Archive for July 2019

In Search Of… Dr. Livingston (1980)   3 comments

Content warning: 19th-century colonialism, pop culture as history, headhunting, meta-interface tricks, and existential body horror.

Cover of Softside magazine, September 1980.

In Search Of… Dr. Livingston appeared in the September 1980 issue of Softside magazine as a type-in for the TRS-80, pages 26 to 29, credited as by

  • Carl Russell
  • Karen Russell
  • Ralph Fullerton
  • Becky Fullerton

(Aside: This is the first adventure game in our chronological series with two women in the credits.)

I haven’t previously emphasized this, but the double whammy of a hardware capacity of 16K plus the need to have code that can be printed in a magazine really makes for a harsh limit. There’s not a lot of space for niceties like “verb synonyms” or “sensible responses to wrong puzzle solving attempts”. With some careful design choices (and a willingness to toss in some synonyms) it’s possible to alleviate these problems, but really, the reputation of Very Old Parser Games to be almost pathologically unable to understand player input has more to do with necessity than the designers just falling down on the job.

The complete source code, as originally printed.

At a talk at Narrascope 2019, Jess Haskins brought up the fallacy of generalizing from fictional evidence, where “you weigh evidence from something you saw or heard in a work of fiction just as strongly as something you actually experienced firsthand.”

A corollary of this might be: there is a strong tendency to create games based on pop-culture notions of places and times. This saves work on both the writer side (who can at least try to get away with less research) and the reader side (who can be assumed familiar enough with, say, King Arthur, that some aspects of the character are already built).

Pick an adventure game set in “Egypt” and you’ll probably get pyramids and tombs, and possibly see Cleopatra. This isn’t necessarily inaccurate: there are pyramids in Egypt, but a focus on old Egypt leaves out roughly 2000 years of other stuff that happened. None of those years made the pop-culture hit parade.

If an adventure game is set in Africa outside of Egypt … well, there isn’t even much pop culture to choose from, except a certain 19th-century meeting between Dr. David Livingstone and Sir Henry M. Stanley.

July, 1871: Dr. David Livingstone, British explorer and missionary, was rumored dead; he had last been heard from via a letter dated May 30th, 1869, and while he sent many more letters over the prior 6 years, they never arrived at their destination. Although not dead, he was verging close. While in Congo he witnessed a massacre of (at least) 400 Africans by Arab slavers and had to flee to the trading town of Ujiji in Tanzania. He had supplies stored there, but when he arrived he found they had been stolen.

Meanwhile, the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley was on the wrong continent. He had been sent by the New York Herald to the grand opening of the Suez Canal, and from there did a tour of the Middle East, writing a travel guide, and going as far as India. He had heard rumors of Livingstone during these travels, and decided (on his own volition) to steer to Africa (as he later explained to his employer, he was “too far from a telegraph” to notify them of the new expenses he was taking on).

After a trek of over 1000 kilometers (and around 100 porters, many either deserted or dead from tropical diseases) Stanley found Livingstone in November, and shook his hand.

Stanley: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Livingstone: “Yes. I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

There is, of course, a lot more to the event (including the fact Stanley ripped out his diary pages corresponding to this meeting and may have made the dialogue up) and if you want to fall down the rabbit hole I’d recommend Clare Pettitt’s 2007 book about the event (and the many memes that followed). For my purposes, it’s helpful just to note

a.) The meeting was, as Pettitt asserts, “one of the first international ‘celebrity’ moments in history.”

b.) Livingstone is remembered as a hero (anti-slavery crusader) and Stanley as a villain (later claimed the Congo in the name of Belgium, reportedly responsible for cruel abuses).

c.) The environment where the meeting happened was a Muslim trading town.

To start off the game proper, let me just quote a long excerpt:

YOU ARE IN A BEDROOM, WEARING PJ’S. A NIGHTSTAND SITS BETWEEN THE CLOSET AND THE BED. THE BEDCOVERS ARE TURNED DOWN.

YOU CAN SEE A TIMEWORN BOOK.

? OPEN CLOSET
YOU CAN SEE A TIMEWORK BOOK, A FADED RED KNAPSACK, A PAIR OF HIKING BOOTS.

