Archive for August 2017

Mystery House: Finished!   1 comment

Despite the lure of the walkthrough, I managed to finish this one all on my own. Be warned: spoilers on absolutely everything.

Where last I left off, I was searching for a secret door of some sort. I ended up finding it in the study.

I had previously done LOOK PICTURE to get the helpful response:


Since there’s no “SEARCH” command and LOOK by default seems to cover that verb, I thought the picture was adequately accounted for, but apparently I was supposed to GET PICTURE:


Oho! While there is no screwdriver object, a butterknife was sufficient to reach a secret button:

This led to the basement, where I found a key and a body (poor Tom!) holding a daisy. Given Daisy was my last blonde-haired subject left, the killer’s identity was clear. (Not like there is actually any need at all to worry about names or the identity of the killer — more on that in a moment.)

While I couldn’t go back the way I came, I did manage to escape via a whole to a large tree with a telescope, which led me to discover a previously unseen trapdoor on the roof of the house. Dropping down from the tree led me to a “forest” which is, huzzah, a maze. (Sigh.) Navigating the maze led me back to the house where I was able to get back to the trapdoor and make The Final Confrontation:


As you may be able to tell from the screenshot, it’s just her; there’s no need to worry about fingering the right person as the murderer. In any case, I tried defending myself with a handy dagger and sledgehammer but both of those options resulted in my being stabbed. Fortunately the game let me retreat and consider my options.

At this point I went back to peruse the instructions, and I noticed WATER ON as a possible command and made some sad growling noises. I had been trying quite a while to work any of the sinks in the game, since there’s a pitcher that seems like it ought to hold water but any possible permutation of ACTIVATE SINK failed me. WATER ON did indeed work, and now I had a full pitcher of water. Where should I use it?

Assuming Daisy was not the Wicked Witch of the West, I needed something a little stronger than water to take her on. I remembered the death-by-candle (I wrote about it in my last post) actually gave me a turn before dying, so I decided to try it out on the fire that got set on the rug. This resulted in a hole in the carpet, which coincidentally revealed a key.

This may be the dumbest luck in any videogame ever, and that includes Jinxster.

Remembering the locked chest upstairs, I tried the key and found a gun. Invoking another Colonel’s Bequest trope, I went back up the trapdoor and did away with Daisy once and for all.

At this point I could theoretically leave, but the game didn’t consider me done yet. I apparently needed to find some “jewels” hidden in the house. A note by Daisy mentioned they were in the basement. Returning there and messing with way too many unrecognized verbs, I finally hit about RUB ALGAE (not CLEAN even though it seems to be recognized!) which revealed a brick hiding the jewels. Grabbing the jewels and leaving the house, I finally registered victory!

Alas, not so satisfying. I don’t know if my posts have made this clear, but the game was very bad. It has:

  • Easily the worst parser out of any game I have played. (Yes, I mean all of them, not just the ones I’ve written about on this blog.)
  • Way too many circumstances where I was struggling to know what a particular item in the graphics was and what noun to use.
  • A nonsensical plot where immediately upon leaving the initial room all the participants are murdered instantly, except for Joe (who I guess made it to freedom now, I don’t recall seeing his body).
  • A maze even more pointless than normal; it only serves to make it slightly harder to make it back to the house. I forgot to mention that the way back to the house is UP — one of the rooms has a door leading to the house, but of course you would logically see that, except it’s the same forest graphic as all the other rooms. This is only mitigated by the fact I had found and mapped the maze beforehand.

I think perhaps the game is more known by the concept and historical value rather than any actual playability. I hope I’ve proven so far that it’s possible to have both. Still, I do like quite a few of the later Sierra games (infamous insta-deaths and all) so I can’t feel like I’ve wasted my time.


Posted August 30, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Mystery House: The Imagination Gap   6 comments

Arguably, reading a novel requires a greater act of imagination than watching a movie — even the most thorough of textual descriptions won’t fully convey what a person or scene looks like. However, one could counter-argue a movie simply requires different acts of imagination.

A common movie technique is to make an “establishing shot” of a scene, then show a close-up — we are meant to imagine the people are still inhabiting the scene, even if we can’t see it. An internal monologue which might be fully expressed on a page might be merely implied by an actor’s facial expression. Watching the movie is an imaginative act, even if we’re unaware of it.

