Ringen: Digital Archaeology   2 comments

I have occasionally heard the word “archaeology” applied to the rescue and documentation of old games. (This very blog is even mentioned in a book titled Retrogame Archaeology.)

I’m not going to quibble; however, if I think of “real” archaeology, I think of exploring and digging in sites that may have other things built on top of them, and where the entirety of the original is not recoverable but where inferences can be made based on that which remains. So far, nothing I’ve done (like helping preserve Wander or Journey) has been like that. It’s been more like finding some secret book in an archive and placing it on display.

Playing Ringen is the closest to archaeology I’ve done. It was translated and ported to a MUD, where expansions and additions were made, so trying to work out what Ringen from 1979 was like is necessarily uncertain.

There’s enough clues I can make some guesses, so let’s give it a try.

VikingMUD (based on the more general LPMud codebase) has a variety of built-in verbs that have to do with combat and social interaction. You can attack monsters or wield and unwield equipment; you can form parties with other players and DEFEND them from attack; you can smile, wave, comfort, and so forth, and the general effect is to produce an effect other players in the room can see.

This is essentially different than the standard text adventure model, where verbs are more universally related to object interaction. In such a model, if you can RUB RING, you can try the verb RUB on any item in the game (and may get an unhelpful response, but it’s still clear the verb exists as an action).

You can do puzzle use of verbs in the LPMud, but they’re specific and custom to a room (or object), not universal across the game. The game might allow UNLOCK DOOR in a room specifically oriented for it, but UNLOCK anywhere else will get a response of “What?” (The only comparable games I’ve played are the Wander ones, like how in Aldebaran III there’s a BRIBE verb that exists while in jail.)

The fact all verbs are custom means, in practice, that puzzles reliant on verb-object interaction are heavily curtailed. One hurdle is technical difficulties. Suppose the game author wanted the player to WAVE FEATHER. WAVE is a social verb and expects to be used in that fashion (WAVE AT FRIEND) so the desired format may not even be parsed correctly.

Additionally, in a game design sense, an act like WAVE FEATHER in a specific spot would be too hard for the player to come up in practice without heavy text-hinting. There is an early spot in the Ringen portion of VikingMUD with this kind of text hint:

Long road. You are walking along a hard and flat path through the Hollin forest.
There is a big sign here saying something important. An old root of a tree.
There are two obvious exits: east and west
A wicked woman with her nose stuck in (he he) the tree-stump
The woman says: If you aid me, I’ll reward you, I promise!
>PULL WOMAN FROM TREE
You try to pull her out, but you fail!
You’re simply not strong enough!
The woman says: If you aid me, I’ll reward you, I promise!

Note that only this very specific phrasing (PULL WOMAN FROM TREE) is even recognized. I suspect the solution simply involves raising the “strength” statistic of my character. This happens to also be the first quest given in the Adventurer’s Guild in the game.

1: Witch quest (unsolved, 59)
2: Orc Slayer (unsolved, 69)
3: Forgotten Word (unsolved, 82)
4: Bright boy (m/f) needed! (unsolved, 82)
5: A girl and her teddybear (unsolved, 94)
6: Quest for the murderer (unsolved, 97)
7: Sheriffs key (unsolved, 98)

These facts combined together suggest to me the task here was designed solely for the MUD system. That’s not to say it’s impossible this scenario didn’t appear in Ringen (maybe there was no “strength check” and the action automatically worked?) but it feels very MUD-specific.

The ogress with the riddles who I mentioned in my last post probably also wasn’t in the original game. The character is most likely Fuithluin (with a misspelled name?) who didn’t appear in known Tolkien lore until the Book of Lost Tales in 1983. Ringen was made in 1979. ADD: See this comment; in an old Usenet post, Pål-Kristian Engstad confirms he added the ogress himself, although he didn’t get the idea from Tolkien:

I can’t help feeling a bit touched by your friends information. I have coded Moria in two MUDs; Genesis and VikingMUD, where I have placed an ogress as a part of a quest.

There is nothing in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien which supports this idea, and I have only made this creature up from my imagination. It might or might not be very Tolkienish, but it always made the players wonder. I have personally always felt that the passing through of Moria was too briefly explained in Tolkien’s works, but that is in a way nice, since it allows to _imagine_ what actually is there (or might be there).

