His Majesty’s Ship ‘Impetuous’: We May Both Live to Regret This   Leave a comment

From last time, we had a dilemma where the young officer Fallow cursed out the King of England and in so doing condemned himself. The punishment as given by law is death, but the captain is allowed to pardon an offense. However, the execution will hurt morale (for obvious reasons) and a pardon will as well (as it appears that the law is not enforced).

We had landed on an isolated bay on mainland France so Fallow could attend the burial of his brother, and pulled him aside after out of earshot. What’s interesting here is while the game explicitly gives execute and pardon as choices, the game hints there might be “another way”. This is related to an idea I laid out while writing about Star Trek: 25th Anniversary — that an issue with choice-based moral decisions is that in reality, even knowing there is a choice at all can be difficult.

I had surveyed all of you, the readers, to give me responses, and they fell into a few categories.

Category #1: Pardon

“I’ve decided to pardon you. The men will understand, in the circumstances.”

pardon the boy.”

Two people went with the given “pardon” option even though the game was hinting at a hidden “third option”; I find this particularly interesting in that even knowing about the third option this one is still tempting. A potential problem I see with the “hidden choice” mechanic is the feeling that once found, that choice is always better than the other two. Based on events later in the story, it is mechanically, but that doesn’t mean it’s still morally (by whatever metric the player is roleplaying as) the best choice.

Category #2: Escape

LET YOU ESCAPE

“I’ve decided to shoot you with an unloaded or empty pistol. When you hear my gunshot, fall down and play dead or feign or fake your death. Do not move again until we have left. From there you are on your own. Good luck lad. Now, I order you to run.”

Both of these are understood the same way.

Note that the complex plan in the second doesn’t quite work in the physical situation — the captain already has loaded pistols, so essentially this would require going back in time and changing the setup. I find this one fascinating from a game design angle: suppose you had a parser that genuinely understood the whole thing as typed, what would be the optimal response? Would saying “your guns are already loaded” be acceptable here? Or maybe it’s possible to “retroactively” change reality — Schrödinger’s gun, so to speak, which is neither loaded nor unloaded until it becomes clear what the player’s intent is?

This may also indicate simply that the distance between choice-points in a traditional CYOA structure might be a little too large to pull this sort of thing off — if all the preparation steps were simulated like a traditional text adventure game (>PICK UP PISTOLS, >LOAD PISTOLS, etc.) it would have been possible to prepare the complicated scenario.

Category #3: Doesn’t Quite Make Sense Given the Scenario

MAROON FALLOW

I actually typed this when I first played the game! But if you go back and read carefully, this is on the French mainland, so “maroon” doesn’t make sense as an idea here. Again, I’m curious what the optimal response here is (“But we’re on the mainland, sir. Are you feeling ok?”)

Category #4: Maybe Doesn’t Give Enough Instruction

FAKE YOUR DEATH

FAKE YOUR EXECUTION

Neither of these are understood, but in even in an optimal understand-everything parser, I’m not sure they ought to be? It doesn’t really convey to Fallow what to do right at that moment. Something like “What exactly are you proposing, sir?” or that like.

Category #5: Indicating Future Action in an Ambiguous Way

“…sentence you to death, but allow you to escape.”

Is this indicating the captain will be giving a later chance of escape somehow? This option is fascinating because it seems to want to plan events in the future, but in such a way that it’s not guaranteed particular things will hold up (perhaps the intent is to have him escape by boarding the boat, but he might already be restrained by another crewmember at that point — is the captain going to somehow wrangle that to not happen?) The game incidentally parses this like Category #2.

For all of these, it helps to find the “third way” if the dialogue about “what if he tries to escape?” is visible. In the game that text is on the previous screen, and I was actually quite baffled. Not just in the usual puzzle-solving way, but with the existential dread of anything I could possibly type being an option. It was a unique experience. It made me wonder even if game responsiveness and AI evolved to the point we could have a full “holodeck”, would the player even “play” in a way that led to a responsive story? Does the ability to do anything still require a tutorial?

Robert Lafore himself discussed this puzzle in a later essay, and it definitely seemed intended players might miss the solution the first time through the game.

You have to decide whether to hang him or not. If you do, the crew thinks you’re being too harsh. If you don’t, they think you’re soft. Either way, in the big sea battle at the end of the story, they abandon their posts. It requires a little imagination to figure out the right thing to do. It’s a third choice in a situation that seems to have only two choices. Most people figure it out eventually. That’s one of the tricky parts of writing interactive fiction: The decisions the reader—the hero—is called upon to make have to be hard enough to be challenging but not so hard that the story becomes frustrating. The idea is that the third or fourth time the reader faces the situation he suddenly sees the solution, smites himself on the forehead, and cries. “Why didn’t I think of that before!

