Archive for June 2018

Zork I: Getting Out   4 comments

I’m at the point where I have a mostly complete map, so I’m in the “logistics” phase where I am planning what order to visit the rooms and gather treasures.

It’s fairly tricky because of the thief. Just like original Zork, there’s a “lean and hungry gentleman” who can go most places on the map and will try to take any treasures you have (or ones that are lying around), and possibly stab you with his stiletto while he’s at it. You can eventually fight the thief with your sword, but it takes a higher point score to manage (like “experience points” in Dungeons and Dragons I suppose) so the fight has to wait until later in the game. Here is a result of trying to start the fight early:

Someone carrying a large bag is casually leaning against one of the walls here.
He does not speak, but it is clear from his aspect that the bag will be taken only over his dead body.
Your sword has begun to glow very brightly.

> kill thief with sword
A good slash, but it misses the thief by a mile.
The thief draws blood, raking his stiletto across your arm.

> kill thief with sword
You charge, but the thief jumps nimbly aside.
The thief just left, still carrying his large bag. You may not have noticed that he appropriated the valuables in the room.
Your sword is no longer glowing.

The other tricky element is perhaps the most clever finesse in the game, and one of the very first thing that happens.

> move rug
With a great effort, the rug is moved to one side of the room, revealing the dusty cover of a closed trap door.

> open trap door
The door reluctantly opens to reveal a rickety staircase descending into darkness.

> d
You have moved into a dark place.
The trap door crashes shut, and you hear someone barring it.

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
Your sword is glowing with a faint blue glow.

I’m not referring to the iconic “you are likely to be eaten by a grue” (which is indeed lovely) or “your sword is glowing with a faint blue glow” (which always happens with enemies nearby, and gives a nice texture to the world-building even if it is cadged from Tolkien).

Iconic enough someone made a cupcake. From Steelhead Studio.

I’m referring to the fact the way you came in is locked behind you, so you cannot take the same way out.

First: who barred the door? One might think the thief, but at least in this version of Zork, he never gets into the upstairs house. It can’t have happened on its own (“you hear someone barring it”), which is what I imagined when I was a child. Spoiler theory in rot13 (from a later Zork, so don’t reveal if you only know this game): gur qhatrba znfgre sebz gur irel raq bs gur gevybtl oneerq gur qbbe, gb sbepr gur cynlre punenpgre gb rkcyber engure guna whfg eha njnl.

Second is simply the design finesse of forcing the player to look for another exit. And there are plenty, including one a couple steps away: a chimney which is too narrow to carry much of anything, including a large treasure that is in the same room.

I overall count four distinct methods (not including the fact the trapdoor eventually will stay open), which really gives the feel of player choice. There are enough routes and it is non-obvious what the most efficient one is (I’m guessing every walkthrough of this game is very different).

One last catch is that while most of the edits from original mainframe Zork seem to be simply rooms removed (along with exits that don’t exist any more) there is one section that is changed enough I’m not sure what to do.

> e
Dome Room
You are at the periphery of a large dome, which forms the ceiling of another room below. Protecting you from a precipitous drop is a wooden railing which circles the dome.

> tie rope to railing
The rope drops over the side and comes within ten feet of the floor.

> d
Torch Room
This is a large room with a prominent doorway leading to a down staircase. Above you is a large dome. Up around the edge of the dome (20 feet up) is a wooden railing. In the center of the room sits a white marble pedestal.
A piece of rope descends from the railing above, ending some five feet above your head.
Sitting on the pedestal is a flaming torch, made of ivory.

The rope is too high to climb back up, and there doesn’t seem to be any normal exits.

There’s a few other locations with the torch room, but otherwise this seems to be a dead end (note the rope is too high to climb back up). There’s a granite wall that I recall should let me teleport with just >TOUCH GRANITE WALL, but it doesn’t work. My theory is I need to defeat the thief first, because the other end is in the thief’s lair, but it’s possible there’s another angle altogether I haven’t thought of.