Adding graphics to computer games was a way of filling the “imagination gap”. In the process, though, other gaps were added, either inadvertently or by design.

The design of Mystery House wants the pictures to be our window in the world, and the text to be only incidental. Items that you can pick up are only conveyed by the picture.

Just at a glance, would you think from this scene that you can pick up a towel?

When look at this scene, do you think the middle of the room just contains some boards (as I did) or does it contain a sledgehammer?

Clearly, the idea here is equivalent to not writing out the actor’s internal monologue, but having them just act instead. Visuals mean aspects of the text can drop away. (Unfortunately in this case, it also means a lot of guessing what cryptic background objects might be called.)

The similarities to The Colonel’s Bequest continue: the initial cast of this game was: Tom, Sam, Sally, Dr. Green, Joe, Bill, and Daisy. So far I have found four of them dead, leaving Tom, Joe and Daisy. One of the bodies (Sally) had a blonde hair on it, suggesting the culprit was either Tom or Daisy. This reminds me of the one-clue-per-body plants that ran throughout most of Colonel’s Bequest (that game had the difference that the clue might have been either where the murder happened or where the body was later deposited).

Also, (again like Colonel’s Bequest) there are lots of ways to die which don’t seem to be related to the murderer. Turning on the stove in the kitchen results in it exploding. If you try to walk out of the dining room while holding a lit candle, you accidentally set the carpet on fire.

The most amusing death is reserved for trying to escape the house out the attic window:


In any case, I’m horribly stuck – the only thing I have resembling a puzzle I haven’t solved is a chest upstairs that needs a key I don’t have. I assume there’s some sort of secret passage activated by some graphical item in the background that I can’t decipher. I haven’t resorted to hints yet, but the lure of the walkthrough is strong with this one.

Especially when the parser is this frustrating. Argh.

Posted August 29, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Mystery House (1980)   Leave a comment

Ad from SoftSide, December 1980 issue.

I’m not the first one to make the connection, but the very first game produced by Roberta Williams — Mystery House — is something of a predecessor to the one I just played, The Colonel’s Bequest. It’s very up-front that the plot will consist of an inital cast being slowly murdered, one-by-one:

The extra twist here is that you can be one of the victims. (The main character of Laura Bow was not part of the will of The Colonel’s Bequest and hence was never a target; the methods of dying in that game involved more mundane things like falling into water or getting kicked by an angry horse.)

In any case, Mystery House also holds the distinction of being one of the two candidates for First Graphical Adventure Ever. (I’ll get to the second candidate after I wrap up this one.) This allows for a distinct quality not seen in previous games: the text does not contain all the information you need to understand what’s going on.

For example, in this early scene, the text implies but not explicitly state there is a closed door. The only feedback to >OPEN DOOR was graphical, with no textual change at all. Entering the door gets this message…


…locking the player in with this strangely-drawn rendition of the cast.

>LOOK PEOPLE incidentally gets the message “the people were explained at the beginning of the game”. In particular the instructions list the cast, and for some reason their hair color (?)

The first body is only a few rooms away. Sam, the mechanic, has been hit by a blunt object.

Given Sam was just alive two rooms over, it appears the mysterious teleporting murderer is back in action.

I’m guessing (hoping, I suppose) this is shorter than some of the other works of the time due to the necessity of storing lots of pictures. Just for fun, here is the same scene with Sam rendered in a Japanese version of Mystery House (via Hardcore Gaming 101):

Posted August 26, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Having Played Every Adventure From the 1970s, Some Thoughts   10 comments

From Captain 80 Basic Adventures.

First off, note that all my travails are archived at this link: All the Adventures.

I was browsing my old posts, and I dug up this one from way back in 2005:

However, most details I’ve seen (on those companies specifically and in general) tend to be on the companies themselves, rather than innovations in game mechanics. There’s a lack of material on the actual content of games, so a student looking for a particular element needs to start from scratch; there’s an intimidating number of works to plow through if someone is searching for a mechanic rather than a plot theme.

I find a real need for the sort of history work done with art and music history, with details about content that go past “in the old days, there were more mazes than there are now” so a future scholar can pick out that obscure game from 1980s that advances his or her point.