Softline, September/October 1983

I’m not quite sure how optimal this really is. Keith Palmer mentioned a contemporary review…

A 1982 review from 80 Micro.

…wherein the reviewer gave up and just hung Fallow because he was frustrated. This is the meta-frustration of lack of communication, not the in-universe recreation of the captain’s dilemma.

Before I go into spoiling the rest of the story, I should mention Jimmy Maher has converted the entire thing to Choicescript so you can just click your way through, rather than type. There are still some differences — I’ll get into those later — but the most significant puzzle you’ve already had spoiled (assuming you’ve read to this point) so you’re fine playing the converted version.

The structure is in three parts:

The Burial of Fallow (Chapter 1, 2 and 3)

In addition to the events above, the player has to choose who to promote to be the new Lieutenant. They are explicitly given two choices:

Lt. Beagle, who is fiercely loyal but sometimes brash in battle.

Lt. Wiley, who is very competent but also ambitious and angling for the captain’s job.

Either choice can work out; the next part of the story includes two incidents, one where it’s better to have Beagle, and one where it’s better to have Wiley, and the player needs to be aware enough when a particular action is a bad fit.

The Spanish Galleon and the Small French Ship (Chapter 4 and 5)

In the next chapter the Impetuous comes across a Spanish treasure ship, but because the ship is near a fort, attacking it requires a daring plan.

“NOW,” SAID WALTON, THINKING OUT LOUD, “IT WOULD BE A BLOW TO SPAIN IF WE CAPTURED THE TREASURE, AND THE PRIZE-MONEY WOULD BE CONSIDERABLE. BUT THE RISK IS HIGH. ASSUMING, HOWEVER, THAT WE DID DECIDE TO ATTACK, WE WOULD ROW IN AT NIGHT IN THREE OF THE SHIP’S BOATS. YOU, MR DASHER, WOULD LEAD ONE PARTY, I WOULD LEAD ANOTHER, AND LT WILEY WOULD TAKE THE THIRD. THAT WOULD LEAVE YOU, MR STAYSON, HERE WITH THE SHIP.”

(Replace “Walton” with the name the player chose, and “Wiley” with “Beagle” as appropriate.)

The choice here is simple to attack or pass on by.

If the player has Wiley, this mission is as success; if the player has Beagle, he will shout “Death to the Spanish!” early and spoil the plan.

Later, the captain has orders to steer clear of all encounters and meet the fleet. The Impetuous encounters a French ship pursuing an American one.

“SHE’S CHASING THE AMERICAN, BY GOD,” LT DASHER SAID. “AND SHE’LL CATCH THEM SOON ENOUGH AT THAT RATE. LET’S GO AFTER THEM, SIR!”

“WE CAN’T. AS YOU KNOW OUR ORDERS FORBID US TO ENGAGE THE ENEMY FOR ANY REASON.”

“I WAS FORGETTING, SIR.”

“IF WE ATTACKED HER, AND THE ADMIRALTY FOUND OUT, IT WOULD MEAN A COURT-MARTIAL FOR ME.”

AND YET, WALTON THOUGHT, WOULD THE ADMIRALTY FIND OUT? ONLY THE SENIOR OFFICERS–DASHER, STAYSON, AND WILEY–KNEW THE CONTENTS OF THE ORDERS.”

If you made Wiley a senior officer, attacking here is a bad idea — he will report your behavior to the admiralty. Beagle, as the loyal one, will not.

This gives a chance to get treasure by using either officer — if Wiley, the Spanish vessel, if Beagle, the French one. Of course, a player in the midst of the game isn’t aware of the structure, so they might attack the Spanish Galleon even if they’re aware it could be a bad idea, just because of concern this might be the only way to get treasure (this was, ahem, me in my first playthrough).

BUT AS THE AMERICAN SHIP VANISHED OVER THE HORIZON WALTON REMEMBERED–WITH A SUDDEN SENSE OF FOREBODING–THE CALCULATING LOOK IN LT WILEY’S EYES.

The Battle of the Fleets (Chapter 6 and 7)

“NOW, I’LL EXPLAIN THE SITUATION.” ADMIRAL WORMWOOD UNROLLED A LARGE CHART ACROSS HIS DESK. “OUR FRIGATES HAVE SIGHTED THE COMBINED FLEETS OF FRANCE AND SPAIN PUTTING OUT FROM THE HARBOR OF FERROL, HERE. WITH THE ADDITION OF YOUR ‘IMPETUOUS’ TO THE FLEET WE HAVE 27 SHIPS. SUPERIOR BRITISH SEAMANSHIP SHOULD ENABLE US TO DEFEAT THE 40 OR SO SHIPS THE ENEMY WILL SEND AGAINST US, ALTHOUGH THEY ARE GENERALLY LARGER VESSELS, AS YOU KNOW.