This leaves the dragon puzzle, which I’ll quote the full context of:

You have entered a big hall. On the walls hang some faded flannel carpets, and there is a huge wall-to-wall carpet on the floor. The air is filled with a stinching smell of sulfid, and thick smoke streams out of an opening in the northern wall. There are two additional openings in the western and eastern walls, though not as frightening as the one in the north.
There are three obvious exits: east, north and west
>n
You are in the dragons lair!
A dragon, fifty yards long, lies here sleeping in a huge room. Fire and sulfur streams out of its big nostrils as it breathes. It grunts and stirs asleep, but if you value your life, you should not disturb it. Instead of passing it, consider retreating slowly to the south, through the opening. It looks like there is an opening northwards too, behind the dragon, but I do not advice you to try to go there!

There are two obvious exits: north and south

The dragon fums with rage and sends a cload of fire towards you.

You’re blown back into the big hall!

You are badly hurt as you hit the cold wall…
It did not even open its eyes, so it is evident that it has a very keen sense of smell.
It is impossible to pass the dragon now, so I propose you find a way of fooling its nose, that is, if you really want to pass.

In a text adventure, I’d be tempted to find some mud I could roll around in, or masking perfume to wear, or even somehow capture the smoke smell from the big hall. There aren’t any manipulatable items in Moria I’ve been able to use, and the verb >RUB is considered a social one (that is, it wouldn’t normally be overridden by a bespoke puzzle use).

(Also, of all the puzzles, I’d really like to know the solution to this one, so if anyone knowledgable happens to be stopping by, drop a line in the comments?)

Taking out the puzzles, that leaves the geography: what was part of the original game? My source indicates the game was expanded in addition to translated.

The general layout does feel more MUD-like than adventure-like. What I mean is that there are portions of the map that look like this:

It’s not the presence of a dead end here that’s at issue as much as how long the path leading to it is. This is perfectly normal layout in MUD design, because you might have some jockeying with monsters where having nine rooms of space to maneuver is genuinely different than just two. Additionally, social interaction means that “plain” locations may become important, as the players create their own meaning.

However, this is still a shot-in-the-dark guess; the expansions made when the game was translated may consist only of adding rooms “along the edges” and not making hallways longer or the like.

Other than that, I would guess the “main rooms” are essentially like their originals. This one in particular (which I’ve quoted before) feels much more adventure-like than MUD-like due to the reference to the main character’s feelings:

You are standing by the window. You have a majestic view over the scenery from here. From this spot high up in the mountain you can see past mountains and valleys out in the free, and the clear full moon shines upon the landscape. Southwards the Misty Mountains extend, and to the west there are the grassy plains of your homeland. (Sniff!) You cannot squeeze yourself through the window, but there is a hole in the floor here, and a spiral staircase in the south end of the room.

The lore details also strike me as someone trying to “write from a book” so to speak. For comparison, here’s a portion of the first fully extant Lord of the Rings-based adventure (LORD, from 1981, made in Finland but written in English):

You are now in the great living-room. On one wall, there hangs the picture of Old Took’s great-grand-uncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfiabul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down in a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment.
There is an exit to the east. Delightfull odours can be smelled from the western end of the room.

(Text courtesy Juhana Leinonen, who was at the Finnish Museum of Games and sent some pictures; the game isn’t available anywhere else at the moment.)

I’m closing the case on this one for now. I have a lead on a contact so I may write about this game more in the future, but I’m happy at the moment to flee to the comfort of single-player gaming.

Posted February 19, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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2 responses to “Ringen: Digital Archaeology

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  1. It’s not just MUDs that treat puzzle verbs that way. The Quill worked by matching the user’s input against a long list of expected verb-noun phrases. Any input that wasn’t on the list just got a generic “I can’t do that.” Be prepared for a lot of that when you reach the mid-eighties.

    • Not exactly that way. unrecognised verbs in quill paws times usually gives the message: I don’t understand that or I don’t understand that verb, so one can “parse the parser” to see what verbs are in the vocabulary and what not.

      Said that, there were some designers who changed that behaviour to make the parser more opaque (who knows why), but those are not the default and usual parser behaviour.

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