Archive for July 2019

My Top 20 Interactive Fiction, 2019 Edition   5 comments

(For the Victor Gijsbers Interactive Fiction Top 50 shindig.)

Wherein I start by hedging the fact that this probably isn’t really my top 20, but I produced a list as fast as I could and some of the games/texts might even arguably have (gasp) objective flaws but they all still mean something to me.

Also, there are people I am enormous fans of that did not make the list, so a lack of presence does not mean a lack of endorsement.

I have included links to play online wherever I can.

In random order:

Creatures Such As We by Lynnea Glasser (2014) (Game)

A choice-based game where the protaganist gives tours on the moon and contemplates stories, and games, and love, and friendship.

The lights dim before turning off (so as not to be frighteningly sudden) and then it’s there. Nothing but the uninterrupted universe. No sun, no lights, no atmosphere, no reflection from Earth. Just the unending, beautiful eternity. There are audible sighs and gasps. You’re certain you hear someone sniffling back a few tears, but you give them the benefit of not checking whose audio trace it was.

Arthur by Bob Bates (1989) (Game, Manual)

King Arthur’s finest showing in game form.

The local chieftan, King Lot, has declared a curfew, and you know that even a boy such as yourself would be thrown in prison should you be caught by his soldiers. Yet you have come anyway, irresistably drawn by this sword of mystery.

Astronomy Without a Telescope by George Jenner (1995) (Game)

…remember that in the course of psychoanalysing Connie you are asking her to tell you the story.

Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse by John McDaid (1993) (Game)

Rather than crazy Uncle Buddy leaving behind a house full of puzzles, he has left you a set of HyperCard files and a very mysterious tarot deck.

We are instructed to inform you that you have, at some time, known Mr. Newkirk. Probably as a family acquaintance referred to as “Uncle Buddy.” While you may not remember this, we are instructed to inform you that there may be reasons for this involving “lapses of memory” or other “divergences” of an unspecified nature.

Counterfeit Monkey by Emily Short (2012) (Game)

What if manipulating objects via manipulating their words were possible? — what ramifications would this have for culture, and technology, and history? An astonishing tour de force.

Local Call for Death by Robert Lafore (1979) (Game, type RUN “STORY” at the prompt)

Investigate a mystery with a full sentence conversational parser.

It is winter, a few years after the Great War. You are … an American visitor to England and the guest of the famous English detective Sir Colin Drollery. On this particular evening you are dining with him at the exclusive Belladonna Club in London.

Horse Master by Tom McHenry (2013) (Game)

From the author’s website: “Horse Master: The Game of Horse Mastery challenges players to grow, train, and nurture their own horse from birth in the hopes of earning the most coveted tenured position in the world: Horse Master.”

Bad Machine by Dan Shiovitz (1998) (Game)

You are a factory robot who is broken. I’ve never seen anything quite like the writing here, which mixes prose and computer code.

Unit compliance at dangerous level; non-structured actions may result
Internal Dam//mage repair NOT PossIBLE!!!1
Unit shououuuuld report to Fixer immediately for re-training

Un^t Sta&us: B@$ xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxM39_I*~
Re-try: BAk M3_eIN~
Re-try: BAp MAxHIN~

Tin Star by Allen Gies (2013) (Game)

An almost ludicrously ambitious Western tale. “Confront outlaws, find romance, challenge Indians, defy the elements and craft an enduring legend as you uncover a conspiracy whose deadly web stretches from San Francisco to New York City.”

T-Zero by Dennis Cunningham (1991) (Game)

What exactly induced this bout of walking? Well, two nights ago, Count Zero handed you your walking papers … However, you were onto something. Exactly what is unclear since the pieces of the puzzle seem to disconnect with sleep. You resolve not to sleep until you’ve recollected and reconnected their jagged edges. You can be just as calculating as the Count. You can even reach beyond the Zero …

Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory by Katherine Morayati (2015) (Game)

A story about a worker laid off from a factory that generates artificial senses, with some stunning prose.

Beyond Zork by Brian Moriarty (1987) (Game, Manual)

Lovely, solid design from a master.

The horizon is lost in the glare of morning upon the Great Sea. You shield your eyes to sweep the shore below, where a village lies nestled beside a quiet cove. A stunted oak tree shades the inland road.

Photopia by Adam Cadre (1998) (Game)

Still an undisputed classic.

Read you a story? What fun would that be? I’ve got a better idea: let’s tell a story together.

Wonderland by Magnetic Scrolls (1990) (Game)

This is my favorite from Magnetic Scrolls.

You are on the southern bank of a river whose waters flow lazily by with a trickle and a ripple so soothing you could almost go right off to sleep. To the southwest you can just see the beginnings of a winding country lane, whilst eastwards is a pear grove. Emily, your sister, is sitting here reading a book.

Spider and Web by Andrew Plotkin (1998) (Game)

You are a spy being interrogated. You tell the story of how you infiltrated the compound you are in. Things are not what they appear.

“Don’t be absurd,” he says. “You’re no more a sightseer than the Old Tree in Capitol Square; and if you’d had enough sense to walk away from that door, you wouldn’t be here. You don’t and you didn’t and are; we caught you. And you’re going to start by telling me how you got through that door. Do you understand me?”

