.

Posted October 22, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Circle World (1981)   3 comments

Ringworld (1970) is a science fiction novel by Larry Niven about a group (two humans, aged 200 and 20 respectively, a “Pierson’s puppeteer” known as being cowardly, and a member of the warlike-catlike race known as Kzin) that explores a massive artificial ring around a star, which has a habitable surface area of three million Earths.

From a 1988 edition.

I could go at length about the book but a.) despite winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, I’m only mildly enthusiastic about it and b.) despite being advertised as direct fan-fiction, the game at question today is only tangentially connected.

Circle World, the first adventure game of Bob Anderson, is another in the roster of Aardvark’s adventure games, which includes Deathship (dire), Vampire Castle (their most straightforward game) and Trek Adventure (their best game of 1980).

If you were hoping for more parser improvements since last time, I regret to inform you: no. The parser may have even degenerated. It still only looks at the first two letters of each word, with very little feedback given on commands.

It was originally for Ohio Scientific computers like the other games, but that edition isn’t anywhere on the internet, so I went with the Commodore PET version instead. It’s just BASIC source code (which you can peruse at GitHub here), so any differences are likely quite minor.

Like three of the other Aardvark games (Deathship, Trek Adventure, Nuclear Sub) the game starts on a vehicle headed for destruction, the difference here being the vehicle is an entire ringworld.

I’ve found the RAMJET in question, but I can’t examine it or otherwise interact with it.

I’ve got access to a bucket, sand, an ID card, a shovel (which I used to get the previous two items), a laser/flashlight, a rope, candles, and nipweed (whatever that is).

You can PRAY at the altar where the message-of-destruction is; the game asks what you want to pray for, but I haven’t found a response that causes anything to happen. Near that same altar is a BLUE BOOK

YOUR COMMAND? READ BLUE

A HERO’S NAME IS THE KEY
SPEAK IT OUT, I TO ME

and a GREEN BOOK.

YOUR COMMAND? READ GREEN

THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST

I assume the latter message means I need to bring a lit item to a “dark forest”…

…but neither the laser/flashlight nor the candles do anything without a match. (I suspect I am just using the wrong verb on the laser/flashlight combo.)

There’s also a section with a rope and a volcano where you can tie the rope to go inside, but you fall and die; the rope doesn’t seem to be long enough.

YOUR COMMAND? TIE ROPE
TO WHAT?? WOOD
THE ROPE UNCOILS AND IS 30 FEET FROM FLOOR OF THE PIT

YOUR COMMAND? GO DOWN

YOU ARE AT:VOLCANO PIT
YOU SEE
PLAQUE
YOU FALL TO YOUR DEATH

In addition to the headaches above, there’s a KZIN that will randomly come and scatter your items.

A CAT-LIKE KZIN HAS WANDERED THROUGH-TOOK ALL YOUR POSSESSIONS AND SCATTERED THEM

This appears to be the “pirate character” a la Adventure that other games have felt obliged to include, but here the items really do scatter all across the map so when it happens you have to scour the entire thing again. So far it is small:

The game advertises itself as “our largest yet” but that might not mean much, given the file size is only a smidgen above Aardvark’s other games (10K instead of 8K). Still, there are likely a few places I’m missing.

I’ll keep hacking at this for a while, but the opaque parser combined with the Kzin-scattering above makes for an infuriating experience. I’m happy to accept any advice; you don’t even have to bother with ROT13. Don’t hurt yourself, though — there’s a walkthrough out there for this one.

(Link for online play here. Click “Disk Directory”, then checkmark “load as BASIC”, pick “CIRCLE WORLD”, and “Load”.)

Posted October 21, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Time Machine: TIME SLIP ACTIVE   6 comments

I finished the game, but I had to wreck my original plan in the process.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games; one of the Digital Fantasia covers which makes the game feel like it’s going in a psychological/philosophical sci-fi direction. (It is not.)

The time machine has a forward and a reverse button. Pressing the button leads to an animation. It is too blinky in GIF form so I’ll give you a still.

Just imagine the “background symbol” keeps changing.

I don’t know if there was some other intent to how the buttons work that the author decided to axe, but in what I played the buttons work entirely at random.

The above locations are merely for color. The really important places are:

1. The swamp with the brontasaursus

2. The ship Mary Celeste

3. The sphinx area

I’ve given screenshots already of places 1 and 3 in my last post; here’s #2.

Each has a glass prism; once the glass prisms are added to the time machine, one last area is unlocked, where Dr. Potter is being held by the “outlaws” and the evil plan must be foiled.

The ship is the most straightforward part of the game; there are no real obstacles other than finding where the glass prism is in the first place (you have to climb up a “rigging” and it is randomly up in a crow’s nest). There’s a lot of items, though: salted beef, biscuits (this is a UK game so “cookies” for you Americans), rope, a torn sail, and a thread and needle. ADD: Or, based on the comments, the biscuits could be the ship’s variety, although I think the scene after is much better if they are cookies.