? GET KNAPSACK
‘TIS DONE.

? GET BOOTS
YOUR FEET ARE NOW SNUG IN A PAIR OF HIKING BOOTS.

? GET BOOK
‘TIS DONE.

? GO BED
YOU ARE LYING IN A WARM SOFT BED.

? READ BOOK
AFRICA – LAND OF THE UNKNOWN BY R. U. REDDE

? OPEN BOOK
THE BOOK FALLS OPEN TO AN UNDERLINED PASSAGE.

? READ PASSAGE
… PLORER NODDED OFF TO SLEEP, HIS THOUGHTS BEGAN TO DRIFT T …

? DRIFT
YOU ARE DRIFTING IN A ROWBOAT ON A LAKE.
THERE IS A BEACH ON THE EASTERN SHORELINE.

YOU CAN SEE A TINY GREY MOUSE.

Some points to make: 1.) things start feeling like a “story within a story” and that you are entering a dream; however, if you don’t put on the hiking boots before using “DRIFT” to go to Africa you die. 2.) the whole “OPEN BOOK” ⟶ “READ PASSAGE” ⟶ “DRIFT” sequence I was able to get fairly quickly from experience, but I could easily see someone getting stuck here. It’s as if the authors had a choreographed set of moves in mind, but such sequences are very dangerous in modern games with an abundance of text and synonyms to work with; here the minimality is so stringent it’d be easy for the game to fall off the rails.

Upon arriving in Africa, there’s a fairly wide-open map, and it’s a really, really bad one.

Click for a larger version of the map.

Again, there is the old-IF tendency to have exits that go EAST one way go NORTH the other. Not great, not worse than elsewhere.

However, this game applies a trick that so far I had only seen in Adventure variants: sometimes a particular direction has more than one possible destination, and that destination will be picked at random. Even worse, sometimes a direction that states you can’t go that direction will actually, sometimes, let you go that direction. This is an actual gameplay transcript:

? N
YOU WON’T GET ANYWHERE GOING THAT DIRECTION.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
THAT DIRECTION IS SEALED OFF.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
YOU WON’T GET ANYWHERE GOING THAT DIRECTION.

? N
YOU WON’T GET ANYWHERE GOING THAT DIRECTION.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
THAT DIRECTION IS SEALED OFF.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
YOU WON’T GET ANYWHERE GOING THAT DIRECTION.

? N
THAT DIRECTION IS SEALED OFF.

? N
YOU ARE AT THE EDGE OF A JUNGLE.
GRASSLANDS EXTEND TO THE EAST AND SOUTH.

Because of this issue, part of mapping the game involved testing each invalid exit many, many times just in case the random number generator was acting up.

Early on someone throws a spear at you.

A NATIVE THROWS A SPEAR AT YOU.
HE MISSES AND RUNS OFF.

The spear is useful for killing an alligator later (except you don’t really need to enter the room with the alligator, nor is there any need to kill it). The spear is in reality more of an obstacle, because if you carry it one of the two villages in the game, this happens:

YOU ARE IN A NATIVE VILLAGE.
THERE ARE SEVERAL CAMPFIRES ABOUT.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.
SUDDENLY, A VOLLEY OF SPEARS FLIES OVER YOUR HEAD; AN OBVIOUS WARNING!
YOU HAD BETTER LEAVE, FAST.

This marks the fourth adventure game we’ve seen where a weapon is mostly useless and can get you into trouble. (Other instances: Burial Ground Adventure, Pyramid of Doom, Lost Dutchman’s Gold.) I think this is enough to say we have a genuine pattern here; the idea of using your brains, wits, and navigation skills as opposed to just applying force perhaps was an intentional attempt to distance the genre from CRPGs and other games of a more violent nature. (In this specific case, perhaps the authors were trying to say something about colonialism.)

If you enter the village without a spear, you get someone wanting to trade instead.

YOU ARE IN A NATIVE VILLAGE.
THERE ARE SEVERAL CAMPFIRES ABOUT.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.
A FRIENDLY NATIVE APPROACHES WITH SOME TRINKETS.
IT APPEARS HE WANTS TO MAKE A TRADE.

