Deathship: and the Parser of Doom   6 comments

Voltgloss (a regular to this blog) was very determined to see this one through (and gave me enough hints to finish as well), although getting to the end required plowing through four (four!) entirely different parser issues.

Last time, I was stuck in the ship’s hold, unable to reach the engine room which contained a ticking time bomb.


I had a “crate” I had already used as a step-stool to reach a high mast, but I had been unable to open the crate. I had an axe and had tried various permutations of


The “WITH” has been pretty standard phrasing in two-word parsers up to this point when we’ve needed to provide a follow-up command; it turns out I needed to use just “AXE”. The interesting part, and parser issue #1, was that I had tested that exact thing, but on a second playthrough where I apparently wasn’t holding the axe. Rather than “YOU AREN’T HOLDING THE AXE” the game has “NOTHING HAPPENS” for every single response that doesn’t work. The entry box is entirely free so you could technically try to hit things with a >GOLF CLUB or >20TH CENTURY POSTMODERNISM and get the same response.

Upon opening the crate I found screwdrivers. Since the locked door is described as “hinged” I figured I needed to unscrew it, but I ran into parser issue #2: there is a flashlight that turns on with LIGHT and turns off with UNLIGHT. Because the parser only accepts the first two letters, UNSCREW couldn’t be added as a new verb. Voltgloss found the right technique was GET DOOR, which is one of those marginally-plausible phrasings that’s still unlikely anyone playing naturally would find.

Having tore the door down, I finally reached the bomb.


The ending puzzle is surprising elaborate and would be even a little fun were it not for parser issues #3 and #4. Parser issue #3, in particular, was that I realized a bucket full of water might be a good method of bomb defusing. There was a swimming pool with water on the top deck, but upon filing the bucket “IT’S LEAKING!!!” started appearing. There was still time to take the bucket down to the engine room and DROP WATER (hopefully on the bomb) but this was followed by another IT’S LEAKING message which suggested to me that I was going down entirely the wrong path.

Except … I wasn’t, and the game didn’t bother to make a special message along the lines of SORRY THE BUCKET IS OUT OF WATER. (Again, I needed Voltgloss’s hints to even realize this.)

In the meantime I had found a CUTTER by removing the nails holding down a radio. (Commenter Lisa logically asks what kind of radio would be held down by nails, to which I say: I have no idea. I also don’t know why the radio would be hiding a cutter.) I went to CUT BOMB and found a “wire” appeared in the description, but otherwise no change. Parser issue #4: the bomb is still “wired to a post” yet the bomb is no longer that well wired, because you can pick it up and carry it with you.

The bomb is too bulky to come all the way up the stairs to the water (you’re carrying too much, the game says) but by moving the bomb, I was able to bring it close enough that I could get another bucket of water and reach the bomb fast enough that there was still water left. After DROP WATER another turn passed, and then:

The end puzzle was a neat idea — you couldn’t bring one thing all the way from A to B, or one thing all the way from B to A, but you could meet the two things in the middle halfway. That’s far more sophisticated design than I expected, and it gives me hope that the next Aardvark game (Mars, finished between this one and Trek Adventure) keeps the interesting puzzle ideas and structure but has an improved parser.

ADD: In the comments, scaryreasoner mentions this game was later sold in a “learn how to make an adventure” pamphlet form. I think Mr. Olsen may have been slightly sheepish about selling it as a standalone game.


Posted August 1, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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6 responses to “Deathship: and the Parser of Doom

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  1. Holy shit! Somebody played this game in 2019? I wrote away for the deathship pamphlet advertised in the back of Compute! magazine way back in 1981 or whenever it was when I was a kid. It was how I first learned about arrays. What a mess of a program this thing was! Two significant letters for each word. There were some words I knew only two letters of, and only from looking at the program source, without ever figuring out what the word was supposed to be. I never solved the game (probably because I could never type it in accurately, plus I was having to deal with some idiosyncracies of TI99/4a BASIC.) here’s the advertisement from the back of Compute! magazine: Wish I still had that pamphlet.

  2. About the ad, no, of course, go right ahead. I think I found it on going through old Compute! magazines. Yeah, the aardvark thing is close, but not exactly it. Probably 95% or 99% the same though.

  3. I found a similar but not quite the same ad here: for the aardvark stuff.

  4. In a ship, on high seas, I’d nail my radio down too. Don’t want it being bashed into the decking by a heavy wave, foiling my only way of calling SOS.

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