A Mind Forever Voyaging by Steve Meretzky (1985) (Game, Manual)

You are an AI tasked with deciding via a simulated world if a plan to reform the United States is worth enacting.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder by Telarium (1985) (Game, Manual)

The People vs. Laura Kapp: did she really kill her husband? Can you convince a jury of her innocence? Can you find the real killer? Includes a full-sentence system designed for making court arguments and objections.

Something about her story interested you. Maybe it was her husband, Victor Kapp, the famous LA restaurateur. Maybe it was the desperate look in her eyes. The handsome cash retainer she handed you couldn’t hurt either.

The Ice-Bound Concordance by Aaron A. Reed and Jacob Garbe (2016) (Game)

“Kristopher Holmquist died an unknown, struggling to write stories in an unheated New York apartment. But years later, his work was discovered, gradually becoming incredibly popular. With millions of fans wondering how his final, unfinished novel would have ended, a clever publisher commissions an artificial intelligence ‘simulacrum’ of Holmquist, called KRIS, to find out.” You interact via webcam by showing pages of a book.

Shades of Grey by Mark Baker, Steve Bauman, Belisana, Mike Laskey, Judith Pintar, Cindy Yans, and Hercules (1992) (Game)

An adventure across a wide variety of environments where, in a roundabout way, you decide the future of Haiti.

Sub Rosa by Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy (2015) (Game)

An almost unbelievably original setting involving a world where secrets are currency.

To name a secret is to destroy it and Confessor Destine is a man made of secrets. It has taken seventeen careful years but soon he will be undone.

Posted July 30, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Deathship (1980)   20 comments

Or, including the subtitle, DEATHSHIP, AN ADVENTURE TYPE GAME.

“It’s a cruise ship — but it ain’t the Love Boat and survival is far from certain.” COMPUTE! magazine, November/December 1980. The ad has a space between “Death” and “ship” here but this wasn’t an era for title consistency.

When learning techniques of a creative art, the typical method is to look a works generally agreed to be good (“masterpieces”, perhaps) and work out what techniques made them high quality in the first place.

An alternate, less common method is to look at bad things — awful even — and extract negative lessons. Antitechniques, if you will.

Deathship by Rodger Olsen is the first of six games from 1980 published by Aardvark, originally for the Ohio Scientific Computer. We’ve already seen one of the games, Trek Adventure.

The Ohio Scientific had a standard loadout of 8K of memory at a time most computers were working with 16K. This is important in that any programs had to be twice as stringent about tight code. (For reference, most home computer games for All the Adventures have used at least 16K. The tiny ADV.CAVES was 8K. The smallest we’ve seen has been Haunted House which used a two-sided tape with 4K on each side.)

With Trek Adventure, this had visible effects (including a parser that only took the first two letters of each word), but the game managed to cover for any tech issues well enough I only noticed the 8K issue halfway through the game.

This is not the case with Deathship; the parser is so pared down it’s one of the most infuriating I’ve ever experienced.

Here’s the main problem: when a parser command is successful, there is no prompt stating so, nor any other indication as to what the game did. When I typed GET MESSAGE the game did, in fact, pick up the message, but the blank response led me to think GET didn’t work so I tried TAKE instead.

This carries on to any action that causes change in the world. Open a cabinet, and there might be something inside, but the game isn’t going to tell you! In these cases I couldn’t even find a way to get the room description again; I had to leave the room and come back.





This is already a colossal headache, but most actions that don’t work give a blank prompt as well. Unrecognized verb? Blank prompt. Tried to take an item that wasn’t in the room? Blank prompt.

Okay. Breathe. Let’s summarize the plot. After GET MESSAGE / READ MESSAGE done in the proper order at the start:


This is essentially a repeat of the Trek Adventure plot; you’re left on an abandoned ship headed for disaster and have to fix the problem. If you want to make sense of it, imagine you were taking a nap somewhere and didn’t notice the entire crew going off-board, and the action starts right when you’ve wandered into the radio room trying to work out what’s going on.

First, you can go north to the bow and climb down the anchor chain; this lets you slip in a porthole to the bilge and hold. In the hold is a crate that you can take back to the bow and use to get high enough to reach the mast, and a rope.

You can then tie the rope to the midship deck railing to climb to the captain’s cabin, and get a key which unlocks the brig and reveals an axe.

The structure makes this all feel dynamic; on the map, the “hallway” gets passed through multiple times through this process. The first time involves just finding two locked doors, although you can peek in the north door to find out what’s there. The second time, the player enters from the south (which lets you leave the previously-locked door open). On the third pass, the player enters from the north (leaving that door open as well).

The finale is then at the hold with a heavy locked and hinged door. And … I wish I could describe the rest, but here I’m very stuck, and the parser isn’t doing itself any favors, and there’s always the strong possibility of a bug. I know from browsing the source code that the bomb is in the engine room just past the heavy door, but the style of BASIC is very hard to read.

I’m happy to invoke my “give every game a strong effort” rule and skip the ending. If someone wants to take a crack (and I’m very understanding if you don’t) there is a C64 version online. Otherwise, I’m moving on to safer territory.