If you’re too reckless with threatening the natives, or dawdling around an alligator, you die, and apparently get booted out of the game:

But wait! After a short pause:

You get resurrected back at the rowboat. This only works once, so if you die again, the death screen is no longer a fake-out.

There’s a jungle with quicksand, which used to be everywhere in the 80s.

? JUMP QUICKSAND
DO YOU REALLY EXPECT TO JUMP OVER 30 FEET?

If you’ve played Adventure before and know the rhetorical question trick, this is a funny moment, since the game decides to slip into animated graphics mode. (If not, I imagine this is just frustrating.)

? YES

The initial prompt for the game was just to find Dr. Livingstone, so I was a little confused for a while: there were treasures like a SAPPHIRE strewn about in typical-adventurer fashion. After an hour of gameplay it dawned on me there’s the usual gather-the-treasures plot on top of everything else (it is also admittedly setting appropriate to have someone swoop into 19th century Africa and take all their stuff). Once I realized treasures were a Thing I was still puzzled as to where to deposit the loot.

YOU ARE IN AN IMMENSE CAVERN. THE WALLS
ARE COVERED WITH AN IRIDESCENT GLOW.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.
A VOICE ECHOES FROM THE MOUTH OF THE CAVE . . . S W A M I

I found one room (the cave entrance two rooms west of the description above) where SWAMI worked to teleport me back to the bedroom. *That* was where the treasures went. I had still been thinking we were in the story-within-a-story frame but apparently, we were just accidentally using magic? (I suppose it’s supposed to be like SAY YOHO in Pirate Adventure where you teleport to and from London?)

The biggest research fail comes here:

YOU ARE ON THE GRASS PLAINS.
TWO SHRUNKEN HEADS DECORATE A SIGN.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.

? READ SIGN
UJIJI COUNTRY – KEEP OUT
NO HEED ‘EM, WE EAT ‘EM.

… to recap, Ujiji was just a Muslim trading town. Also, while headhunters were a thing in central and western Africa, they were never in Tanzania. (Fun bonus fact: some countries in Europe, including Croatia, had headhunting up to the 20th century.)

Also, re: the “we eat ’em” reference: again, doesn’t seem to be a thing in Tanzania, although one of the more extravagant rumors of Dr. Livingstone’s demise was that he was eaten by cannibals.

Just like the other village, the natives are friendly if you don’t have a spear.

YOU ARE IN THE UJIJI VILLAGE. A NATIVE
STANDS NEAR HOLDING A SPEAR. HE LOOKS EXCITED.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.
SEVERAL NATIVES WAVE HELLO!

And sometimes (although he can randomly be in a couple other places) Dr. Livingstone will be “down” from this location, in a pit.

YOU ARE IN A PIT. LIGHT STREAMS IN FROM ABOVE.

Now we get to the existential body horror.

When you find Livingstone, he’s considered an object. You have to give his catchphrase to successfully take him along with you.

YOU CAN SEE DR. LIVINGSTON.

? GET LIVINGSTON
DR. LIVINGSTON?

? I PRESUME
‘TIS DONE.

If you take him back to the same location that SWAMI worked on earlier and try to teleport, you get the message

HELP

Livingstone then disappears from your inventory. You can teleport back to Africa and find him (I think positioned randomly?) but it’s clear that the original method of teleporting won’t work.

The original DRIFT word turns out to be the solution; in the rowboat way back at the beginning of the game DRIFT sends you back to the bedroom with Livingstone. I have no idea why this method works to transport Livingstone and not the other way.

If the original “HELP” message didn’t weird you out enough, consider we are entering what appears to be a world in a book, taking treasures from it, including a live person, and then depositing them at “home” outside the world of the book/story/dream.

OK, that game pushed even my patience. By way of apology, here’s an actual good game set in Africa from a dev team in Cameroon. (Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan; it’s on Steam.)

Posted July 9, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Bilingual Adventure: Consumed in Its Own Fires   2 comments

I can’t really write “Finished” because this is yet another Adventure clone that doesn’t want to trigger the endgame, but it’s safe to say I’ve seen nearly everything.