I mentioned a brontosaurus last time who didn’t want a ham sandwich; but apparently, biscuits go over well.

The brontosaurus lumbers off into the swamp with the biscuits

Handy tip for time travelers! Past the dinosaur is a small boat which is busted, near an island. (Where did the boat come from? More time travelers?)

With a ROPE, NEEDLE, and SAIL, you can FIX BOAT.

Thats better! Its shipshape now!

I have FIX on my standard list of verbs to test out when starting a game so I knew it worked, otherwise I’d have had more trouble with this puzzle. You can then take a SHOVEL from the sphinx area to the island and dig up the second glass prism.

The third glass prism requires going in the a secret tunnel at the sphinx.

This puts you in a long hall. At one end there’s a lever (near a spear) where pulling the lever indicates a grinding sound from the end of the corridor. Trying to go to the other end just finds a solid wall. I sussed out this was a timed thing, but when my original attempts to RUN to arrive fast enough were for naught, I tried to use the spear and a rock (from the above screenshot) to hold the lever in place. I eventually had to to resort to hints: the command is JAM LEVER, not PUT ROCK or INSERT SPEAR or anything like that. (Theoretically, what’s interesting is that I was focused on applying the right verb to the direct object I was using, not the indirect object I was applying the rock to.)

With the lever jammed up, I was able to enter a “small door” at the wall and find a temple. It had a statue; CLIMB STATUE led to the third glass prism.

The “growling noise” was a dog at the foot of the statue. You can either KILL DOG (with the spear) or (according to a walkthrough I checked) FEED DOG with the beef. Alternate solutions are very rare for this time; it’s fun to see one tied in with a moral choice.

With the three prisms in the machine, a new destination is added (although the buttons still work at random, so you have to hit them a bunch of times to reach it).

… and here my game was wrecked by bugs. The prism disappeared on me. (I also had an earlier bug where trying to use the boat to get to the island led to the shovel disappearing from my inventory). I said I was going to pass on the BBC Micro version, but I had to switch to get to the end. On the way, I found the usual much-more-minimalist prose:

Im in an old cellar. There is a strange glass machine in the middle of the floor! Large enough for a person to stand in!

I’m in a Cellar

The ham sandwich was left out, but more significantly, all of the “red herring” time travel locations are left out — no 2001 reference, no Mount Doom, no nuclear wasteland. This is simultaneously worse and better at he same time. Worse in that by narrowing down on the “important” locations the time travel antics don’t feel much like time travel any more, but better in that the randomly-operating buttons have less locations to visit (often in the TRS-80 game I needed to try 10+ times to reach a specific place). So many decisions in game design aren’t unilateral “good” or “bad”, but tradeoffs.

In the BBC Micro version of the finale, you arrive at a grass plane with a metal plate. You have to CROWBAR or PRISE PLATE (not PRY) to get it off, and then find a robot guard; the “outlaws” are robots. (Twist!) With a pistol you can SHOOT ROBOT (“BANG!”); past the robot is a GENERATOR.

You can SMASH GENERATOR (it turns into a Broken Generator) which opens up a “Guard-Room” with Doctor Potter inside.

Meh. I enjoyed the setting and setup of the TRS-80 version but the later (but bug-fixed!) minimal version lacked texture. I did appreciate the puzzles were essentially easy, but it meant the parts I got stuck on (like the rock and the lever, and realizing CROWBAR could be a verb in addition to a noun) were verb issues rather than grand insights.

It’s still true the segmented map was psychologically pleasing. I have the additional theory that this sort of map is easier to contain in memory; I could be out in swamp land and want to head back to the Mary Celeste and immediately know the exact steps I needed to make rather than having to check.

These are the three time travel zones that have glass prisms.

Also, this was a marked improvement over The Golden Baton; I did genuinely want to see what happened next in the story, as opposed to feeling I was being buffeted by random puzzles. So I’m still happy to try more Howarth games; however, even though he has another 1981 offering for us (Arrow of Death Part 1) I’ll be saving that for when we’re closer to 1982 so I don’t have a large gap between that game and Arrow of Death Part 2.

If you want to try The Time Machine yourself, the BBC Micro version is easy to get to and play online.

Posted October 17, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Time Machine (1981)   2 comments

As a Newspaper reporter you are sent to investigate the eccentric professor who lives in the old house on the Moors. What is his secret and why is his house now deserted?
— From the cover of the BBC Micro version of The Time Machine

Brian Howarth’s second Mysterious Adventure was again originally written for TRS-80 and converted later to the Scott Adams database format; I’m going to just go with the TRS-80 version this time rather than trying to play two versions at once.

For a bit of color, here’s the title screen from the Acorn Electron version, via Everygamegoing.