Even though I wrote this excerpt long enough ago I forgot it existed, it captures some of my motivation. If nothing else, looking at adventure history this early results in a lot of Firsts, and by playing everything I can say fairly definitively when things were actually first, like “this was the first time relative directions in an IF game were tried” (see: Mystery Mansion) or “this is the first experiment where navigation is done without a compass at all” (Empire of the Over-Mind).

Some other curious firsts:

– First defined player character: Aldebaran III
– First use of choice-based interaction in a parser game: Stuga
– First dynamic compass interface: Spelunker
– First dynamic puzzle generation: Mines
– First free-text conversation in an adventure context: Local Call for Death
– First adventure game comedy: Mystery Fun House

To another very real extent, though, the history is incidental. I just happen to love adventure games dearly. I want to get better and playing them, and I want to see and experience as much as I can.

My current (probably inaccurate) count of adventure games for 1980 is 63 items, more than I’ve written about so far (for the record, 47 games). I realize there is no chance I’ll ever finish every year; time keeps advancing and more adventure keep being written. Let’s see how far we can get, though!

Posted August 25, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

The Colonel’s Bequest: Finished!   6 comments

As I mentioned in my last post, I technically “finished” already, but I felt like I had some “loose threads” to tie up. Most specifically, I wanted to find out where the bodies ended up.

More generally, I was hoping I’d learn some more information that would make the mystery not seem like one gaping plot hole. Alas, as I learned more, things got worse rather than better.

I’m about to unload a pile of grievances, so let me just say: what this game tried to do was unique for the time and even for now. When it works, the game feels like pure Story, like you are dropped into a Simulated Universe or Futuristic Holo-novel. Furthermore, while there’s nothing you can do to prevent the murders, there’s still a legitimate amount of interactivity; more recent attempts at this sort of thing (let’s say Tacoma) put the player at arm’s length from the story and are more of a guided tourist plan. I recommend any game designer interested in narrative try this at least once. However….

(WARNING: Past this point there are spoilers and a lot of ranting.)

… the game itself is often just awful to play. Take the quasi-time element, where time only advances upon finding notable events. First off, this isn’t always the case — in one place the clock advanced three times for no apparent reason, and at another juncture I found multiple bodies with absolutely no advance in time. Quite often I needed the clock to advance but couldn’t work out how. My only recourse was to go through every room in the game hoping something would trigger (sometimes twice because I missed something). Once I was stuck so long I thought I had “soft-locked” the game (that is, got it stuck with no possibility of advance) until I found out I could move the game along by knocking on the cook’s door (who doesn’t even let Laura in, it’s just a small piece of dialogue!)

Then there’s the promise of character interaction, which slowly got reduced to utter shreds. At the end of a long chain of puzzle-solving I found the dumping ground for all the mysterious disappearing bodies:

You think the Colonel might react a little, but >TELL COLONEL ABOUT BODIES just gives his usual default response.

After lengthly attempts to get characters to tell me something, anything, even to have a glimmer of a reaction, eventually mimesis was not only shattered but drop-kicked and melted down into a little puddle.

The mystery itself just didn’t work. I mentioned last time in the end scene you find Colonel and Rudy fighting upstairs; the correct action is to shoot Rudy. This is true even though the Colonel himself seems to be the one who ordered the bodies disposed of … except that doesn’t make sense in the case of his assistants Fifi and Jeeves, and when you start to track the character movements the plot makes less rather than more sense. Characters essentially have to “teleport” to cause the murders they supposedly do, and somehow multiple guests and the Colonel himself independently decide all the bodies need to go down the chute — why?

So while I’d recommend this one for game designers, I can’t in good conscience recommend it for a general audience. The Colonel’s Bequest attempted and failed to be the ultimate in immersion. I did finish the sequel The Dagger of Amon Ra (back when it was first released), and while the gameplay is much smoother it’s also a more traditional Sierra adventure game structure.

Soon to 1980, although I wanted to write a 1970s summary post first. Does anyone have any questions about the project as a whole? (Even plain queries like “which game was your favorite?” would be helpful.)