Also, let me take a moment to beg to all authors on all games anywhere for the love of all that is holy please make your interface feedback transparent. If the user succeeds in doing something, make it clear the result; if they failed, make it clear why they failed. (I could follow this up by threatening to visit them personally and make them play Deathship should they violate this rule, but nobody deserves that.)

Posted July 29, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Lost Ship Adventure: Finished   7 comments

Last time, I was stuck not being able to mark a map. While I knew the EXAMINE command worked, for some reason I had neglected to EXAMINE FEATHER which yielded “it’s a pen!” and the object changed.

Once I had the pen, I was able to >MARK MAP; then I could >SET SAIL to an island visible from the Crow’s Nest. (It’s unclear why you *had* to mark the map in order to move the ship.)

Upon arriving, a manatee climbed on board. I went down to the water and — using the fishing net from the cargo hold — I was able to catch some fish. I gave the fish to the manatee, who dropped a gold key.

Walking to the island, I found a jungle maze (GO NORTH, GO EAST, GO NORTH gets you through if you’re playing). Past the jungle was a cave with a dead pirate and a chest. The chest opened with the gold key and I found some gems.

I carted the gold key, chest of gems, and the two treasures from last time (jeweled dagger and bag of gold) back to the original beach. I was then able to STORE each one in turn (I don’t know why it worked now but not before, I’m guessing it was just a bug).

There was no announcement I was done finding treasures. SCORE just gives the number. I just had to guess I was done, at which point I found out upon QUITting that I found all four of them.

A promising start was essentially utterly wasted. It’s been a while since I’ve been outright disappointed in a game.

I realize this is maybe just in contrast with the extreme difficulty of Deathmaze 5000, but I even found Nellan is Thirsty to be a better experience than Lost Ship Adventure, and that one was written explicitly for children. This was marketed like a regular game!

In a theoretical sense, the most interesting part was how long I was stuck. I devoted quite a lot of time to re-copying the opening map, checking verbs, pondering the item list, etc. I had simply missed to >EXAMINE FEATHER when I had examined nearly everything else. I’m not sure the feather was even intended as a “puzzle”; perhaps it intended more as a piece of theatricality.

This is an experience that can happen even in “good” games, where you miss clicking on one particular door or miss an item interaction for no particular reason and get stuck for hours on useless actions. On a moderate-to-difficult game, it can make later puzzles simpler (having objects and their interactions memorized) but in this case after finding the pen I wrapped the entire thing up in less than 10 minutes.

Those reading this: do you have any stories of a similar experience?

POSTSCRIPT: I realized a day after posting this there was an aspect to the game I hadn’t seen before. Note how while the room description pops up all at once, the objects “scroll in” on the display.


The scrolling text effect can happen on old machines and especially when playing a game on a printer (like Zork on a mainframe sometimes was done) but this is the first time I’ve seen an adventure with the delay intentionally added.

I normally associate this effect now with visual novels, but it’s interesting the author went through the not-insignificant effort of putting it here.

Posted July 24, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Lost Ship Adventure (1980)   12 comments

From 80 Microcomputing, December 1980.

Charles Forsythe joins the ranks of Greg Hassett, Joel Mick, and the authors of Stuga as a teenager publishing software (15 at the time of this game). After playing the Scott Adams games, his biography mentions that:

He was excited about adventure, but like all youngsters, was unable to buy the programs he needed to satisfy his new interest. So he began writing them.

This sounds familiar. When I was very young if I wanted a new adventure I had to write it. The first adventure game I remember playing was a type-in from a library book.

I’ve been relatively glib whenever we’ve hit a treasure hunt (gather all the treasures, put them in central location X) but I decided to chart all the games I’ve played so far for All the Adventures to track the evolution of plot styles:

“Rescue” has a primary motivator of someone or something being extracted, “Investigation” is about figuring things out and putting pieces together, “Escape” is motivated by getting the player out of danger, and “Enemy” is a plot about an opposing force that must be defeated.

These categories are quite rough and some games I just had to make a ballpark decision, but you can at least get a fair idea of how well-copied the treasure hunt concept from Crowther and Woods Adventure was in this era. In 1978 it made up essentially every game, but by 1980 (assuming the ratio continues when I play the rest of the year) only about half of the adventure games were treasure hunts.


For this game, the idea of lost ship salvage is one of the most appropriate uses of a treasure hunt, since it matches the experience of real-life salvage (if not the lawyer fees).

Noteworthy: the steak is rotten so does *not* work on the dog, who has apparently been resourceful enough to live alone on an abandoned ship for several years.

This game opens badly, with a serious parser issue:


I’ve got enough grizzled experience I can neatly plow through this kind of problem (“hmm, I better test a couple verbs, even though the first one implies not to do the action, because that’s a default message”) but I can see someone booting up the game and stopping right there.