I was genuinely excited to get to this game, because

a.) despite “time travel” being roughly as standard as “fantasy”, there’s more flexibility for the adventure author to get creative

b.) the plot presented itself as integrated rather than slapped on

c.) based on prior my time travel adventures, the genre forces a self-contained geography

Let’s discuss the last point a little more–

Past a certain level of experience, writers tend to go too long more than too short. While forcing minimalism is not always a guaranteed route to quality, and there are some top-notch writers who are also long-winded, brevity can temper some of the rougher excesses (I gave an example of this back when I posted about Chou’s Alien Adventure).

While we don’t often think of creating imaginary map geography as “writing”, it can be its own form of artistic creation. Crowther/Woods Adventure was based around a real cave, and had a solidity to it despite some truly random parts; authors who tried to mimic this later didn’t necessarily fare better. For example, both Goblins (the 1981 version) and Intergalactic (from the Atom Adventures collection) turned out particularly dire. Both examples share a need for contiguous terrain, and interlinking designed for sheer pain.

The time travel games we’ve seen, by their nature, force small sections; authors discovered you sometimes don’t need more than a handful of rooms to indicate an era. It becomes much harder to make a sprawling cavalcade of bad decisions. (1982’s Time Zone might bust through this by its sheer size, but that was on six floppy disks.)

As the intro text indicated, you start out not as a mad scientist, but as a journalist looking for one.

Rough opening: the above is a tiny maze, where you have no objects and more or less have to drift at random. If you step wrong, you end up in quicksand.

I was seriously stumped upon first hitting this point. Late the same night I tried one more shot at the section on my cell phone, and hit upon (after my second turn) the command GRAB BUSH:

Whew! That was a close shave..Better watch my step!

Rather than hammering on the unfairness of the guess-the-verb here, I want to point out it is fascinating that I broke through the puzzle by tackling it in an entirely different environment. One of the standard pieces of advice for adventure gamers is to play with a group, but here I managed the same effect by having my brain “reset” as if I was enlisting a member of my Clone Army.

Proceeding onward, I found a house with gloves and a bellpull.

I was able to punch through a nearby window while wearing the gloves.

This is what happens if you aren’t wearing the gloves.

Inside I found: a key hidden behind a picture, a pistol, a flashlight, a ham sandwich, and a room with a mysterious machine.

The cassette player had a tape. Playing it led to this message, given “slowed down” in real time:

I’m unclear on the sequence of events that led to being able to send a cassette player through time but not Dr. Potter himself. I can envision a few scenarios (sample: the tape is a “failsafe” Dr. Potter had set up prior to his trip to allow recording from the future), so I wouldn’t call this a true plot hole.

But hey: rather than just a treasure hunt for glass control prisms, we have a lost person, a mysterious enemy, and the fate of the world at stake (in a way that feels more concrete than just fantasy-bad-guy-is-bad). Good plot thread!

Oddly, the “forward” and “back” seem to rotate through options, rather than being “future” and “past”. I don’t think I’ve seen the future yet. I’ve made it to a scene with the Sphinx:

…a swamp with dinosaurs…

Well, one so far at least.

…and a ripoff from the book (and movie) 2001.

I’m still exploring to learn more, so this is a good stopping point. Based on the opening map (see below), I’d say the “forced brevity” idea is holding out.

Posted October 15, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Golden Baton: A Renowned Hero   5 comments

I wasn’t too far from the end, but there was a fair amount of parser struggle to get there.

Via Mobygames.

Let’s take care of the raft first. I went as far as searching for synonyms for RIDE (not the first time I’ve whipped out a thesaurus to play an adventure game), but I still had to look at hints; the elusive verb was SAIL.

I then found a lake with nothing useful on it — it turns out the lake is the final destination of the game. I went back to whacking at the places of the castle I was still stuck on.

First, a chunk of glowing quartz in the “sorcerer’s lab”. The quartz is non-portable (I didn’t quite understand if was “stuck” or just too big). I had a staff with runes around it, so it felt magic-ish enough to try WAVE STAFF.

There’s a helmet that also has runes on it, and if you’re wearing the helmet you can then examine it (which previously had “unreadable” runes that you can now read) to get a magic word. Say the magic word…

…and you are finally awarded with the quartz, and no other assistance. Well, drat. (The glowing doesn’t even substitute for the lamp, unfortunately.) I succumbed to the lure of the hint sheet, because, rather arbitrarily, you have to wave the quartz at the adjacent room, with a lizard man.

It wasn’t an unsolvable puzzle, surely — there wasn’t much left to work on — but I still felt all manner of grumpy after finishing this part. It’s quite standard for magical items in text adventures to have arbitrary effects only discoverable by experimentation, and in theory that should be fine, but in practice stumbling into an answer by chance rather than some thought process just isn’t that satisfying.