Posted August 24, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Colonel’s Bequest: Murder Most Foul   3 comments

I technically “finished” the game; once I settled in (and made liberal use of the “increase speed” key when walking around) it took about 2 hours to get to completion. The plot “plays itself” in a way (more on that in a moment) so it’s not hard to solve the murders even with sub-par play. I left enough loose ends that I don’t consider myself done just yet.

Note that from this point there are many spoilers.


From a game-designer-theory standpoint, the message upon picking “About” from the menu is fascinating.

There isn’t a “quest,” as such. Your goal is to get to know the story and the characters; to understand what’s going on; and to survive the long night. We feel that “The Colonel’s Bequest” is a true interactive STORY rather than a game and every effort was put into giving you the sensation that you are part of the story.

This text was helpful to me in that once dead bodies start to show up in this game, they keep coming; I thought perhaps I was missing actions I needed to stop the carnage, but I realized the story to an extent “plays itself” — the intent is you just learn as much as you can in order to make a wise decision in the endgame.

There have been many essays on the use of the word “game” and I don’t plan on writing a new one, but I would say it’s a pity that every interactive media meant for leisure is shoehorned under “game”. I know I’ve been insistent on calling Renga in Four Parts “interactive poetry”. I haven’t seen much other interactive poetry go beyond clicking on hyperlinks as a mode of interaction; I theorize this is because so many other interactive actions belong to “games” so poets are shy to try them. What about a poem the reader can walk around in? (And if doing that “turns it into a game” for you, why?)

In any case, I think nearly everyone in a modern context would still recognize The Colonel’s Bequest as a game — it’s got traditional adventure puzzles and a high score, even — so I’m comfortable still calling it that.


The characters are:

Laura Bow, the hero.
Colonel Henri Dijon, the owner of the estate and the one who announced his intent to give his inheritence to all present.
Lillian Price, Laura’s friend and the Colonel’s niece.
Ethel Prune, Lillian’s mother.
Gertrude Dijon, widow of the Colonel’s brother.
Gloria Swansong, Gertrude’s daughter.
Rudolph Dijon, Gertrude’s son.
Clarence Sparrow, the Colonel’s attorney.
Dr. Wilbur C. Feels, the Colonel’s physician.
Jeeves, the butler.
Fifi, the Colonel’s maid.
Celie, the Colonel’s cook.

Nearly all of them will be dead by the end of the story.


The game is divided into 8 “acts”. Each act represents an hour of time, and every quarter hour you get a reminder of the time. However, it’s not “real time” — time only advances with certain events, like hearing a conversation or seeing a body. It’s not possible to just wander a corner of the map and come back to find the story finished. This fits with the game’s conceit as a “play” — time stalls in place while the scenery is being changed, so to speak.

In gameplay terms, this can be quite frustrating. Once I wandered the map multiple times for a full 15 minutes without finding anything new. (It turned out the next event was in the bathroom, which had nothing else happen before this time.)

The uncertainty about advancing time can foil efforts to “search as much as possible for new stuff before it goes away” — on a number of occasions I had time advance (without wanting / meaning it to) and lost access to certain clues / conversations in the process.


The first body I found was Gertrude, Gloria and Rudy’s mother. Last I saw her she was sleeping, but now she had “fallen” out of a second story window.

Searching the body didn’t yield up much information. Gloria herself happens to be just inside, and you can go there and >TELL GLORIA ABOUT GERTRUDE; she’ll step outside, pop back in, and tell you “that was mean.” In the short span the body isn’t visible, it gets “cleaned up.”

This ends up being a common theme through the plot — telling people about the bad things going on is entirely fruitless. They don’t even bother to check. It hits upon one of my least-liked tropes of literature, where the hero knows something and everyone else thinks they are crazy. I mean, I can understand this is a totally normal reaction with UFO landings / ghostly monsters / walking squids but the characters stonewall so much here the realism drops off a cliff. Really, you *aren’t* interested in this rolling pin I found with blood on it?

(Ahem.) In the meantime, I kept overhearing conversations and finding more ways people don’t like each other. The Doctor knows some medical secret of Gloria’s. Gloria was dating Clarence but drops him for a director. The Doctor and Clarence plot together to recover $100,000 that Clarence stole from the Colonel to buy a racehorse. Rudy and Clarence get into an actual fistfight at one point. Everyone thinks Ethel drinks too much.