Besides the section above I haven’t been able to make much early progress. I have access to

  • The main deck as shown above, where I can’t reach the black flag. I can attempt to SET SAIL but the game says I haven’t set a course.
  • The crow’s nest, where there are some gull eggs (and I get knocked into the sea if I try to get them).
  • The map room of the ship, where SET COURSE is recognized but the game says I have nothing to mark the map with. (Trying to STAB MAP to be all pirate-style just gets the “DON’T BE SO DESTRUCTIVE!” message.)
  • A nearby beach where a sign says I can STORE treasures there. I have stored 0 treasures so far.
  • A cargo hold with a rusty machine, some decaying bags, a working fishing net (although no fish around) and a bag of gold. I tried to take the bag of gold to the beach to STORE it but the game says I don’t know what’s inside (??). I suspect a genuine bug at work.

Despite the early stuckness, I’ve got some goodwill left because I like the environment. The main character wears a diving suit and can walk around underwater. The abandoned ship feels mysterious but not mystical (yet), and while I don’t think the layout is “authentic” the author also didn’t feel obliged to pack in an unrealistic amount of space. I can read a simple description like


and take a few breaths of another world; sometimes, that’s all I’m needing out of an adventure game.

(Part 2 of this post here, or read All the Adventures here.)

Posted July 22, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Deathmaze 5000: Finale (Grendles módor / ides áglaécwíf / yrmþe gemunde)   6 comments

Bonus nerd cred for anyone who figures out the title of this post before I explain it.

Every item in the game has been in a box. I assume this is to make them feasible to draw in the 3D environment.

Even if you drop an item that you’ve been holding, a box suddenly forms around it.

For the first part of the game, I would >OPEN BOX and >TAKE WHATEVER each time I wanted an object (even if I knew what it was) but once I realized the game let you skip the box part and jump straight to taking the item, I started thinking of the boxes more as abstractions than as real things.

Later, when absent-minded, I wanted to >TAKE RING, but conflated the two old commands and typed >TAKE BOX instead. Which led to a box in my inventory.

Interesting! I wondered if there was anywhere I could use that trick. I had been valiantly trying to find a way to take a flute from the fourth floor back up to the second floor, because there was a snake there, and in adventure games circa 1976-198X flutes are effective in charming snakes. However, the ability to TAKE BOX meant I could do things the other way around and take the snake down to the flute.

I was able to drop the box in the upper right corner of floor 4 (at the bottom of a pit), play the flute causing the snake to rise, climb the snake, and grab a sword that was just past.

The inversion of turning a dangerous trap into a tool reminds me of the part in Mystery Fun House where you solve a puzzle with an informational item. Call it unexpected re-purposing, if you like.

Immediately after, I was entirely stuck, and knew I *had* to work out the calculator. Once again, I set a timer for an hour to prevent myself from hitting hints too early, but I honestly would have been fine just diving in; it was a parser issue. The “.2” bit that had been bothering me the whole time was just a hint to press the “two” button.


Given I had been valiantly attempting to find any verb at all that would work the calculator, I don’t think even an extra three hours would have helped.

Activating the calculator teleports the player to level five, where the torch is knocked out by some wind, and a monster approaches.

Not the same monster as before: this time you’re attacked by the monster’s mother.

Doing >RAISE on the RING that has so far been useless brings forth a magical light. I had >RAISE on my verb list this time, but only because I had tried it on the magic staff (I was visualizing the usual “lift and shoot lightning bolts” type maneuver). (It’s a good thing that the staff was of indirect use, because in game terms the magic staff is utterly useless. That long segment I went through trying to get by two attack dogs? Totally unnecessary. I’m normally relaxed about games with a few red herrings, but grrrr.)

The magical light chases away the monster’s mother, but only temporarily.

The fifth-floor maze was a giant lead-up to getting a golden key. All the time, the mother started getting more confident, until she attacked…

… and I defeated her on my first try via >BLOW HORN making a roar that sounded like another monster, then applying the sword. I guess the puzzles don’t all have to be hard and unfair; in a way this was just the culminating reward for solving the snake puzzle.

Upon attaining the golden key comes the final challenge. There is a row of five locks on the rightmost wall.

Each one kills you in a different and creative way.

You unlock the door…
and three men in white coats take you away!

You unlock the door…
and the walls falls on you!

You unlock the door…
and a 20,000 volt shock kills you!

However, the second from the top is particularly theatrical: you don’t die right away, but the screen starts flashing and TICK TICK appears on the top. If you wait a bit longer, the entire maze blows up.

The ticking lock still turns out to be the correct one. After activating the bomb, you can find a previously hidden “sixth lock” to the south of the row of five. It leads to an elevator where you fall into a bed of spikes and die.


I admit to grumpiness and frustration and decided to go for a hint right away. I needed to take the crystal ball from the first floor of the game and >THROW BALL. This caused the elevator to “disappear” and a passage to show up leading to the outside. I have no idea why this worked. I imagine if I was patient enough to run through all the various red herring objects I could have solved this on my own, but I doubt I would have got any satisfaction.

The game then throws one more curveball: before you’re allowed to win, the game asks what the name of the monster was.

The game might better have asked: what famous monster also had a mother who attacked after he died?


This hints at the “madness” theme Med Systems would hit starting in 1981 with the game Asylum.