Moving on! SEARCH LIZARD yields a jeweled knife. The only other part of the castle I had yet to solve was the gorgon, and I once again reached for hints, because I had the right idea (use the small mirror) but the wrong action. You have to HOLD MIRROR before entering the room with the gorgon.

I suspect the vast majority of players, including myself, thought of using the mirror here, but where stymied when the desired effect didn’t happen automatically. I can conceptually see how HOLD MIRROR might be, to the author’s eye, declaring action in a way that isn’t otherwise present, but for the player who visualized this as already happening, it is intensely irritating.

The parchment with the gorgon gives the final steps for getting the baton. I already knew how to get to the lake, and I had the horn at the ready.

I guessed THR was THROW, but what was I throwing? Well, by process of elimination, the only major item I hadn’t used: the jeweled dagger I got from the lizard man.

The Golden Baton was hurt by two elements I’ve observed before: 1.) it’s hard to include undocumented magical items without a lot of guesswork and 2.) without complex daemons and/or characters, difficult puzzles arise from amping up the obscurity of verbs and arbitrariness of action. Also, the fantasy world is fairly drab compared to the lore-dense opening. I honestly can’t recommend this game except for completionists.

Don’t worry, Howarth fans: this is only the first out of eleven games. There’s still time to improve! (A review from 1985 notes “Later titles in the series appear to be far more intriguing.”) In fact, I have started Mysterious Adventure #2, and it’s already better than #1, so look forward to that for my next post.

BONUS READING: Dale Dobson played the C64 version and wrote about it, so you can see what the game looks like with pictures.

Posted October 13, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Golden Baton: Revenge of the Parallel Universes Problem   2 comments

I didn’t get much farther than last time, but I hit an almost perfect variation of the Parallel Universes Problem, so I wanted to share.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

(Definition: situation where the user is in a playthrough with different conditions from another playthrough, and where the difference between the “parallel universes” is non-obvious. I first coined the term in relation to the game Kidnapped.)

I had previously been stopped by an armored figure, but only in the TRS-80 version of the game.

I had *not* been stopped by the same character in the BBC version. I thought, vaguely, perhaps I hit a bug, or just a situation where the defeat gives an item and it was set up so the later version was more forgiving when the puzzle was to be solved.

I had missed a slight difference between the two universes. In the BBC universe, I was wearing a RAGGED OLD CLOAK (from the first room of the game). In the TRS-80 one, I was carrying it, but didn’t have it on.

The cloak makes you invisible to the figure, so you can move on. There is no message or indicator why you can get by (I found the “invisible” thing from the game’s hint sheet).

This opened up two areas for me. First, the inside of the castle (see above), which includes a hunting horn (you can BLOW HORN but I haven’t found a use for it yet), a HELMET (there’s runes on it, just like a STAFF on the road to the castle), a LAMP, a LARGE HAMMER, a magical QUARTZ, a SMALL MIRROR, and a LIZARD MAN. I haven’t tried to face off against the lizard man yet, but I did run across a gorgon, and the results were unfortunate.

Getting in here required a KEY I found by throwing the rope up the tree I mentioned last time.

I would think the SMALL MIRROR would help, but the result above happens even if you’re holding it. I don’t know if there’s some extra verb involved, but I’d be surprised if the mirror didn’t factor into the solution somehow.

The second area I opened — by lighting the lamp — was a series of caves underneath the hut (or “cabin” if you’re playing the BBC version).

The cave layout is slightly different in the BBC version.

I found a padlock which I was able to smash using the LARGE HAMMER from the castle. Inside was a RAFT. I have no idea how to use the raft.

I found some slugs (easily defeated with salt I had) and a crab (who is distracted if you throw the dead slugs). The crab is next to an underground lake, which seemingly begs to have the raft used on it.

This is one of those kind of games where an item only works in the right spot and just gives a vague hint if you’re doing it wrong, so it may be I need to just try (say) THROW RAFT elsewhere. “RIDE” is clearly eliminated as shown on the screenshot above, though.

Other than checking up on the armored figure I’ve been trying to resist hints; I’ve been warned the puzzles are pretty arbitrary on this one so I don’t know how productive it will be to hold off on reading more hints, but I’m going to hang on a little longer.

What I am going to do is drop playing the BBC Micro version for now; I’m finding it too confusing to switch back and forth between the universes (I’m still referring to the HUT as a CABIN by accident) even though it’s fascinating that the author decided to change so much between the two versions.

Posted October 12, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Golden Baton (1981)   6 comments

IFComp 2020 continues apace; I’ve played some interesting games, but I’m going to save any words for close to the end. (Although, look: this one is really good.)

In the meantime, the Project continues, and for this game, the Quest for Earliest Britventure.

