Archive for April 2018

Quarterstaff: “Deathbots” vs. “Ordinary living things”   2 comments

One of the most eye-popping claims in the marketing for Quarterstaff is this excerpt from The Status Line, Fall 1988:

In Quarterstaff, monsters are not merely “deathbots,” whose only purpose in life is to maim and destroy, but ordinary living things whose actions are guided by real life drives such as hunger, anger, and the need for friendship.

Monsters even learn from their mistakes and accomplishments through an artificial-intelligence learning system. Some creatures will react negatively to your party, resorting to combat and force. Others, however, will try to help your party, or even join forces with you; and so, though you begin the adventure with only one character, you’re sure to quickly acquire a formidable band of adventurers.

One of the things I was most curious about with Quarterstaff was, does the above claim hold up?

Before getting into that: a status update.

Level 2 consisted mostly of an annoying series of traps. Every time the players got knocked over or fell in a pit the party would separate, so the interface trick I found last time of being able to “de-select” members of a party ended up being mostly useless. I sometimes killed off all my characters except one just so I could explore a little without feeling like I was being hit over the head by a brick repeatedly.

I can’t totally drop having other characters, because sometimes one character will hold a secret door open or otherwise help another character. In one frustrating instance, I tried having my character “on hold” use the GUARD command to wait around after holding open a secret door while my other two characters went in to eliminate enemies. However, I ended up stuck, because there doesn’t seem to be a way to end the GUARD command (it ends itself if there is an encounter, but none were forthcoming); so after 15 minutes of combat and fiddly inventory managment, I had to restore to a saved game and undo all my progress.

(Both the box and the Status Line promotion mention continuous play without the frustration of constant “saves and restores”. Ha ha. Ha. Hahahahaha. No.)

The traps in level 2 have no warning. Only this spot is polite enough to warn about danger, but there’s a locked door I haven’t gotten through so I have no idea if it’s really more dangerous than the other parts.

Incidentally, if you’ve been annoyed by hunger puzzles in adventure games, this game has hunger, thirst, *and* sleep. In the middle of a combat and one of your party member starts feeling thirsty? Better juggle a wine bottle over to them, otherwise they’re start suffering 3 damage per turn. Except the moves you wasted juggling the wine bottle also gave the monsters extra turns to hit you, so you’re probably dead anyway. Guess it’s time to restore again.

Level 3 starts out with what I’m sure everyone wanted, which was to turn off the handy auto-map feature and put the player in a straight-up old school maze. I had to get out Trizbort.

After the maze I found a puzzle with a large number of colored balls, with a hole, and the message I was supposed to insert the one that was different. The appropriate solution was oddly meta and one of those circumstances where I was reminded strongly this was a Computer Game and not just a World. More detail encrypted in rot13: Zber fcrpvsvpnyyl, lbh arrq gb xrrc na rlr ba gur “jrvtug” gung lbhe punenpgre vf pneelvat va bar bs gur zrahf. Vs lbh cvpx hc nal bs gur abezny onyyf, lbhe jrvtug tbrf hc ol 1. Vs lbh cvpx gur fcrpvny bar, lbhe jrvtug tbrf hc ol 2. Fb gur onyy jvgu gur jrvtug bs 2 vf gur bar lbh’er fhccbfrq gb vafreg.

After the maze I found two new characters (including “Sandra” the dwarf) and a throne which concealed a secret portion of the map.

Here I am stuck. I think the puzzle I’m supposed to be solving involves a room which says “no man can pass”. You can send a female character through, but that room has the message “no woman can pass”. So either I need some clever teleportation or a method of gender-swapping my characters.

In any case, back to the artificial intelligence. I did experiment quite a bit, and I’m not that impressed. For one thing, there seems to be a fairly strict delineation between hostile and friendly; I haven’t had a situation yet where I can just make friends with an enemy, although I suspect it’s possible in a few places.

In some cases, the monsters clearly aren’t here to make friends.

In general, I haven’t seen them do much past being “murderbots”. You attack an enemy, and keep attacking and they keep trying to hit you back. The very first fight had a scripted element (you are fighting a “chief torturer” who tries to lock one of your party members in manacles, and will try to run away if he gets hurt enough) but I haven’t seen any evidence of “hunger” or “anger” somehow being influences.

It’s quite possible if you had time to sit an observe a particular NPC they might stop to eat or show some other sign of life. However, every meeting so far has been either friendly or hostile so the game is unable to produce evidence of this number crunching. How much evidence of life can a monster give when they live for only a couple turns? While AI systems often have admirable goals, if what they do is indistinguishable from a little custom scripting, what’s the point?

On the other side of the coin, friend-making is a matter of using the SMILE verb repeatedly and possibly using BRIBE with whatever treasure you have around. (If they join your party, since you have control of them, you can just have them give any treasures back.) There’s no intermediary state descriptions of what the NPCs are thinking; you just wait some set number of turns and they join. Again, there might be some complicated machinery behind the characters, but with zero transparency, their behavior might as well be random.

(I write this with the back my head knowing the fact that three interactive fiction luminaries now work at Spirit AI, whose whole goal is to make more realistic AI characters. In fact, they’re all probably reading this. Hello there! I’m sure your AI system rocks!)