If you’re not familiar with Beowulf: a kingdom ruled by King Hrothgar is being attacked by the monster Grendel. The legendary Beowulf slays Grendel in Hrothgar’s mead hall. And then an “avenger” appears:

Grendles módor (Grendel’s mother,)
ides áglaécwíf (lady troll-wife,)
yrmþe gemunde (remembered misery)
sé þe wæteregesan (she who the dreadful water)
wunian scolde (had to inhabit)
From Benjamin Slade’s translation, lines 1258-1260

Grendel’s mother, who lives underwater, wants revenge. (Spoiler: she doesn’t get it.)

I admit, given the last part of the game is clearly not underwater, I was a touch confused. Re-visualizing the last level as, say, ankle-deep makes it suitably close. There’s an intrinsic danger to citing something of greater artistry and power than your own work, but I suppose it’s excusable for the very end of this silly (but innovative) game.

Posted July 19, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Deathmaze 5000: The Monster at the Edge of Sight   Leave a comment

Back in 1996 Andrew Plotkin famously separated “difficulty” and “cruelty” in games with a five-tier system to describe what the latter means:

Merciful: cannot get stuck
Polite: can get stuck or die, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re stuck or dead
Tough: can get stuck, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re about to do something irrevocable
Nasty: can get stuck, but when you do something irrevocable, it’s clear
Cruel: can get stuck by doing something which isn’t obviously irrevocable (even after the act)

A lot of people now associate the cruel category with bad design, and that’s often fair; a good example would be the ningy in Acheton, where it’s possible to block yourself off a large chunk of the game without realizing it.

However, “cruel” design can sometimes accomplish narratively unique goals. Quondam has an instance of where a lot of time passes; if the player plants a “sapling” beforehand, it will have grown into a full-sized tree when they return. This is clearly a one-way trip; there’s no “reverse” mechanism (this isn’t time travel, just time passing) so having it be possible the player gets stuck is a necessity.

Both cases in gameplay terms require loading a save game to a past state, but the flavors of “cruel” feel very different. The system might need a “transparency” axis. There was essentially no way to know something went wrong with the ningy, whereas with the tree in Quondam it’s possible to “retroactively solve” and realize both what you need to do and what the result will be even before testing the action out.

Defeating the monster in Deathmaze 5000 hit a note between the two extremes. I don’t have the theoretical framework to describe exactly where. Let me at least narrate the best I can.

Before getting into the monster, here are two things that will become relevant:

1.) There’s a spot on the wall on the third floor marked “A Perfect Square”.

It turns out you can just walk right through.

This led me to another torch, more food, and a ball of wool.

2.) If you recall from a previous post, on the second floor of the maze there were two attack dogs. One dog was in a “fixed” position and only attacked upon entering the player entering a certain square, and the second dog was based on a timer. Either dog can be removed by throwing the sneaker, but you only have one sneaker. I had to choose between:

a.) defeating the “fixed position” dog, getting a magic staff, but skipping picking up a torch and jar.

b.) defeating the “timed” dog, getting all the items on the second floor except the magic staff.

After some experimentation, I realized KILL DOG also works as long as you have a dagger. The dagger gets used up on the process. This neatly bypassed the issue above and I was able to get past both dogs (one by sneaker, one by dagger).

A monster follows you the entire game. It’s possible to get a fair way in without realizing it.

The first reference I saw was when I tried throwing a frisbee, as I mentioned in an earlier post:

The frisbee magically flies around a convenient corner…

The monster grabs the frisbee, throws it back, and it saws your head off!

(Note the grammar says “the monster” as if you’ve known there was a monster there the whole time.)

On the second floor, the sneaker-dog sequence involves the monster:

A vicious dog attacks you!


The Sneaker magically flies around a convenient corner and is eaten by the monster!!!

The dog chases the sneaker! and is eaten by the monster!!!

I later discovered if you let your torch run out, the monster comes to devour you.

The ground beneath your feet begins to shake!

A disgusting odor permeates the hallway!

The monster attacks you and you are his next meal!

However, the monster is still generally just a nuisance until you try to spend enough time on the fourth floor to gather all the items. (I think it’s just based on a timer and not linked to anything else.) The monster eventually decides, regardless of if you have a strong light or not, to come eat you.

You are another victim of the maze!
Do you want to play another game (Y or N)?

That means surviving any farther requires defeating the monster. The ball of wool turned out helpful:

The Wool magically flies around a convenient corner

and the monster grabs it, gets tangled, and falls over!

However, while you get time for a command as the monster untangles itself, it kills you the next turn. Nothing I tried worked.

It then occurred to me that the dagger should work just as well on a monster as a dog (as long as the monster was tangled). But I no longer had a dagger! I had to go back to reconsider my two-dog situation.

Staring at the map, I realized that all I really needed to do was get to the staff (marked “2”), and if I could move over the pit somehow, that would work as an alternative to fighting the “fixed position” dog.

Somehow … flying … through the air …

Wait. No. Oh No. Would they? Yes, they would.

Farting to victory!

To sum up:

1.) I was able to gather all items on the second floor by defeating one attack dog by throwing a sneaker, and just skipping the second attack dog entirely but still reaching the magic staff.

2.) This let me keep my dagger, so I was able to bring it down to the monster.


The Wool magically flies around a convenient corner

and the monster grabs it, gets tangled, and falls over!


The monster is dead and much blood is spilt!