If you’ll allow me a lateral analogy:

In Pac-Man 256 you are being chased by “the glitch” from level 256 of the original arcade Pac-Man. Weird numbers and broken shapes follow Pac-Man as he tries valiantly to escape the universe being consumed.

With Bilingual Adventure, distressing bugs kept creeping up. I found more “void rooms”. (Fortunately, I found out that the magic word Y2 works everywhere, even in those rooms.) The lamp started running out of power even though I had the lamp off (the game seems to be “cheating” and just keeps a timer once the lamp is turned on, and never bothers to check if it’s off or even in the player’s possession). Halfway through the game, trying to THROW AXE at a dwarf just led to the dwarf mysteriously disappearing and a blank prompt. My inventory capacity started reducing for no apparent reason until I could only hold 3 items at a time.

Dropping from the stalactite puts you in the room marked with the purple arrow (it’s different than in Original Adventure). The two rooms marked red are void.

Last time I was stumped by a sword in a stone, when Draconis mentioned that the HELP message should really be in the description of the item.

?? help

I guess you need some help getting the sword out. Well this might help. There is an inscription on the blade which says – “ONLY MY NAME WILL WIN YOU FAME”.

Ah, this must be one of those “magic word based on pop culture” deals.

?? excalibur

The sword begins to quiver and suddenly springs into your hand.

Now, I need to do a big mea culpa: the dragon *is* in the game. However, you aren’t allowed in the right area until you’re holding Excalibur. So this whole process seems to have been meant to “fix” the absurdity of the original scene.

You are in a secret canyon which exits to the north and east.

A fire breathing green dragon as big as a Winabago bars the way. He is standing on a priceless Persian rug.

There is a rare Persian rug lying here

?? kill dragon

With one mighty stroke of the sword you have offed the beast. His once mighty body is being consumed in its own fires. There is nothing left now but a little green ash on the carpet.

One other change:

You are in the giant room. The ceiling here is too high up for your lamp to show it. Cavernous passages lead east, north and south. On the west wall is scrawled the inscription, “FEE FIE FOE FOO sic”.

There is a nest of golden eggs here

In the original, saying FEE, FIE, FOE, and FOO in order would summon the eggs back to this spot if they’re gone. The words don’t work here; the game makes jokes instead.

?? fee

There is no fee – this is a free game.

?? fie

You seem to have a slight accent liebchen?.

Instead, the final word of FUM from the original fairy tale is what summons the eggs. (This may have been intended to be another cheap way to avoid keeping track of state — that is, the game expects people to say the four words and then FUM at the end, but only bothered to record the FUM.)

The joke is different in French.

Sur le mur de ‘louest on voit un graffiti: “BA BE BI BO etc.”

?? ba

BABA au rhum? – Interdiction absolue d’avoir de a’lcool ici.

?? be

BEBE ou? J’espere pas, c’est la nourriture favorite des sorcieres.

This is a good moment to segue out to my last point: Bilingual Adventure really seems to be the only parser text adventure with mid-game language switching in existence. I’m not meaning “the first since 1979” I’m meaning “the first and only since 1979.” (Language switching is common in lots of other games, but parser does raise the difficulty a bit.) I’m happy to be proven wrong here, but even if there’s another example or two I’m missing, I’ve got to give the crew of Manning and friends some props for blazing a trail that (almost?) nobody else followed.

Posted July 2, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Bilingual Adventure: This Space Unintentionally Left Blank   4 comments

This post assumes casual familiarity with the Crowther/Woods version of Adventure, so if you’ve just wandered in, you might want to go read about original Adventure first.

Ad from Kilobaud Magazine, December 1979.

Amongst the various changes I encountered one major system change, one serious bug, one general parser oddity, one old puzzle with a different solution from the original, and one new puzzle I can’t yet solve.

The most noticeable change in terms of gameplay feel is that the Bilingual Adventure enforces use of the lamp only very weakly. It doesn’t get mentioned as required until this room:

At your feet is a pit breathing traces of white mist. An east passage ends here except for a small crack leading on.

It is might dangerous to grope in the dark.

The game stops you if you try to go down without the lamp lit, and if you are persistent and attempt again, you die.