Brian Howarth is famous for his “Mysterious Adventures” series of 11 games, starting with The Golden Baton. He originally coded the first several directly for TRS-80, but later converted all of them to the Scott Adams database format*. If you look them up today, those are the main versions that pop up, but I’ve been playing both the original TRS-80 version and the BBC Micro version** from a year later (after Howarth had switched to Scott Adams format), and I can say they are significantly different. I’ve had puzzles I could solve in one version and not the other, up to the point I started just having both versions loaded at the same time.

I’m happy to describe my gameplay so far, but first! — how does Mysterious Adventure No 1 stack up against our three-way tie, in terms of release day? Just as a reminder, we’ve had Planet of Death, The City of Alzan, and Atom Adventure all come out in July 1981, with the first two even being advertised in the same issue of the same magazine. As the picture above indicates, The Golden Baton was first advertised in May, meaning it almost certainly came earlier (by magazine lag time, March or April of 1981). You can see lots more advertising here as collected by Gareth Pitchford.

I would now normally throw confetti and declare this the winner for Earliest Britventure*** — I had, in fact, planned for a while to finish my Quest here — but Gareth found a wildly-obscure-but-fascinating 1980 game which blows all the rest out of the water (I’ll be getting to that one soon). Disclaimer: to a genuine extent, this sort of chronological jockeying is for fun. A few months, in the tangled thread of influences, is not significant enough to wring hands over, especially given the variety of presentations and platforms (the 1980 game we haven’t got to yet is for yet another computer platform). Also, as I discussed with Atlantean Odyssey the second or third to arrive at an idea can be much more influential than the first. That’s certainly the case here — Howarth’s work is still “famous” (as far as text adventures can be), the series starting with Planet of Death casts a shadow over the Spectrum computer world, and while the City of Alzan game itself didn’t influence much the source code was part of a family tree of borrowing and development. Atom Adventure is just a blip on history but it’s essentially a proto-version of the colossal Xanadu Adventure from 1982.

The intro of the BBC version is rather long, and reminded me of Tower of Fear, so I have done another dramatic reading. Enjoy. (If it doesn’t show in your browser, you can find it here.)

Dark clouds drift ominously across the rising moon, you cringe as the night silence is suddenly shattered by the fearsome howl of some fell creature deep within the forest.

Weary from travelling, unable to force yourself onward, you sink to the ground and lean back against the bole of a huge, gnarled old tree. As your aching limbs slowly relax, you silently curse the road that led you to this evil place.

The noble cause that initially motivated you to undertake this deadly mission seems to pale into insignificance against the perils that you have, up until now, survived.

Your mission is to recover the legendary Golden Baton, a priceless artifact that has been worshipped by your race for countless generations.

The Baton was stolen from the palace of King Ferrenuil, ruler of your homeland. Many learned counsellors strongly believe that the Golden Baton holds within it a kind of life-force that maintains an equilibrium between the forces of good and evil.

For many centuries, your homelands have suffered no wars, no droughts or famine.

King Ferrenuil fears for the future of his people as the influence of the Baton has been taken from his lands.

Ever since the Baton was stolen, brave warriors and hardy knights were sent far and wide through the world in search of this artifact… none ever returned.

So it was that you started out on your journey, travelling through strange, hostile lands until finally you reached this territory of Evil magic whose name is never spoken. An almost tangible feeling of malice pervades the atmosphere and weariness descends upon the traveller like a pall of death.

You draw your robe around yourself to ward off the icy chill of night and sink into a troubled sleep, mortally afraid of what the coming days may cast upon you…

Summary: There’s a Golden Baton. Find it.

In all seriousness: I’m trying — and somewhat failing — to see from the perspective of the writer. To my readers, is there anyone who likes this kind of lore dump? It would be better if there was some relation to the game, but I reckon a 90% chance everything above is fluff. When I’m amidst the actual-gameplay portion of an adventure, I’ll happily go along with odd textual constructions, but when having to treat a block of text as just text, it’s hard for me to remain unruffled with phrases like “this territory of Evil magic whose name is never spoken”.

Art from The Tate’s collection of minimalist work. (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unreported.)

On the left, Sol LeWitt’s Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off from 1972. On the right, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII from 1966.

Both are from the minimalist “school”, both in the same museum collection, and they were only made 6 years apart. Yet, there are significant differences in form; the LeWitt piece plays with shadow, while the Andre piece is nearly shadow-free. Andre’s cinder blocks are an arrangement of found materials, while LeWitt’s piece is a constructed sculpture. While both involve “geometric single or repeated forms”, even in that zone the single-offset-repeat of the cube feels much different than the many-block-repeat on the right.

The point here is while we tie the works together with the word “minimalist”, there are still shades of difference within that meaning; we could make sub-schools within sub-schools and still not fully encompass the potential areas of minimalist technique.

This is relevant for The Golden Baton; I’ve used “minimalist” quite a bit to describe this sort of game …

..but also this sort of game.