(Note the “throw wool” maneuver does not work until the monster starts charging, so even though you find the wool on the third floor, you can’t have this scene until after some exploration of the fourth floor. Also, if you are holding the jar and FILL JAR right after killing the monster, you get a jar full of monster blood. I haven’t been able to apply it anywhere useful.)

So, where do I go from here? I’m not sure. There’s no obvious next exit. There’s a pit in the upper right of floor 4 that might be climbable to a new area, but I haven’t had any luck so far.

I’ve got one theory which might be utterly wrong, but let me fire it off anyway. That “perfect square” thing: what if it was referring not the square on the wall but the actual room immediately past it (that is being “framed” like a picture)?

What’s special about that square? Well, if you build a grid as shown below, and go by the system floor-column-row …

… then you get the perfect square 324 (18 times 18 = 324). Thus the purpose of the marking might be to indicate how the coordinates of a teleportation system works (maybe by the calculator).

Far-fetched, but this game has already gone some crazy places.

Posted July 17, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Deathmaze 5000: One of the Most Deeply Inscrutable Puzzles in Adventure Game History   13 comments

I ran a little experiment; the text below I wrote *before* starting my next play session in earnest, and then I follow with the conclusion.

I’m still hacking at the calculator room puzzle. On my last post, Carl Muckenhoupt wrote what’s in the title of this post, adding “I will be very, very surprised if you get it without hints.”

Now, if you aren’t familiar with Carl, keep in mind:

a.) He is the only person I know who has finished Wizardry 4 without any hints, aka One of the Hardest RPGs Ever Written. This was done back when the game was released, so he didn’t even use any save states.

b.) He used to curate “Baf’s Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive” which attempted to catalogue absolutely everything in the IF Archive at the time. He’s played as many if not more adventure games than I have.

c.) He still writes regularly at The Stack, one of the best post-as-you-play-games blogs I know. For old-adventure fans, try his series on Time Zone starting with this post.

So when Carl says a puzzle is inscrutable, the wise thing would be to give up and check the solution. But I’m going to be foolish and work at this a bit longer anyway, albeit with a rule: I must work on the puzzle for at least one hour before checking the official hint sheet. (“At least” means I can take longer, but the goal here is to stop the temptation to give up early.)

Spoiler: Carl was right.

First, I tried to write down all the detail I knew: when entering the position on the map with the calculator, the hall is sealed off. The wall shows the message “To everything there is a season.” The message changes as you hit keys to turn:

Steps 1-5 show: “To everything there is a season.”
Steps 6-14 show: nothing
Steps 15-20 show: “To everything there is a season.”
Steps 21-25 include TURN, TURN, TURN added to the original message
Steps 26 and further: no message

The calculator initially displays 317 but CLEAN CALCULATOR reveals it actually showing 317.2.

My first impulse was that the game wanted the left/right arrow keys pressed in the right series in some sort of code. I tried, for example 3 left, 1 right, 7 left, 2 right; 3 left, 1 turn-around, 7 right, 2 turn-around; 3 right, 1 left, 7 right, 2 left; and so on for many, many more attempts.

Even if the “3172” digits were correct, any complexity past just using the digits in order would have required just sheer luck to come across. There are far too many possibilities and arrangements. (As the previous sentence implies, the 3172 digits were not correct, but let’s get back to that in a moment.)

I then went for some “outside the game” type solves. First, the inverted calculator idea, which I illustrated in my last post:

Again, without any extra clues, proceeding from here involved testing a bunch of variants: LIE, 2LIE, ZLIE, LIE LIE, REST LIE, and so forth. This was made worse by “SAY” being a verb so the game might have accepted the right command as a “magic word” or it might have required me to “SAY” it; so I had to test twice every word I listed.

Past that point and even more desperate, I tried looking up Ecclesiastes 3, the original source of the song lyrics, which includes a verse 3:17.

I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.

I tried every single word here like “heart” and “judge” and crossed them out as I went.

I checked if this could be a “phone code” using the letters on a phone, but realized while “2” has “ABC” there are no letters on the 1.

I considered if latitude or longitude was involved (there is the “.2” part which doesn’t show up at random) but on Earth those metrics max out at 180, so I’d need to be referring to somewhere in outer space. I tried words like MARS and VENUS just to feel like I was doing something.

I tried checking if the digits reversed (that is, 317.2 being 2.713) were somehow mathematical. Euler’s number starts out 2.718, and just in case the authors made a typo I tried out EULER and various possible mispellings. (This might seem to be reaching into absurd territory, but there is a well-known game in a very well known series where a certain name is spelled wrong, and the game only accepts the wrong spelling.)

While I didn’t know it, I was getting further and further away from the answer. When I buckled (after about an hour and 20 minutes), I found out my very first guess about a left/right code was absolutely correct. The way out of the room was to

1.) turn left five times
2.) turn right four times
3.) turn left three times

Where does the 5-4-3 sequence come from? I finally puzzled it out, and it takes a combination of the insights above:

1.) flip the letters calculator-style to get LIE
2.) find LIE on a telephone; the letters are on the buttons 5-4-3 in order.