This is unfortunate because the torch is the “unlimited turns” light source of the game; the lantern will eventually run out of battery and go dark. I’m confident there was a lot of intention here on the part of the authors; they probably felt like being able to walk anywhere with an unlimited light source too early would undercut the tension they did a good part building by barring the initial way out. (I remember my childhood self having particular dread of the dark in this game, especially the time my lantern winked out and all I was left with was a book of matches.)

I’m otherwise in the clear on all the rest of the puzzles, so it’s possible I’ll have won this by next time I report in.

Posted June 28, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork I: Kishōtenketsu   2 comments

The 1981 packaging for Zork I, that followed the infamous TRS-80 packaging. Via MIT Technology Review, from the collection of Mike Dornbrook. There are other nice pictures there, including Lebling’s hand-drawn map of original Zork. Notice Infocom hasn’t settled on “interactive fiction” yet but instead calls this “An INTERLOGIC(tm) prose adventure”.

Usually, when I see people apply traditional plot structures to games, they’re thinking of the traditional rising action-climax-falling action “mountain”. Generally, the overarching story is said to have such as structure, as well as the incidents along the way; sort of a fractal mountain, so to speak.

However, I’ve been wondering if this is always the most appropriate game structure, because it relies on conflict; in some Western theory texts, you can find the claim that story always relies on conflict.

Kishōtenketsu is a structure that shows up in in Chinese, Korean and Japanese stories which can be, to a real extent, conflict-free. Instead of a Three-Act Structure, it has four:

Ki: Introduces characters and other necessary information.

Shō: Follows any lead characters, but without major changes.

Ten: Provides an unexpected development. This is the essential substitute for the climax, because it may not be a “confrontation”, but can be just an unusual change in the environment, or enigmatic development.

Ketsu: The conclusion, which unifies the original elements with the “twist”.

The key here is the the unexpected development or “twist” might not even be something resolved by the main characters, or even “resolved” in a traditional sense. Example:

1. Karen and Mira pack for a roadtrip.

2. Karen and Mira alternate turns driving, and talk about their lives.

3. Around midnight, they see what appears to be a flying saucer. They park, step out of their car, and take photos. The saucer never gets closer and eventually disappears.

4. They finally arrive at a hotel, talking about what they just saw.

And, sure: with this example you could say the conflict is “in their minds” or some such, and do the same with any other kishōtenketsu plot, but after a certain point Traditional Three-Act starts to look like person with a hammer desperately searching for nails (or maybe one of those people who tries to apply The Hero’s Journey to everything).

The rule of thumb seems to be: ten is about contrast, not conflict (conflict can arise from the contrast, but that’s a subset of the bigger idea). The ten phase can also resembles a traditional adventure game puzzle.

> e
Round Room
This is a circular stone room with passages in all directions. Several of them have unfortunately been blocked by cave-ins.

> e
Loud Room
This is a large room with a ceiling which cannot be detected from the ground. There is a narrow passage from east to west and a stone stairway leading upward. The room is deafeningly loud with an undetermined rushing sound. The sound seems to reverberate from all of the walls, making it difficult even to think.
On the ground is a large platinum bar.

> look
look look …

> take bar
bar bar …

Maybe? The first act here is the preceding actions, the description of the loud room is the development, and the parser’s reaction to any action other than movement is the twist. There’s two possible resolutions: one entirely logical involving finding the source of the noise and shutting it off (spoiled in rot13: gur arneol qnz), the other being almost hilariously abstruse (Vs lbh fnl rpub lbh trg gur zrffntr “Gur npbhfgvpf bs gur ebbz punatr fhogyl.” naq gur rssrpg fgbcf.) The first resolution is particularly satisfying and unifying — it resolves and explains the contrast.

Perhaps I’m reaching a little, but I have read people who exclude incidents such as the puzzle above from being part of a plot; yet, in terms of actual effort, and my mental memory of the trials and struggles of a game, these enigmatic elements form a story in my head. For me, the change in parser message comes across more as contrast rather than conflict. Maybe that’s why it goes unrecognized.

Posted June 25, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork I: Storm-Tossed Trees   2 comments

This map came with the commercial packaging. I’ve never been quite sure what part of the Zorkiverse this shows.