They’re the same game, by the same person, but the BBC Micro version (the second shot) is sort of an ultra-minimalism, describing locations by one or two words. The TRS-80 version includes a bit more, and the effect on playing is significant.

A few more comparisons just to make the point; I think I can get away with not labeling which is which:

I AM BY A HUGE OLD TREE WITH GNARLED BRANCHES.

I’m by a Tree

I AM IN A CLEARING IN THE FOREST, THERE IS AN OLD HUT HERE WITH THE WINDOWS BOARDED UP.

I’m in a clearing by a Cabin

I AM NOW INSIDE THE HUT, THE FLOORBOARDS ARE ROTTEN AND THERE IS A HOLE IN THE FLOOR.
THINGS I CAN SEE ARE:-
AN OLD BARREL – AN OIL SODDEN RAG –

I’m in a Cabin with hole in floor
Things I can see: Barrel – Oil Sodden Rag –

To reiterate, this did have genuine gameplay effect. In the first room you find a sword hidden in the leaves, and just south there are some brambles.

I AM IN A TANGLE OF BRIARS, I FEEL LIKE A PINCUSHION! THE BRIARS ARE SO THICK I CAN HARDLY SEE ANYTHING.

I’m in a tangle of PRICKLY briars

You can CHOP BRAMBLES which reveals a hidden rope. I found it this easier to realize in the super-minimalist version of the game.

The sword can then be used to kill a wolf…

The BBC version just says I’m by a Path and there’s no north direction specified; you need to GO PATH.

… and past the wolf to the north is a castle. You can swim in the moat.

I AM STOOD AT THE PORTCULLIS, I DONT THINK I CAN OPEN IT.

I’m at a Portcullis

I was stumped in the BBC version, but the slight extra text in the TRS-80 version (and the clarification I wasn’t still swimming) led me to try THROW ROPE.

THE ROPE HAS CAUGHT ON SOMETHING! I THINK ITS SECURE!

I should note this confusion wasn’t just mine; Dale Dobson at Gaming After 40 got stuck here (he played a Scott-Adams-format-with-graphics version), and complained at length about this puzzle being too hard to solve.

Past this inside the castle is a armored figured. In the TRS-80 edition of the game the figure stops you so you can go no farther.

In the BBC version, you can just walk on by. Past the figure I’ve found a lamp that lets me get in a dark cave at the cabin/hut I clipped earlier.

I haven’t been able to solve the armored figure puzzle, so I can’t yet get the lamp in the TRS-80 version! It still helps to know the progression — I know not to fuss with the dark hole assuming I’ll find something to get by the figure — but I’m going to stick with the TRS-80 as my “primary” game for now with the BBC game as a supplement.

(*) Mr. Howarth reverse-engineered the Scott Adams format on his own, and later helped make official ports of those games.

(**) I chose the BBC Micro in honor of the work of Anthony who recently ported the BASIC versions of Pirate Adventure and Adventureland with some fascinating write-ups. Also, for more IFComp reading, he picked apart and ported the C64 game that Nick Montfort entered.

(***) I’m incidentally excluding ports of Crowther/Woods Adventure from all this. I’m also not discussing Level 9’s Fantasy from 1981 because the game is currently lost, although it’s on my Top 3 of Games I’d Really Like To Try — it’s not only historically important from the angle of the company it came from (sort of the Infocom of the UK, although I’d split the title with Magnetic Scrolls) but in being the odd sub-genre of open-world-with-dynamic-characters as seen in other games like The Hobbit.

Posted October 7, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Microworld: Finshed!   4 comments

Well, the game said I “solved the entire adventure”, but I’m not quite certain what I actually did. Spoiler warning as usual, and if you haven’t gotten to them yet, you should read my other posts about Microworld before this one.

Allow me first a side trip to a 1980 Med Systems game by William F. Denham, Jr.

In The Human Adventure, you fly a miniaturized ship inside a body attempting to destroy cancer cells. It’s a strategy game in form, rather than a puzzle-based adventure; you have to keep track of your energy and use a LASER and occasionally need to electrify the ship’s hull. I’ve recorded some gameplay below:

I’ll be referring back to this video in a moment.

In Microworld, the main obstacle I overcame was nearly identical to that of Timequest which I just wrote about. You can GO LOCATION as a direction.

I had done LOOK COMPUTER only to be told I saw nothing of interest, and there are many other places where an object can’t be interacted with or approached. This computer is where the colored IC chips go; there are 8 of them, and once you insert all of them, pushing the button causes something good to happen (as you’ll see later).

This also resolves the COIL problem I had last time.

Other than the yellow chip shown above, I was missing three more, and I had a massive headache in the endgame.

THE MISSING BLUE CHIP

I mentioned the blue chip which was described as “LOST” and clearly ended up at a lost and found.