However, *past* this point you can turn the lamp off just fine. The room description never goes black or the like. The only other time the lamp is needed is the dark room (I’ll return to that it a moment). This has the effect of allowing a more casual stroll through the game rather than trying to optimize for lamp light.

There are a few of intentional removals from the map, no doubt to be able to stuff the entire game on a 38K floppy; the “dragon” section seems to be gone and a couple “side tunnels” that did nothing other than add atmosphere are also gone.

Removals are marked in red.

In the process, two spots on the map got broken. The Swiss Cheese room mentions an exit to the northwest, but it’s impossible to go that way; they only way to make it to the rooms with the Ming vase is to go around the other direction (the beanstalk that sprouts up from watering the plant leads there).

Rather more seriously, there’s a room west of the crystal bridge spot that’s a literal void. As in, there *is* a room there, but it has no description or exits, so if you land there you end up in limbo and have the quit the game.

Even after I knew about the “void room” I got caught in it once; to get the diamonds now you have to use the rod to make the crystal bridge, but the crystal bridge now doesn’t stay: you have to wave the rod again to go back. I had dropped it on the east side of the bridge so my only possible exit was to the void.

It’s possible the intent was to remove that place entirely to force solving the bridge puzzle, but the authors messed it up and made the bug instead.

On to the oddity: if you type a single unrecognized verb, the parser responds asking what noun you want to go with it. This is true even if the verb is unrecognized.

?? get
get what ?? bottle
Done ?? asdasd
asdasd what ??

This possibly was meant as a purely “helpful” feature for those who forgot to type a noun, but that ranks very low on the list of Actual Typos People Make.

I could maybe see this being useful in regard to the design allowing other languages and the bilingual nature of the game causing “syntax mixing” to happen. While the subject can be waved away with the parser (having an implied “I” or “you” or whatever pronoun you want to assign to the player character) the order VERB-OBJECT isn’t universal (in languages with an order preference, subject-object-verb is the most common). This would only make sense if the “split command” syntax in the excerpt let you type the noun first, but the game doesn’t let you.

Speaking of mixing, here’s what happens if you switch to French and try to type w for west:

?? w

C’est “ouest” en Francais.

The changed puzzle is at the dark room; in the original, it involved an adjacent room with a treasure “the size of a plover egg” with the implication you can type PLOVER as a magic word to teleport there and back. This lets you bring a lamp in, so you can go northeast and pick up the item there.

You are in a small chamber lit by an eerie magic >GREEN< light. An extremely narrow tunnel exits to the west. A dark corridor leads ne.

There is an emerald here the size of a green parrot's egg

?? ne

You're in a room so dark that you cannot see the treasure that might lay here. A corridor leading south is the only exit.

The magic word to arrive and bring the lamp is “green” (apparently the authors was trying to make the game more fair than original Adventure; I’m guessing that’s also why the dragon was cut). However, the same word is supposed to be used to get out, and it doesn’t work!

?? green

We cannot go there

What does work is this:

?? y2

You have walked up a hill, still in the forest. The road slopes back down the other side of the hill. There is a small brick building in the distance.

This might normally be fair, except the “Y2” room description had also been changed:

You are in a large room with passages to the south and west, and a wall of broken rock to the east. A large “Y” is painted on the north wall.

This means there is no way to beat the game without the outside knowledge of what the original room looked like (which had “Y2” rather than “Y”). So in the process of the authors trying to create a fairer puzzle, they made an (essentially) impossible puzzle.

As what I’m guessing is meant to be a replacement for the dragon puzzle, there’s a sword in a stone. I haven’t gotten anywhere.

There is a large gleaming silver sword imbedded in the block of stone.

?? get sword

The sword is stuck firmly in the stone and won’t come out.

In Adventure 550 the solution was to eat a strength-enhancing mushroom, but there doesn’t seem to be any “new” objects in Bilingual Adventure other than this one. I tried using the oil on the sword but it doesn’t work (giving a blank message, which means the solution might just be buggy).

I could, of course, do source diving to try to work out the puzzle, but I’ll hang on a little longer trying to solve it the “real” way. Feel free to drop any suggestions you might have. Any object available in vanilla Adventure (other than the carpet) is available.

Posted July 1, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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