One significant difference between playing this game compared to the original mainframe version is that back then, it was second in my project after Adventure. This time, it’s after I’ve played a long sequence leading up to 1980, and the effect is like stepping from silent movies into sound, or black and white into color.

I’m not meaning just the parser (which does allow all the full features of Infocom and modern games we’d expect, as opposed to requiring two words only). I haven’t been using the expanded parser that much. I even had to adjust at one point went finding the lantern at the start of the game; I typed ON which works just fine in some of the two-word games, but Zork was expecting TURN LANTERN ON. Whoops.

It’s more just the detail and atmosphere. You start outside, by the famous boarded-up white house, with no direction at all. Then you’re left to discover there’s a world underground. This matches a lot of the games from the same era, but even outside, it feels like all the senses are being used.

> listen to trees
The pines and the hemlocks seem to be murmuring.

You hear in the distance the chirping of a song bird.

> s
Storm-tossed trees block your way.

The small, quiet details feel like writing, not just functional description, but writing for its own sake. There is still one foot in the just-the-facts style:

You are in a clearing, with a forest surrounding you on all sides. A path leads
On the ground is a pile of leaves.

but enough extra detail to be satisfying.

> count leaves
There are 69,105 leaves here.

> jump in leaves

> move leaves
In disturbing the pile of leaves, a grating is revealed.

Posted June 23, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Zork I (1980)   Leave a comment

I’ve already written about the original mainframe version of Zork (by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels and Dave Lebling). The common wisdom is that when Infocom was formed, the game was too large to fit onto a floppy, so it was split into three parts: Zork I, Zork II, and Zork III.

The reality is more that the majority of the game became Zork I, some of the spare locations and puzzles made it into Zork II, and Zork III has almost nothing in common except for some elements of the endgame.

The ramification for me is that I still have essentially all the notes necessary to complete the game! I’m going to map it fresh to still feel like I’m playing, but this is definitely going to be more like a replay than the epic multi-month struggle mainframe Zork turned out to be. I’ll still try to slow down and make design observations, and see if I can find any new secrets.

There were quite a few Zork releases; I have release 2 (the original TRS-80 release), release 88 (the most common version, and the one I believe you get if you buy this game from and the Solid Gold release (which comes with in-game hints). I’m probably just going to do most of my playing in the newest version, because mucking about version 2, it doesn’t look that different from the last release! There just seem to be numerous bug-fixes, but others have already done an excellent job of tracking which bugs appear in all 14 known releases. (An even more extensive bug list is here.)

The earliest releases of Zork I (Versions 2 and 5) can become very confused if you nest objects too deeply in your inventory, such as putting the lunch in the sack, then the sack in the coffin. You may get very spurious output from the INVENTORY command like “Such language in a high-class establishment like this!” messages, with other random junk interspersed in it. This can also lead to the object hierarchy getting screwed up, in such a way that an INVENTORY might claim that you are carrying a bunch of rooms around!

Posted June 20, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Marooned (1980 or 1981)   1 comment

Finding this game was like opening a secret door.

I first spotted it on The Big List of TRS-80 Software where it’s listed as “Adventure # 10- Marooned (124480)”.

Opening it up makes it look like an ordinary Scott Adams game, in fact, the last one I played, with the option to select an adventure all the way up to Ghost Town (#9).

If you take the leap and type in “10”, it still has a normal Scott Adams instruction screen …

… but then leads to something entirely different.

Kim Watt was prolific programmer and legend among the TRS-80 community for his utility software. This was clearly written between Scott Adams Adventure #9 (1980) and #10 (1981) although because this was an “unofficial” game, I don’t know if I can get more exact than that. Mr. Watt did start making significant money from his utility software starting at the end of 1980, so I’m going to guess this was a lark between mid-1980 and the end of 1980.

Unfortunately, the game also seems to be incomplete. I have below a complete transcript as far as I’ve gotten. It doesn’t look unreasonable, but that’s only because I have included just the commands that worked.

I’m in the passenger section of an airplane

Obvious exits: North, South.

