Ghost Town: Finshing the Game, aka Witnessing An Increasingly Bad Series of Design Decisions   9 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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9 responses to “Ghost Town: Finshing the Game, aka Witnessing An Increasingly Bad Series of Design Decisions

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  1. A couple of comments:

    1. Apparently, the media depiction of Native Americans saying “How” is in fact derived from an actual Lakota/Dakota Sioux word: “Hau,” meaning “hello.” See

    2. The wires are the telegraph wires. If you connect or splice them and then PUSH KEY (the telegraph key), you get a “SPARK!” message and then a sequence of dots and dashes. The dots and dashes are, of course, Morse Code; and they are a hint to the location of the key to open the jail. The “SPARK!” is a clue that the telegraph throws off sparks when used; that spark is what’s setting off the keg of gunpowder.

    • 1. Neat!

      2. I’m a little confused why the wires would be hidden by the safe, why splicing them would cause them to throw sparks, and why taking them would destroy them without giving any kind of message. But that’s still helpful, thanks.

      • This is how I pictured the wires from reading your description (I haven’t played the game but given how minimal Adams’s prose is I doubt that makes a difference):
        You start with two wires that are not connected to each other. Think of an equals sign as insulation and a dash as bare wire:
        ===— —====
        If you take them, they’re detached and in your inventory. That’s not good. (There perhaps should be a message about tearing them out.)
        If you splice them, you get a connected wire with a bare spot:
        Now electricity can flow through them. (That’s why you need to splice them in order to get the telegraph to work.) But since there’s still a bare spot, whenever you do anything to it it sparks. Hence the boom.
        As for the safe, eh, I guess the original wire ran behind the safe? Maybe the wire got broken when you moved the safe onto it? That’s just rationalization though.

      • That makes sense. (The other frustrating thing I didn’t even mention is that I tried ATTACH WIRES very early on, but ATTACH is not a recognized verb; I assumed I was barking up the wrong tree.)

    • Rot-13 spoiler: The morse code message when you press the telegraph key spells out “funxr gbccre”

      If you type this into the parser verbatim, you get this rather humorous response:


  2. It’s also I think worth noting that, in addition to score for finding treasure items, the game also tracks a “bonus” score. Far as I can tell, this seems to be based on how quickly you solve the game (which has some complexity based on timing of the saloon events). And there’s at least one special bonus point you can get for… getting revenge.

    • I squashed the purple worm and got points. It didn’t seem to be the same one, though, so I dunno about “revenge”.

      You also get points for wearing the hat.

      • When you kill the purple worm, the game says “That felt good!”

        At the time I had not (yet) played Pyramid of Doom, so I was not aware of the extreme frustration the Purple Worm game to players of that game.

        Which meant, I didn’t realize “That felt good!” referred to a sense of revenge. Instead, I interpreted it to mean that the sensation of squishing a (normal-sized) worm to death in your hand was a pleasurable one. It seemed like a sick fetish — and one that scored 1 bonus point, no less!

  3. Eh, I was an 8-10 year old kid when I played these and I didn’t have a problem at all with GIDDYUP, it was the first thing I thought of when he mentioned a magic word. I mean, what do you say to horses? Giddyup and Whoa. Maybe it was watching too many Saturday morning cartoons. I also don’t remember Geronimo being so hard, but I can understand why you felt it was a bad puzzle.

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