Posted April 28, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quarterstaff: The Infamous Puzzle   6 comments

In a curious way, even though I just started, I’ve been playing Quarterstaff for four years.

It’s long been one of the two Infocom games I’ve never tried (Shogun is the other one) and at one point when I was organizing my files I wanted to make a directory so I could play Quarterstaff when the time was right. I set up a Macintosh emulator (a bit of a ritual in itself) and gathered the documentation files I knew I would need. According to my file dates, this happened in 2014.

I had heard that in particular there was a puzzle reliant on the documentation that was quite nasty to solve.

The most significant “real” puzzle is that of deciphering a set of magic words using a parchment and wooden coin included in the game package. (Apparently quite a few players were stumped by this — Infocom actually gave away the entire solution in the very last issue of “The Status Line,” which is included in manual download below).
Home of the Underdogs

The documentation included the “parchment” on the top of this post, as well as a wooden coin.

Knowing about the puzzle’s reputation, intermittently I would take a glance at the image files in my directory, idly trying to solve the puzzle. Was there an acrostic or something of that sort in the poem? What did the difference between the coin and the parchment pictures mean? Do the animals to the side have a meaning?

Fast-forwarding to now:

This is the way to the second level, but this is also the location of the identify wand, which seems to be critical to the game, because examining it says “The glowing identify wand is in the gouged hole. A wand that looks to be used for copy protection. You had better read the documentation to figure out how to use it.”

The manual states the format for wand use is [MAGIC WORD] [TARGET OF MAGIC]. The mystery seemed to be what magic words could be used, and thus the puzzle boiled down to finding “magic verbs” the game would recognize. The four mini-poems at the bottom seemed to be applicable.

To glean the secret of a Wand,
Spy the rising sun, and pace
Southward six.

Here I was stumped, likely as stumped as the poor Status Line readers, until I had a lateral insight. Let’s clip an image from the game as a bit of spoiler space …

(don’t go on unless you want the puzzle completely spoiled)

… before mentioning I remembered that the coin was a physical object, and while it was not certain from the pictures, it appeared to fit inside the compass circle on top of the parchment itself.

Additionally, I noticed there was an arrow on the coin; I originally assumed it pointed to north, but then realized because of it being physical the coin itself could be rotated to match whatever the poem wanted. That is, if we “spy the rising sun” (start pointing east) the arrow on the coin can can be rotated to face east. Then from the eastmost point we can read off six letters rotating clockwise (“pacing southward”).

This gets ODEEPS which is indeed recognized by the game!

>Odeeps identify wand.
The identify wand glows faintly and suddenly Titus clearly understands exactly what it can be used for: Using this wand will allow the wielder to identify scrolls, wands, potions, and keys. They key words necessary for using the wand can be deciphered from the scroll and coin included in the game packaging.

I know I promised I would get to combat this time, but I’m going to wait a little longer while I explore Level 2; the game makes some very extended claims about artificial intelligence and I’m trying to verify if any of the claims hold out.

Posted April 20, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quarterstaff: Great in Concept, Painful in Execution   Leave a comment

The back of the Infocom box, via an Etsy auction.

It’s been a while! (You might want to reread my first post about Quarterstaff and then come back here. TLDR version: Quarterstaff is a Macintosh-only hybrid text adventure RPG with multiple characters.) While I’ve been busy with other projects, to be fair Quarterstaff itself is trying really hard to be unplayable.

1. The multiple characters sound good in principle but are painful in practice. Members of a group can act separately, so you get a series of prompts like:

F Bruno? Z

so while one character is trying to do something finicky like adjust their inventory, you have to control the other characters at the same time. (“L” stands for leader and “F” stands for follower. You can change who is the leader and also separate groups.)

This gets really bad with something like DROP ALL or TAKE ALL because each item is considered a separate action, so if someone is dropping three items, your other party members are prompted multiple times for actions in between each item getting dropped. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds:

Fortunately (although I only found this out about 2 hours in) it’s possible to turn off this feature by deselecting a character name from one of the menus (it just has the “clover” symbol, no name). Multiple character control is still needed for things like combat, though.

2. There are lots of circumstances (at least early on) where a character is too heavily weighted down to enter a particular area. This not only requires the aforementioned inventory shuffle, but if somone who gets stuck is a follower, whoops! — your regular party goes ahead and your follower stays behind in the dark.

3. The interface uses multiple windows for player control and messages, map, and graphics. This doesn’t sound bad at first, but if a character gets separated from their group it pops up a new window, and the graphics are wildly inconsistent in size so that particular window grows or shrinks on every turn.

Note I’ve left the top left free because the picture sometimes takes up the entire area I have allocated. If I accidentally click in that blank space with no picture I get sent to the desktop.

4. The parser is on shaky ground at times.

Once I tried to >OPEN CLOSET and the game just picked it up instead.

5. Party death results in this ignominious screen (and the famous “Macintosh beep”) and then a summary exit to desktop.

6. While this is not the game’s fault, I’ve had my emulator crash on me multiple times. I’m going to switch software and see if that helps. Fingers crossed!

I’ll try to get into combat next time; I haven’t seen enough of it to really write about it properly.

Posted April 19, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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