I can also see: Empty seats


I’m in a cockpit

Obvious exits: South

I can also see: Control panel

I see
guages everywhere.
[Typo is in the game.]

Plane is rapidly descending.
Steering mechanism is broken.



I’m in the tail section of an airplane

Obvious exits: North.

I can also see: Broken rudder cable – Tool box – Knapsack

[Note: This is a parachute. You cannot TAKE KNAPSACK.]


There’s something there!
[Finds Wire cutters – Screwdriver – Wrench]

[This is the only item out of the toolbox you can get]

I found something!
[Hidden knob appears.]

A secret door opens.

I can’t do that yet.

There’s an island you can get to according to the source code, but I haven’t been able to make it any farther past this point, and it’s so broken there’s a strong chance it’s impossible.

Alas, that means this is more of a historical curiosity than a game. Pyramid of Doom came out of a fan deconstructing the Scott Adams file format; it’s interesting to see someone even attempt roughly the same thing with the notion of making the next numbered game in the series.

Posted June 19, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Ghost Town: Finshing the Game, aka Witnessing An Increasingly Bad Series of Design Decisions   7 comments

From the Electron version of Ghost Town, via Moby Games.

I have sympathy for Scott Adams here.

Adventure games were just invented as a thing. He managed to be ahead of his time with plot and puzzle integration (The Count) and participatory comedy (Mystery Fun House). This is despite the fact it wasn’t at all clear what would work and what wouldn’t.

A lot of what he tried in Ghost Town didn’t work.

This was partly, as I mentioned earlier, due to the structure. There aren’t many geographic bottlenecks, and not a lot of ones having to do with items, either. Essentially, the whole game is open, and finding all the treasures is a matter of prodding at every location until the obscurities reveal themselves. This deflates the implicit plot tension which comes naturally to adventure games. Again, I can hardly assign blame here; the idea that the structure of gameplay itself is plot is still often overlooked by those studying narrative.

Also, the attempt at making a “hard game” ran into a system that was not robust enough to handle it. A good difficult puzzle often requires a responses to a large variety of different verbs and more textual feedback than the Scott Adams system could manage.

Finally, one of the puzzles was uniquely, breathtakingly bad. It was the last one I solved, so I’ll get to it last.

I. The Ghost Piano Player

I mentioned last time that in the saloon, there was a ghostly piano player that would ocasionally appears. Also, a voice would sometimes whisper “Vain…” I definitely tried to put the two things together, but I was thinking “vain” in terms of appearance; however, the word can apply to abilities as well.

Ghost stands, bows, vanishes!

The ghost leaves behind a map, which hints at the location of a gold nugget.

I’ll have to give props for this one – the hint ended up being reasonable, and the only two plausible synonyms (APPLAUD and CLAP) both work. I got stuck mainly because I got hung up on a particular definition of “vain”. (This is also another one of those scenarios where only the parser works for the puzzle.)

Having said all that, this puzzle turns out to be entirely optional for walkthrough purposes – the hint off the map you get can just be used outright without interacting with the piano player at all.

II. The Ghost Violin Player

The game has a day-night cycle; after SUNSET everything goes dark and you need a candle to see. If you sleep in a bed (which you can summon up at the hotel) you can wake up the next day, but then find that in the saloon a pair of “worn out violin strings” has appeared. This is a hint that there’s even more ghostly happenings at the saloon.

Particularly, if you walk in the saloon after dark, there’s something that gets scared and leaves. If you enter wandering in the dark, there’s no such message. You can >LISTEN and get the message

very pretty

which could possibly be a little more helpful? Especially because the right action to do is DANCE:

very pretty
I won a prize!

which yields a silver cup, one of the thirteen treasures of the game.

This one is … marginal. I like the tie-in with the day-night cycle, and I like the general idea of a ghost that avoids the light and that you can never see at any point in the game, but the actual action required is fairly cryptic (ties in with “Vain” again I guess) and “very pretty” is just a little too minimalist to fully convey the scenario.

