Archive for June 2018

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)   Leave a comment

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.

In any case, within those constraints, 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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Quarterstaff: Finished!   Leave a comment

I was indeed, as predicted, very close to the end.

I decided to go with no preparation at all and used my newly-found tomb key to go through some obstacles, and ignore a demon, hellhound, and some side rooms along the way.

Fighting Setmoth was simply a matter of using KILL SETMOTH over and over again with all my party members; as you can tell from the image below, he can do some formidable damage numbers, but for some reason he spent the first five turns of combat somewhat confused and only started hitting back when he was almost dead.

After defeating Setmoth the game says you can just “quit” or keep exploring. I think I can safely say I’m done.

. . .

So what went wrong?

Really, as a paper description, this is *exactly* the sort of game I’m looking for. I like adventures. I like CRPGs. I like Beyond Zork (which is another Adventure/RPG hybrid). The promotional materials clearly indicate an aspiration to feeling like an in-person RPG session where situations feel custom-made to be dynamic and monsters are intelligent; I’ve never had an experience that quite matches that.

This game instead hit an “uncanny valley.” The term usually refers to the fact that robot-like-robots are fine, and perfectly-human-looking-robots are fine, but in between the two there’s a sort of revulsion at somewhat-human-but-not-there-yet robots. The halfway-ness of the uncanny valley is what I mean here. The overlapping of CRPG and Adventure elements managed to cover up some of the redeeming features of each.

For instance, in the final battle, I used four characters and the default inventory I had started the game with. They had “stats” represented their abilities in combat but they were essentially no different than when they started. The appeal of a CRPG is often in character growth, and getting to the point of being able to overcome obstacles that seemed impossible early on; here, while this ostensibly every trope up to an including experience points, none of them applied in a way that was meaningful.

While there was a fair amount of interesting gear, none of it was important enough to gather, and there often wasn’t enough information to even tell if a particular item was an upgrade. (It’s clear by convention a “mithral sword” is better than a sword, but what about a halberd versus a broadsword? Or a nasty mace versus a club?)

On the adventure end, a lot of the appeal is feeling like the world is an interconnected puzzle, and each part that gets solved reveals a new piece. There were puzzles that essentially did nothing; I spent ages getting to a “treasure vault” on the first level, for instance, and then subsequently working out how to get into a chest inside (just breaking it works) only to find some golden objects that were entirely unhelpful for the quest. I also mentioned a puzzle leading to a cure disease potion last time; I never at any point had a character afflicted by disease.

The presence of food, thirst, sleep, *and* light source timers also clashed pretty badly with the adventure aesthetic. There’s good reason why these are mostly dead in adventure games; they add a sense of urgency that discourages experimentation.

There’s likely a way to develop this type of game further so there’s less problems; just going light on all the timers, for instance, or finding a saner way to command multiple party members. Alas, this was a stub of sorts in computer game history; while games like Kerkerkruip do bear the torch slightly, an adventure game that feels like a tabletop RPG is still elusive.

From the cover for the Japanese version of the game, via the Museum of Adventure Computer Game History.

Posted June 8, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quarterstaff: The Threshold   Leave a comment

I haven’t had many games so actively hostile to the act of playing them as Quarterstaff. After multiple concerted attempts I finally made enough progress to write about. (Two large puzzle spoilers are included below.)

1. My biggest discovery since last time is that “break X” actually works on a variety of things as long as you repeat it enough times.

This issue came up with Adventure 500 where it took multiple tries to take down a dragon. With this game when I was testing out various ways of destroying a door, I made enough attempts with “this isn’t helpful” messages that I assumed you just couldn’t just club doors down (or at least assume they only needed clubbing in specific circumstances).

At the time I theorized this sort of thing was totally ok in an RPG, and here I am getting fouled up by the same behavior in an RPG. So I should add the condition that there should be some feedback that what you are doing might be useful, even if it will take more attempts. I might compare it to boss monsters in a bad 80s platformer that don’t give any feedback that you are doing any damage (flashing, health bar, or the like), and where you only find out 10 minutes later you were supposed to be shooting the monster in the feet and not the eyes.

2. Inventory capacity is a bear. Some sessions I’ve spent fully half my gameplay commands just trying to juggle objects so people could carry them.

Especially bad was my archer Eolene, after I used some arrows out of her quiver. Each arrow was a different object (with a different color name). I had to pick up and put each arrow back in her quiver individually. Except sometimes, she would mysteriously be able to carry less than when she started, so she wouldn’t actually be able to pick up all the arrows she just used, so I would have to drop some items, then pick up the arrows and store the arrows, then pick up the items again.

While all the inventory shuffling is going on the other part members keep insisting on commands. You can try to set them on GUARD or turn them off in various ways, but quite often there would be some complication to muck that up; plus a lot of the inventory juggling ended up being between characters.

3. Some things were entirely not worth the effort of figuring out.

Last time, I was stuck on a puzzle where one door had a “no man may pass” message and the one following had a “no woman may pass” message. This is where I finally broke down and used the hint system. and found out that I could bring a large container, stuff one of my smaller men in it, have a woman drag the container past the “no man” threshold, and then the man could hop out and go through the remaining door.

This is incidentally a case of magic not revealing enough mechanics to understand a puzzle. Apparently the “no X may pass” was done by “sight”, but there’s no indication of a “magical eye” or such; until I saw the hint I expected the “no X” simply just sensed gender. (The hints also mention getting a character who can change gender or one who is non-binary, but I don’t think either exists in this game.)

I’m not going to get into detail on the convoluted process of setting up the character-dragging (teleportation and two separate inventory juggles were needed) but suffice it to say it took me an hour to set things up, at which point I found … a cure disease potion, and a bag that let me teleport out.

4. There is an almost spectacularly evil puzzle that required parsing the instructions of a poem inside of an iron pentagram.

Star of frames.
Multi-headed breather of flames,
Make its blood like its breath.
You must seek your death.
Thrust quick to thy heart,
‘Tis dour doing but your part
Take the key from the trap,
‘Ware the plaque where it be.

Again, I needed a hint. This turned out to involve a.) finding some “hydra blood” from a room far back b.) setting the blood on fire (??) and then c.) killing yourself, not with ATTACK ME but with the special command SUICIDE (???)

If it was easy to experiment, this *might* have been a reasonable puzzle (in retrospect, all the pieces are there), but as I already pointed out the game has a brutal inventory limit, and heading back through a maze / traps / rooms that require two people to open / etc. to find more items can be an expedition in itself, so there’s no good way to do a lot of testing.

5. The apparent end goal (from some random backstory book I found, but also the subtitle of the game) is to get to the Tomb of Setmoth (who seems to be a demon) and destroy him. I now have a Tomb Key, and know where to go. Expect either “Finished!” or possibly “Deleted from my hard drive and then I took the hard drive out of my computer and buried it in the desert” next time.

Posted June 7, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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