THE COST MAY BE HEAVY, BUT THE FATE OF ENGLAND–AND INDEED THE WORLD–HANGS IN THE BALANCE. I NEED NOT TELL YOU THAT ENGLAND EXPECTS EVERY MAN TO DO HIS DUTY. LET US HOPE THAT WE WILL MEET AGAIN, ON THE DECK OF A VANQUISHED ENEMY.”

The finale is where the captain meets with Admiral Wormwood, and the player gets reminded of any mistakes made in previous chapters. Here is some of the actual BASIC source code.

5160 A$=” THAT YOU ARE HAVING CONSIDERABLE
TROUBLE WITH DISCIPLINE ABOARD.#
#I’M AFRAID THAT’S TRUE, SIR. EVER SINCE I ”
5170 GOSUB2000
5180 IF VF=1 PRINT”HAD TO HANG”
5190 IF VF=2 PRINT”PARDONED”
5200 IF VF=3 PRINT”HAD TO SHOOT”
5210 A$=”POOR MIDSHIPMAN FALLOW THEY’VE BEEN OUT OF CONTROL.
THEY’VE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO ACCEPT THE “:GOSUB2000
5220 IF VF=1 OR VF=3 PRINT”HARSHNESS”
5230 IF VF=2 PRINT”LENIENCEY
–IT MUST HAVE SEEMED LIKE FAVORITISM TO THEM–”
5240 A$=”OF MY DECISION.#
#LET’S HOPE THEIR INTRANSIGENCE DOES NOT PROVE FATAL,#
THE ADMIRAL SAID.”:GOSUB2000

Then the battle begins in earnest, as the Impetuous faces off against “towering masts” akin to a “giant forest”.

“WE HAD BETTER BACK OUR SAILS, SIR,” STAYSON SAID. “TO WAIT FOR THE REST OF THE FLEET TO CATCH UP WITH US. OTHERWISE WE’LL HAVE ALL THE ENEMY BROADSIDES TURNED ON US AT ONCE.”

“BACK OUR SAILS? AND SHOW FEAR IN THE FACE OF THE ENEMY? NEVER!” CRIED LT DASHER. “I SAY ATTACK! DAMN THE ODDS!”

The best result comes from attacking right away, but it only works if the ship is at full strength — no hits to morale or people lost during the Spanish Galleon attack.

“MAY I SAY THAT IT WAS MAGNIFICENT, THE WAY YOU WENT AFTER THE ENEMY PRACTICALLY SINGLE-HANDED. A STERLING EXAMPLE FOR US ALL. I WOULDN’T BE SURPRISED IF YOU’D JUST WON YOURSELF A KNIGHTHOOD, AS WELL AS THE UNDYING GRATITUDE AND RESPECT OF YOUR COUNTRYMEN.”

If waiting, it’s still possible to have made a mistake and still survive — another ship comes in and steals the glory, but at least you’re not sunk.

WALTON’S CAREER WAS INDEED RUINED, AND BECAUSE OF HIS REGRETABLE FAILURE TO ACQUIRE ANY PRIZE-MONEY, HE WAS FORCED TO BECOME AN ITINERENT PEDLER. HE DIED OF THE POX IN AN OBSCURE CHELSEA ROOMING-HOUSE IN 1837.

There’s other small events in between the ones above; the steward occasionally comes by to offer wine or dinner; Stayson has the occasional question about sails. Some of the type-in prompts are definitely designed for open roleplaying. When attacking the Spanish galleon, you can say something to inspire the crew (but your words get lost in the din of combat, so the game even is clear as to the fact it had no “in game” effect). The game even encourages swearing at one point:

7035 D$=”
#1, ASTONISHED BY THE SPIRIT WITH WHICH THE
ENEMY SHIPS ATTACKED, UTTERED THE SALTIEST OATH
HE KNEW: #”
7040 GOSUB2000:GOSUB1000
7044 IFLI/2-FIX(LI/2)=0 A$=
” #I COULD SWEAR BETTER THAN THAT WHEN I WAS A WEE LAD,#
MUTTERED #2 TO HIMSELF.”:GOTO7046

(#1 is the captain’s name, #2 is either BEAGLE or WILEY depending.)

There’s also a nice moment talking with the Admiral where you seem to be prompted with for a THANK YOU, but you need to remember this is chain of command, so either THANK YOU, SIR or THANK YOU, ADMIRAL is the appropriate phrase. You get berated for getting this wrong (but not in a way that affects the story arc). I admit being rather pleased to getting the “SIR” in the first time around.

Even though ‘Impetuous’ has its share of communication issues, I’d say it made a noble try at open-ended player interaction, even more open-ended than either parser or choice have aspired to. Nearly 40 years later, it feels like a map to some hidden shell — covering new possible worlds of gameplay — yet to be cracked open.

Title graphic from the Apple II version of the game. Via Mobygames.

Posted December 5, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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