III. The Second Hidden Exit

I had felt clever, but in a somewhat meta way, for noticing that in this room …

I’m on a ridge above a narrow ravine I see mountains in the distance.

… you got a special message for GO RAVINE …

Sorry I can’t
its full of sage brush, tumbleweed & is impassable

… which indicated BURN RAVINE was possible, then allowing entry.

Except there’s *two* exits. I had indeed tried GO MOUNTAINS


which is the game’s universal prompt for saying something like WITH HORSESHOE. I thought, perhaps, I could do some climbing with the horse? In any case, while I had the sense there was a second secret exit, the parser led me to believe it was via use of item. I had to look this one up: it’s simply JUMP RAVINE

I’m on a ridge above a ravine

Obvious exits: West

at which point, my approximate reaction, rendered in letters, is ARRGGRAGRARGHGARGAGHGRGRFGRHM. At this point I shouldn’t be surprised at an inconsistent parser message leading me down the wrong path, but this one broke all trust I had in the game.

This was additionally painful in that in the real-life analogue of the situation, or even nearly any videogame rendition, there would be no puzzle here — it’d be clear there’s another path and you just need to get over the ravine to get there.

IV. No Really, It Gets Worse

Early in the game I had found, in the “telegraph office” which contains a safe and a telegram machine, that the safe could be moved revealing “2 loose wires”.

I’m in a Telegraph office

Obvious exits: South

I can also see: Telegraph key – 2 loose wires – Large safe

These wires can then be taken, although I was never able to find a use for them.

Again, I ended up needing hints, at which point I found out by taking those wires, I had lost the game.

Mind you, there’s no “snap!” message or the like when taking the wires, or even indication they are attached to anything at all. It turns out if you SPLICE WIRES or CONNECT WIRES you get “spliced wires”. The game is still unclear as to what’s happening, and even after beating the game I still don’t know. What I do know — and this comes entirely from just checking the hints — is that if you drop the keg of gunpowder in the room, and then set off the telegraph from afar, it will set off the gunpowder and blow up the safe.

This is true even though the splicing happens before the keg of gunpowder is set. I guess somehow the wires set off sparks? Why would they be behind the safe? Why would taking them “sever” them so easily? Why are the wires there in the first place?

V. By This Point My Resistance to Hints Was Nearly Zero

I knew I was eventually destined to ride the horse in the stable. (I get the impression that the horse *isn’t* that of the main character, which raises the question of who was maintaining the health of the horse?) I already mentioned my confusion regarding the RIDE verb; when attempting RIDE HORSE the game responded that I “may need to say a magic word here”.

I assumed this would be a magic word taught elsewhere in the game. It is not. You’re just supposed to have watched a bunch of old Western movies and guessed:

after a long ride
He bucks, I’m thrown
he rides off without me

I’m in a hidden canyon

Obvious exits: none.

I can also see: TeePee

I know the baseball maze in Zork II gets constant flack for being the epitome of culture-trivia-knowledge puzzles, but to be fair, that puzzle is perfectly solvable without understanding the baseball references at all (I’ll refrain on giving further detail until I make it to 1981 in my sequence). The “magic word” here, on the other hand, is almost literally a trivia question.

VI. I Was Not Exaggerating When I Used the Term “Breathtakingly Bad”

Presented without comment,

I’m in a teepee

Obvious exits: North.



it worked!

I can also see: Indian ghost

I see
nothing special

Geronimo says: “Its easy! Happy Landings!”

… at which point you get teleported back to the stable and ….

I’m flat on my back in a manure pile

OK, maybe a little bit of comment. In old Western cartoons (and other media, I guess) it used to be a thing where the only word Native Americans would say is “How”. I have no idea why this was so common. My first association with Native American languages is the Code Talkers where language was used straight-up as a “code” during WWI and WWII because it was too complicated for the opposing armies to decipher; almost the exact opposite of the stereotype. Even though people were aware past Native American depictions were a touch problematic by the time this game was relased, the “How” trope didn’t seem to bother the general public well into the 1980s. I’m not blaming Scott Adams here — none of the contemporary reviews seem to have even a whiff of the issue; it was just applying the same trope everyone else did. Geronimo’s coherent response in English and the subsequent landing in the manure pile might even be considered lampshading / aversion. That doesn’t stop the puzzle from being very bad.