I have no idea what the “.2” part was about. If you draw a “Z” shape from the bottom you get left-right-left … but there’s no reason why you can’t draw from the top either, and that connection seems way too stretched to be correct.

To explain what went wrong with this puzzle, I’m going to hop briefly over to cryptic crosswords.

A cryptic crossword is one where each word is clued twice, once explicitly and once with wordplay; however, the break between wordplay and second definition isn’t always obvious.

Cod nutrition changed the starting point (12)

is a clue for introduction. “Cod nutrition” is an anagram of “introduction”; “changed” is the word indicating an anagram is being used. “Starting point” is the definition of “introduction”.

There’s essentially one “transformation step” before we’ve reached a point we can verify a solution is correct (by matching our result with the definition).

It is possible but considered bad form to have require multiple transformations to the same word.

Listening, elf moved a boat messily using white powder (5)

“Messily” indicates another anagram, but on the “Elf moved a boat” section. However, before the anagram starts, the definition of “row” needs to be substituted for “moves a boat” so the thing we are anagramming is “elf row”. This anagrams into “flower”. Then we apply “listening” to indicate that “flower” is a homonym for “flour”, which is the “white powder”.

While it’s *possible* to go through the logical steps, having to leap from one to the next without reinforcement really makes for an uncomfortable solving experience. It exposes puzzlers to too many combinatoric possibilities.

With the calculator puzzle, the solver had to make a chain of actions similar to the bad cryptic clue: flipping the calculator to make the word LIE, taking that result and putting it on a phone pad, then taking that result and applying it in a left-right-left code order. Only at the very end of this improbable chain is there any indication the player is on the right track. While it’s fine to have a little bit of exploration on the player’s part where a clue is abstracted into an action, once multiple “layers” are added there are thousands of possibilities to search.

Posted July 14, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Deathmaze 5000: A Time to Be Born, a Time to Die   13 comments

I skipped mentioning the motivation and plot last time, so let’s remedy that first. From the manual:

Your only goal is to leave Deathmaze. Alive.

Ayep. Deep. So let’s segue into


There’s a FART command and it gets mentioned on the opening screen.

I don’t know what the “scientific marvel” mentioned on this screen is yet.

The effect is to propel the player forward until they hit a wall.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to save in-game time. I say this is unfortunate because a.) there’s a hunger timer; I’ve found food in two places but it’s definitely possible to starve b.) there’s a timer on torch health, and if it becomes dark you get eaten by a monster.

For the maps that follow, I need to keep in mind some route optimization. Turning counts as a “step”, so when a path is “wiggly”, it can take more travel time than a straight corridor covering the same number of spaces.

An example: The corridor on the left takes twice as long to pass through as the corridor on the right.


I still haven’t solved the calculator problem from last time, although I should mention LOOK CALCULATOR reveals there’s a smudge, and CLEAN CALCULATOR shows the actual number on the screen is 317.2.

The number combined with being on a calculator combined with the “TURN, TURN, TURN” hint suggests this might be a word on an inverted calculator.

Matt in the comments suggest “Z.LIE” and I’ve tried a bunch of permutations like “LIELIE” and “TWO LIE” but no luck.

It’s possible I need an item of some sort, because you can move on to the lower levels without solving the puzzle. One of the items just lying about (a HAT) gives you explicit instructions if you LOOK HAT:

Wear this hat. CHARGE a wall near where you found it.

Specifically, if you face north and CHARGE, you bust through the wall and fall down a pit to level two.


Here’s where the Deathmaze really started living up to its name. One of the item boxes has a snake that kills you if you open it (I haven’t decided if this is a red herring or a puzzle that needs solving)

There’s an “elevator” which just crushes you by the walls coming in sideways.

There are two attack dogs, one which occurs after a certain number of steps, and one which happens in a specific spot. I have only found the sneaker useful in fending him off, although it causes the sneaker to disappear:

A vicious dog attacks you!


The Sneaker magically flies around a convenient corner and is eaten by the monster!!!

The dog chases the sneaker! and is eaten by the monster!!!

The dog that is in a fixed spot is blocking a box that has a magic staff. Also, while this level has both food and a torch, the torch is far enough away (notice how it’s at the end of a “wiggly” corridor) that it gives time for the “timed dog” to attack. This means I can choose from either a.) fighting the fixed dog and taking the magic staff or b.) fighting the timed dog and getting an extra torch, although that means I skip the magic staff.

Of course, c.) find an extra way to defeat a dog and do both is possible, but I haven’t wrangled it yet.


There’s not as much content here, but the “L” shape does indicate there’s probably more to this level. I don’t know if it’s possible to enter in the upper right area on this level (indicating a secret door or some related shenanigans) or if it’s a “closed area” that can only be entered from below.


This is where my journey so far has bottomed out. Apart from running out of torch time or dying of hunger, again things aren’t too dangerous. It may be the next direction is “up” — the bottom of the pit doesn’t correspond to any existing pits, so it must go up to the “missing” section on level 3. I suspect a method of scaling pits will be the next step in the journey, but given farts are a method of propulsion, I won’t be surprised if things go sideways.

Part of where I’m stumped is a short verb list. This is the entire list I’ve found so far.