While I could LOOK CLERK (who “looks at you expectantly”) I otherwise had no method of interaction. Elsewhere, there was a paper I never even bothered to mention was a possible inventory item, because it seemed like an offhand joke.

You can SHOW PAPER (not DROP or anything else) and it gets confused for some other form. A “check form” I guess? Which is, as far as I know, not how lost and found places work. If you lose your wallet in a store, why would you have a check slip? Wouldn’t that be for a coat-check counter or the like? Am I missing something here?

THE MISSING BLACK CHIP

I’m saving this one for my conclusion.

THE MISSING ORANGE CHIP

Guess-the-noun returns, always an unwelcome guest.

I assumed, after the frustration above, the NPC could not be referred to (and there are lots of places with characters where you can’t refer to them, so this was not unreasonable!) I was wrong: you can use the noun RECEPTIONIST.

Elsewhere there is a sign that says YOUR LOSS IN MY GAIN so the key word here is LOSS.

This leads to the last missing chip, which I returned to the computer.

The computer gave me a tuning fork; given the lack of other puzzles to work on, I knew exactly where it went; I used it to shatter the glass box. This gave me a diskette, which I swiftly took to the RS-232 port and to the outside.

THE ENDGAME

You may notice the voice-activated device connected to the computer. I had sufficient hunch to realize I needed to say something to win the game, and I also had sufficient hunch that the floating binary I found earlier would be important

10101011 0010111 01000111
11100111 1000011 11000111

but I was horribly stuck. The binary doesn’t translate to anything in ASCII.

One room has something of a hint.

Aha, EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code)! I assume this gets covered in the 12-page book; I, fortunately, knew about this as an outdated alternative to ASCII. So all I needed to do was pull up an EBCDIC table and…

…find nothing. It spells nothing. Argh!

The trick here is that you are seeing the binary digits backward. Flip all the digits, AND use EBCDIC, and the word SYNTAX pops out. (This makes it a second-order puzzle which I’ve ranted about before, but I don’t have the energy this time; I’m just glad to be done.)

So, the electrons are cheering for me, but what did I do exactly? Does the disk accomplish anything in particular? We voluntarily went in, and getting out came long before getting the disk, so this wasn’t an “escape”. The game doesn’t indicate what’s actually on the disk other than congratulations. I guess we’re supposed to use our imagination.

I’m going to take an unusual curve and evaluate Microworld as an educational game: how effective is it at teaching the topic it intends to teach?

Referring back to The Human Adventure (watch the video loop again if you need), notice it has

a.) details within the game itself that clarify what various parts of the body do

b.) a clear map so you can see their inter-relation

c.) gameplay which is directly relevant to the activity at hand, as the player is a foreign body fending off attacks from white blood cells

d.) although not in the video, there’s an “exploration mode” which removes the combat and just allows getting a feel for the layout of the body

Compare with Microworld:

a.) a lot of the detail is deferred to the 12-page booklet, and many of the rooms are filled with jokes

b.) the map is an utter mess even if you draw it out

c.) the majority of the gameplay only has incidental relation to the parts being referred to; even the EBCDIC puzzle doesn’t make a lot of sense in “reality” context

d.) there’s random spots that can trap and kill the player, and a maze that is easy to get lost in, so “free exploration” is discouraged

Mind you, I think Microworld is a better game; Human Adventure is playable but gets dull fairly quickly. However, as a forerunner of adventure-game-education I do feel obligated to point out the flaws in this respect. I’m honestly quite glad for the odd bits of humor, but they were hard to detangle from what was being learned.

c.) is an especially interesting aspect; I think where adventure games and education have the most potential to merge. Microworld nearly managed a perfect shot with one of its puzzles, the one I’ve been saving:

THE MISSING BLACK CHIP (for real this time)

One of the items is a “lonely clock pulse” where it’s possible to WAVE PULSE.

I knew that solving the puzzle was simply a matter of finding the right location. I did it by just random testing everywhere on the map, but it would be possible to solve the puzzle by knowing about microelectronics. Take a look at the upper portion of the map; I’ll spoil the puzzle after.

The flip-flop will reset on a clock pulse!

In an adventure-game sense this isn’t the strongest puzzle; I’d nominate surfing the electromagnetic waves for that, but that’s a pun built on the word “wave” which could actively confuse a student trying to understand at the real-electronics level. By contrast, the flip-flop puzzles requires an act that matches with what the piece of circuitry actually does; puzzle-solving and learning are conjoined rather than lateral.

While the author of Microworld, Arti Haroutunian, went on to a game career after (most recently working on the Disney Infinity games) this was his only adventure game. It also seems to be his only educational game, with the notable exception of doing engineering for The Miracle Piano.