Posted June 16, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Ghost Town: Miscommunications   3 comments

From The Book of Adventure Games by Kim Schuette.

I’ve had two major breaks from clearing up some misunderstandings related to the parser.

1. There’s a “Jail” that can’t initially be entered.

Sorry I can’t
Doors closed, windows barred!

I tried some commands like OPEN JAIL and UNLOCK JAIL only to get the response “I don’t understand your command.”

Later, essentially by accident, I tried OPEN DOOR.

with what?
Inside bolt is latched!

Even though entering the jail says “doors closed” I didn’t occur to me try referring to the door directly, since there’s another door leading to a barbershop in the very same location so OPEN DOOR is an ambiguous command.

In any case, I had found a magnetized horseshoe earlier (there’s a compass that points to it if you USE COMPASS while the horseshoe is nearby) so I thought it’d be worth a try following up the “with what?” question:

Tell me what to do ? with horseshoe
it worked!

I was then free to enter the jail:

I’m in a jail.

Obvious exits: NORTH.

I can also see: *GOLDEN DERRINGER* – Locked door

You might remember the gun from Pyramid of Doom being entirely useless. The derringer is not useless, but it is, of all things, a water gun.

shoots stream of water

2. There’s a scene in a stable where you get on a horse called ‘Ole Paint.

I’m on back of ‘Ole Paint

Obvious exits: Down.

I can also see: *SILVER SPURS*

RIDE is a valid verb, and takes a direction

Tell me what to do ? ride
Give me a direction too.

You can RIDE DOWN and then keep using RIDE to move around the town. I initially assumed I somehow had the horse with me, but no: the game is just taking the path of least resistance in checking if your commands make sense, and you aren’t riding anything at all. (Really, I should have spotted this, but I went on a “test ride” only once and didn’t think about it after.) If you instead do RIDE HORSE, essentially ignoring the syntax suggestion the game itself made, you get a different message:

Tell me what to do ? ride horse
may need to say a magic word here

After a bit more fiddling, I decided to wearing the spurs and SPUR HORSE.

He bucks, I’m thrown

I’m flat on my back in a manure pile

This turns out to be helpful because the kicking horse broke open an entrance to a hidden room, where I found a keg of nails. You might remember last time I needed a container for some gunpowder, and the keg indeed works. I haven’t been able to use it yet without blowing myself up.

Scott Adams promoting the game. From 80 Micro, July 1980.

Posted June 13, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Ghost Town: The Hidden Candle   2 comments

I’ve made progress, although it took a bit of meta-knowledge to do so. (Complete spoilers follow.)

Via Bonanza.

The last map I made marked a particular room:

I’m on a ridge above a narrow ravine I see
mountains in the distance

Some obvious exits are: NORTH

I noticed >GO RAVINE told me

Sorry I can’t
its full of sage brush, tumbleweed & is impassable

After a bit of thought, I took some matches I had and applied them.

I should note this is similar to the point on Strange Odyssey where I got stuck because I could take an exit that was in the room description, rather than in the list of objects. This time, explicitly thinking of that moment, I didn’t have the same issue. I’m learning! (… to solve brutally difficult early 80s text adventures. I don’t think that can go on my resume.)

And look, a mine! Finally, some geographic suspense? (Alas pretty much not, you’ll see why in a moment.)

In any case, before going down into the mine, I found taking the “Sagebrush charcoal” and mixing it with “Powder” and “Crystals” I found earlier let me get gunpowder. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to carry the gunpowder around with, although I can think of at least two places where it might apply.

Going down into the mine led to darkness.

Lighting a match led to a long message about the match being lit, then going out. At this point I was *very* suspicious of a bug.

You see, I had decided I had suffered enough with TRS-80 emulators, and tried playing on something called ScottFree which will allows running the Scott Adams data files directly in a modern operating system. With the match, there didn’t seem to be any reason for the pause unless something was being displayed on the screen, and my danger-instinct kicked in that my interpreter was, alas, failing me. Switching back to a TRS-80 emulator (as seen in the screenshots above) resolved the issue.