None of these are the usual WAVE that gets used to activate a magic staff in many a game, or GAZE to use the crystal ball from the first level. CLIMB wants a noun and the bottom of pits (where it seems like climbing might work) I haven’t been able to get the game to recognize any particular use.

Posted July 13, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Deathmaze 5000 (1980)   9 comments

And now for something completely different.

Deathmaze 5000 is a first-person adventure game by Frank Corr, Jr. for Med Systems, the same company that brought us Reality Ends.

If it looks somewhat familiar, it is possible you read the blog The Adventure Gamer, because Will Moczarski did a series on Deathmaze 5000 recently (which I am avoiding, because I don’t want spoilers). However, it’s not on any of my usual three reference sites (the Interactive Fiction Database, CASA Solution Archive, or Mobygames) meaning it still qualifies as “obscure”.

This represents what could have been an entirely different evolutionary branch for adventures. The three-dimensional maze is oriented on a grid, and you move about square by square using the arrow keys. This style — akin to the CRPG “blobber” genre — pretty much started and ended with Med Systems (their last game in this style was Asylum II in 1982). First-person adventures eventually came back in season, thanks to Myst, but are now either free-roaming or node based.

I’m not surprised, really — RPGs are squarely enough in the dungeon-genre camp that spending an entire game in rectilinear format doesn’t feel all that odd, while adventures more naturally lend themselves to a variety of environments.

The interface is smoother than you might expect for a 1980 TRS-80 game. In addition to moving about with the arrow keys, you enter commands (two words at most) just by starting to type. The maze has a typical set of adventure game inventory items stored in “boxes” accessible via OPEN BOX.

The player here is about to die: a monster throws the frisbee back and chops their head off.

In addition to the frisbee incident above, there is a square in the game that kills you just by stepping in it

but for the most part the first level (that I’ve been able to reach so far) is peaceful.

Where I’m stuck is the tile marked “X”. I’m guessing it’s the way to the “next level”. When I enter, the wall has the message “To everything there is a season” and if I turn enough times, it gets followed by the message “TURN, TURN, TURN”. There’s also a calculator in a box which displays the number 317. Putting these things together, my first guess was that I turn left 3 times, then right 1 time, then left 7 times.

No luck, though, even with other combinations of turns. The manual promises

Deathmaze is gigantic. There are over 500 locations. Be patient. You will not solve Deathmaze during the first week. Or the first month.

so this could be a tough one.

Posted July 12, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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ADV.CAVES (1980?)   3 comments

This game has the triple whammy of an unknown author, unknown year, and what is more or less an unknown title.

I’m titling ADV.CAVES by its filename. I found it on the mysterious Apple II Compilation #007. The compilation comes with multiple games of old vintage. Here are the ones I’ve been able to identify:

  • Lost Dutchman’s Gold (1979, the Apple II version came out in 1980)
  • Dukedom (1976, the 1980 Apple II port is on the disk)
  • Imhotep (1980)
  • Journey to the Center of the World (1978, called “Adventure Within the Earth” in this version)

It is thus a good guess ADV.CAVES is also from 1980. It’s possible it was a type-in but I haven’t been able to identify the source magazine. It’s also possible this was a private project that escaped to the wild, because this is very short and feels more like someone’s programming exercise (akin to Roger Wilcox’s work) rather than an attempt at publishing a game. (As an example of the roughness: there is no “inventory” command.)

I’m sure you won’t be surprised that a game with a “caves” moniker asks you to collect treasures and drop them in a central location (the starting room of the game). There is no “end game” message; the goal seems to be to accumulate as many points as you like and then quit. While not spelled out exactly, 100 points is the maximum. You get points not only from depositing treasures and for each new location you visit (this will become important in a little while).

Close to the starting room is a room with a kitten:



After going through the requisite Crowther/Woods Adventure words (XYZZY, PLUGH, etc.) and generic magic words (SESAME, ABACADABRA, and so forth) I hit upon the word MAGIC itself as a magic word. It teleports you straight to a dragon. If you drop the kitten where the dragon is:


After the dragon vs. kitten face-off, something highly unusual happens. The dragon doesn’t just go poof: it just moves elsewhere. That means any of the other rooms of the game may have A LARGE DRAGON BLOCKS YOUR PATH; to be safe you need to take the kitten with you to do any further necessary dragon-scaring. I can’t think of any other adventure games I’ve played where this happens, that is, where an enemy is defeated by solving a puzzle, but may need to be redefeated later in the same manner. This in contrast to CRPG-style violence or some other non-puzzle method of driving enemies away; when a puzzle is solved there seems to be the unspoken rule it should be solved only once.

You can get most of the points (96 of them) through normal gameplay, but I did say earlier the max score is 100. For a full 100 point ending, you need to plunge into a chasm.




You could have quit at 96 points, but those last 4 were your downfall. Rest in peace, Adventurer.

But wait, a miracle occurs!

CLIMB works, you just have to do it a bunch of times. Never mind. I guess we made it out alive … this time.

In all seriousness, I had thought for a while the scene trapped in the cave forever was the real “ending” but decided to go back and try CLIMB a bunch more times just to be sure. The first Russian art house cinema style ending for an adventure game will have to wait a little longer.

Posted July 11, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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