The Miracle Piano (for both computers and consoles) hooked up a real piano and asked the user to play music. Getting through a song meant hitting enough notes correct to make it to the next level. When The Mexican Runner did Miracle Piano for NESMania (playing every US NES title on his Twitch stream) Miracle Piano took the longest, at 91 hours and 16 minutes. (Might and Magic was close behind at 87 hours.) While he knew music, he did not know how to play piano; there was no way to win other than to learn how to play piano.

Of course, Miracle Piano is barely a game, but this is the extreme-congruence form of learning via software. How close should the activity and the intended learning really be? Microworld, if it was seriously intended as educational (it may not have been) is a little too far off. We will eventually hit some more educational adventures, but not for a while, so I have time to think about where the optimal balance lies.

BONUS READING: For more detail on The Human Adventure, Will Moczarski included it in his Med Systems marathon. There are lots of strategy games from this era that have not been written about, but alas, the closest we currently have to a Strategy Addict is Kurisu over at This Map is Completed who is chronoblogging through Japanese tactical RPGs. Jimmy Maher also has some very substantial posts on landmarks in strategy games. Speaking of educational games, Maher also has an excellent post on the Dr. Brain series.

Posted October 2, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2020 games are up   1 comment

The 26th running of “An annual celebration of new, text-driven digital games and stories from independent creators.”

104 games.

You can find them all here.

I have taken wildly-out-of-context clips from each of the descriptions and made a 104-line list, sorted at random.

a mysterious tunnel leading from the cavern
either Cinderella or Prince Charming
an international society of elite occult investigators
an arbitrary task of questionable value
Snapping Turtle was killed in action in the war while saving Silver Bear’s life
a non-profit organization with the purpose of improving everyday life
The Knot, where all mana connects
The world is scary enough without help from the supernatural.
a position in our architecture department.
imitation on demand
The revolution
You and your dog.
the perfect miniature world of The Land Down Under
your IT internship
the season finale
the disastrous sidewalk chalk tournament
solving the riddles of the Tomb of Ilfane won’t be easy,
fantasia on Kipling’s “Just So Stories”
trust as if it all depends on the gods
slay the monsters
dancing on the beach
an aid for mediation
Isaac receives a mysterious letter
peaceful multispecies space station
hopefully disturbing
100 years of years of peace and harmony
the entire public transportation system seems to have it out for you
consuming carelessly
shave your chest hair.
pirate captain cobbles together a ship and crew
The Forever Cat stalks through this universe
sentient swords and yokai warriors
What secrets do you contain?
Evil, sealed away for Aeons
Follow user StaircaseHaven14 on a Neopets-esque site called Ruffians
an evil duke
dive into the neon sea
writhing in pain
a demonic spy in the Cold War between Heaven and Hell
Summon demons, bake cookies
Nero Brashov, vampire and failed businessman, has revenge on his mind.
looking for a way home
cursed hyper-awareness
mostly word puzzles
dangerous monsters, extremely competitive bodybuilders, and hyperinflation
a mysterious briefcase
a missing woman
Faltering light sources. Fear.
a playful adventure of peculiar proportions
If only he would let you see his face.
a hero & a villain start planning their battles over coffee
the kettle dies with dignity
a vast, trackless desert with no food or water
the gnarls of her brain
Fallen London and Flatland
the wine and canapés
If only you hadn’t been too drunk to remember
alone on the open road
and loot what we find!
important episode
the summer of 1920
the Order of the Fiery Doom
unraveling the universe
investigate the cause of the Darkness
when you’re running, you need to stop eventually
all the weekends that will have passed
It’s pretty much going to be all his friends
Save OkayCo from the Flame-Lame Fey and Ed Spray-Spread!
Get ready, young space cadet
the suspects are clamoring to be accused.
thieves have failed to steal it
all that matters
Hooves and bells approach. The school bus is late.
popstar idol!
Maybe it’s time to change careers.
the embryonic state of something more important
Use stealth to navigate his apartment as well as his arguments
an antique store proprietor trying to make ends meet
the end of everything
all is not happy in Happyland.
Piscespunk
life is about enjoying the journey
running out of options
you may not distinguish dreams from reality
search for congee on this rainy night
love story where not much seems to happen
body-swapping
no way to find him other than a series of obtuse riddles
a kingdom in peril, an evil queen to be defeated, puzzles to be solved and YOU are the only hope
purveyor of artifacts, seeker of treasure
the old man had died with no family
You embark to find that voice
Who murdered Jenny Lee?
the cognitive leap forward
the underground tomb of the Pharaoh Haputet
Southern Gothic horror
a place of fun for the whole family
combining a dystopian sci-fi short story with an escape game
Were you ever told you can be anything?
a different story, far worse than unpleasant.
a game within a game within a game
fight a monster using a crowbar, listen to the radio, find secrets
a thinly-veiled attempt to teach comma rules
your family and your heritage

Posted October 1, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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