Still: the match went out just the same; I could see the bullet and another exit down, but that was it. Having done enough games where wandering in the dark was a valid strategy, I decided to risk going down and checking again with a match.

Huzzah, a light source! Unfortunately, the very next room of the mine seems to be a dead end, so I landed in the same place I started – with no obvious blank spots on the map to fill in.

I did find something else interesting with the candle.

First let me mention there’s a “saloon” early on that includes a mirror that is fixed into place. There’s a narrow time span (marked by a bell sounding) where a ghostly figure plays an equally ghostly piano. I am unable to interact with either, however.

Later, after enough time passes, sunset falls and the town goes dark. A candle is needed to see anything. If you stand outside the saloon you can hear music inside, but if you go in with the candle still lit, whatever it was gets scared and disappears. (If you don’t have the candle lit, you can’t see, so it still isn’t helpful.) I’m not sure if the piano player is back, or there’s some other ghostly activity going on.

To top those things off, randomly throughout the game (from the very first turn) there’s a ghostly voice that keeps whispering “Vain . . .” This suggests something to do with the mirror in the saloon, but no matter of dancing or preening or gazing intently seems to be of use.

Maybe the *ghost* is vain? I still have no way to interact with them, so I don’t know what the ramifications of that would be.

Is there anyone out there who has beaten this game without hints before? (I don’t want any yet, I’m just trying to gauge the general spiciness of the game.)

Posted June 12, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Ghost Town (1980)   Leave a comment

After the frenzy of six games Scott Adams released in 1979 (two essentially written by other people) he took a little time before releasing Ghost Town in mid-1980.

Via the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History. The first 12 Scott Adams games were given a “gold” edition both on tape and on disk.

As you might have guessed, it is Western themed. You’re tasked with finding 13 treasures in a town that appears to be empty. (How you got there and how you plan to get out are unclear, although there’s a horse in a stable I’m assuming is supposed to be yours.) In addition the traditional 100 points from adventures, this game has 50 bonus points. The general feel is pretty mysterious, so this might not be a standard treasure hunt.

I haven’t gotten deep enough to make many conclusions, but I don’t feel the same pull from this game that I do from the others. I’m still theoretically fine with a plotless gather-the-treasures experience — I enjoyed both Strange Odyssey and Pyramid of Doom — but they both were presented in a way that made exploration appealing. Strange Odyssey has you landing on a planet and finding an alien device which clearly lets you go places, although it took enough experimentation to figure out how it works it makes travel feel like a reward. Pyramid of Doom starts at the bottom of a structure and works up in a way that made me interested in what was around the next corner.

Ghost Town starts with what appears to be a “complete map”, with no obvious missing places other than a “jail” that is locked up. I can’t wonder what’s behind X because I don’t even know what X is.

There’s a piano playing ghost that appears in a saloon; a rattlesnake at “Boot Hill”; a shovel I’ve been able to use to dig up two items; a hotel room with a bed that only appears when you ring a bell. There’s not a lot of traction to grab onto here.

I’m not sure if there’s a good word for this phenomenon. I don’t need my next quest labeled with an arrow, but there’s also no appealing blank spaces on the map to go for. Maybe call it a lack of geographic suspense?

In any case, I get the impression he was “writing for his fans” at this point, by which I mean “starting to make things extremely hard, since there were already enough easier games in the catalog”. This game (and the Savage Island games that follow) have definite Reputations.

Posted June 10, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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CIA Adventure (1980)   3 comments

After all the complications of Quarterstaff, it’s a relief to jump back into a simple 1980 TRS-80 game. In this case, one published on the “tape magazine” CLOAD. (They called themselves “the first magazine to be written for computers … If you are a TRS-80, you can read it.”) If you remember Spider Mountain Adventure, that made it on a 1979 edition of CLOAD.