To be fair, Ethel spends a lot of the game either drinking so much she can’t respond to questions, or wandering drunk like she is in this screenshot.

Murders continue. The next person I found was the Doctor, dead by the end of Act III in the Carriage House by the horse. Just like Gertrude, his body disappeared by the time I came back.

At one point, I found Jeeves cleaning up some evidence of a struggle. I asked him about it, and he just claimed he was doing what he was told. This aroused strong suspicions in me that a.) the Colonel himself was behind the murders and b.) he was getting help in cleaning up the results.

More people die, and I discovered the bodies in this order: Gloria, Ethel, Clarence, Lillian.

It was nearing the end of Act VIII, and I had found a key on Lillian’s body. Next to her body was a gun and one bullet; I took both. Entering the house I could hear a scuffle upstairs. Going into the attic (which I previously couldn’t unlock) I found the Colonel and Rudy in a struggle holding a hypodermic needle. This is where you get the choice.


Who was responsible, Rudy or the Colonel? Which one should you shoot?

This is the elegant way of asking “who is guilty?” Do you believe the Colonel’s announcement of the inheritance set off a desire to kill among the already-morally-askew family, or did the Colonel lure his family in as a way of ending it?

I’m not going to spoil things here just yet. When I get to my next post of “Finished!” I probably will, but I’m holding off because there are plot holes I am currently frustrated by which may turn out to simply be gaps of knowledge.

I know I have gaps because a.) there’s a score at the end of sorts; I’m only halfway up to “Super Sleuth” and b.) also at the end you can look at Laura’s notebook, which includes pages like “Person With Surprising Secret” and “Ultimate Location of Most Bodies” that are marked “INCOMPLETE”.

I’m also missing “Person Befriended”, which leads me to some last thoughts for now …


… I struggled a *lot* with communicating in this game. It uses a relatively free-form ASK/TELL type system (ex: >ASK LILLIAN ABOUT ETHEL) but the vast majority of what I tried was either not understood, or stonewalled off by the character. The Colonel (who you would think would be interested in dead relatives) just snaps at you if you try to communicate anything. Right before Clarence dies, you can try to tell him about murdered people and he says what nearly amounts to default responses, but then you find (after he’s been dragged off) that he was writing in a diary about a sense of dread. In theory, that’s dramatically appropriate; in practice, my attempts at interactivity were being thrown into the void.

Posted August 18, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Colonel’s Bequest: The Lay of the Land   2 comments

I originally made the reasonable assumption that to get by the opening screen (which stays up for a long time) one just simply clicked, and then the next portion of the game would appear. This did more or less happen; I went straight to being up in Laura’s guest room and being able to move her around. However, in the process I ended up skipping a long cutscene!

The setup I missed was this: the Colonel has invited all his family members (and some associates) to his island estate, where he makes the announcement that a.) he is splitting his inheritance evenly among everyone present (except Laura who is just visiting) and b.) if someone present dies, the distribution will be evenly split among those who remain. (b.) does make legal sense but is a very weird thing to say; it sets up the possibility that someone might not want to bump off the Colonel, exactly, but one of the other relatives in order to get a bigger share.

In any case, after the announcement, there’s no directive other than to “explore”, so I mostly did that. The main house itself includes a series of secret doors where you can spy on conversations:

The characters have a full ASK / TELL / SHOW style system where you can pester them for information, although I admit I haven’t gotten much information this way yet. I instead went to get a feel for the surrounding area.

For those used to object-dense Sierra games, it definitely feels sparse so far. I found an oil can in one of the locations, but that’s it. Generally speaking, it looks like most of the locations are meant to be important later, for secret meetings at midnight and the like. Two interesting bits, though:

There’s a strange shaft in a hedge maze, which suggests some sort of secret opening via unusual key.

I also found the Colonel’s horse Blaze, who (in addition to the Colonel) is a veteran of the Spanish-American war. The lantern behind the horse was out of reach, so I opened the gate to get to it, and this happened. Laura died immediately after. It wouldn’t be a Sierra game without some instant death going on.

It’s all been relatively sedate so far. I’ll get more into the cast of characters (and my attempts to interrogate them) next time.

Posted August 14, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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