This seems to be one of only two games by Hugh Lampert (the other one, Medieval Adventure, is also from 1980) and given the game was meant to fit on part of one side of a tape, I didn’t have high expectations.

I was pleasantly surprised. Not in a “this is an undiscovered masterpiece” way — I won’t even disagree with IFDB’s current score of one-and-a-half out of five stars — but playing with some general expectations built in, it’s better than the usual tape game.

I could go on a long theory tangent here. Let’s put it in a footnote.

The general expectations are:

1. You’ll need to fish for verbs. This is definitely the year for guess-a-verb, far more so than previous years (which had a lot of either mainframe games which had enough capacity to be flexible, Greg Hassett games that were simplistic enough to not need many verbs, or Scott Adams games that generally well behaved about synonyms with the rare exception). For instance, the game starts in front of a tall office building where >ENTER BUILDING is not understood (you have to GO BUILDING). I just consider figuring out the “verb frame” to be part of the game, and keep a running list of verbs that work to aid with puzzles.

2. Verisimilitude is very light. As the excerpt above indicates, you play a government agent looking for a stolen ruby. You might expect an evil villian complex to be crawling with minions, but other than a door man that throws you out of the building at the very start (you need to drop your CIA badge outside, and then it’s ok; no, really, that’s it) there’s a grand total of one guard to deal with. You break into the president’s office and even the center of a basement lair without a single alarm bell. Everyone is out on vacation, I imagine.

3. Like Scott Adams games (which this one emulates in layout) there aren’t really “room descriptions”, just room names where the items in the room are meant to convey the sense of atmosphere.

This is not a gather-the-treasures game. You know there’s a ruby, and even have a good idea early on where the ruby is – the previously mentioned single guard is next to a heavy door on the top floor of the building – so you just have to get to it. This makes the game feel like it has an arc, and I even formulated a couple plans on the way (not all of them worked; I tried to get all the items a janitor might have as a disguise, but the guard still threw me out).

The game hence passed the “feeling like a plot rather than solving an arbitrary sequence of puzzles” bar, which is something even modern games can struggle with.

The sequence of events, roughly: 1. break into the president’s room, and find out a secret word which 2. allows you to go into a secret basement, where you find some helpful items which 3. lead to you finding a videotape which gives an important code finishing at 4. being able to get by the guard, reclaim the ruby, and use a stolen device to escape to safety.

Despite the verb issues I managed to finish in a few hours without even bending towards a hint sheet. This online version emulates the TRS-80 if you want to give it a try.

One caveat is that there is no danger for most of the game until the endgame. There’s no save game feature so death in the endgame means restarting and playing all the way back through. You can think of it as the stakes being higher, I guess?

The Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures used this picture to illustrate the source code. It has absolutely nothing to do with the game.


Parser games at this time were still grappling with the idea of “who are you typing these commands to?” Scott Adams games have an “I”, as in “I can’t go in that direction”. Oddly, though, there was still the feeling “you” were in the game, even when the character had other established context (like how The Count starts in media res and only implies what happens in the missing time). As a directional chart, it’s (you, giving command) -> (to computer “narrator” who establishes it as doable) -> (sending action to character inside story, who may or may not be “you”).

With CIA Adventure you’ve got a “partner” with you, essentially an unseen second character who by happenstance only understands two word commands. It’s a little unclear if you’re “talking in a headset” or literally walking along with them. I would lean to the headset idea, but the game constantly uses “we” as a pronoun, and there’s also one notebook and one video addressed to “you” by name (you enter your name at the start of the game for this purpose).

Certain non-English text adventures expose this problem by requiring a tense for verbs. I’ve seen first person, imperative, and third person all as defaults, depending on the language and era. Some of this might have been cultural expectations, and some might have just been historical inertia settling on the tense of whatever games kicked off the genre in that language.

I personally have always thought of the command prompt as a sort of dungeon master; the game stops while I communicate my intentions, with an implicit “I want to…” before the command (or if it’s a named character, “Frank wants to…” or whatnot). This doesn’t parse with something like >DON’T PANIC from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but that game was pretty unique from both a parser and character perspective.

Posted June 9, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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