The Vial of Doom (1980)   14 comments

Across all adventure games, one common theme amongst the truly profound, mind-bending puzzles I’ve seen has been the idea of repurposing — taking an item, location, character or verb that seems to be designed for one purpose and using it for another. Essentially, for a player to solve the puzzle, the rules of the universe itself need to be expanded.

Examples amongst the All the Adventures project include the final puzzle of Mystery Fun House (where what normally would be an ordinary “informational” item gets put to essential use) and the Wumpus puzzle of Adventure 501 (where something originally used merely for transport becomes a weapon).

The puzzle game Baba is You is based around this idea. The rules of a particular level can be changed by modifying the sentences in the world itself. “You” are normally the small white creature as expressed by the sentence “BABA IS YOU”, but if you push the word “ROCK” to form “ROCK IS YOU” you switch to controlling the rocks (all of them, at once).

The Vial of Doom has a repurposing puzzle near the end which is astounding and does a trick I’ve never seen before.

This is Roger M. Wilcox’s seventh game. Sometime after 1980 he distributed it to Usenet (but much earlier than his other games) and there’s even an Interactive Fiction Database entry.

He based on it off his own 25-page short story he wrote a year before, which was “influenced just a teensy weensy bit by Michael Moorcock’s multiverse.”

In many ways, this game was a watershed in my adventure-game-authoring career, as I originally thought the story was way too complicated to make an adventure game out of … until I read an article about Greg Hassett’s “World’s Edge” adventure and turned green with envy and grim with determination. I considered it my first “good” TRS-80 adventure game; it was the 7th I’d written, and 14 more would follow it (15, if you count that Star Trek adventure where you can’t even pick things up). When the IBM PC became available to me in 1983, I ported this game to GWBASIC.

I played a QBASIC derivative of the GWBASIC source.

There’s no motivation or plot to start; the player is supposed to mess around since there’s nothing else to do. Nearby the starting room you find a shovel, and if you dig here you find an underground pyramid with a portal.

Touching the portal leads to a room with a plastic container and a lead box, and opening the lead box leads to the Vial of the game.

Chaos is the bad guy, Law is the good guy; unlike the usual Dungeons and Dragons alignment charts (where it’s possible to be Lawful Evil or Chaotic Good) the Moorcock-verse is a straight Law vs. Chaos opposition which is intense enough to warrant its own Wikipedia page. We’re tasked with destroying the Vial and are on the hunt for a turquoise gem, a fire opal, cobra venom, a basilisk eye, octopus ink, and an alabaster bowl.

The vial ends up being used quite a few times throughout the game. Right from the start after taking the lead box, a mummy blocks the way, but as long as you WEAR VIAL, you can PUNCH MUMMY:

Baam! You made it fly apart!

To get out of the pyramid area, you need to DIG again but must be wearing the vial to have enough strength to dig straight up. However (as the screenshot above warns) you can’t wear the vial for much longer, because if you try to step much farther while wearing the vial, you get consumed by Chaos.

However, the vial is still useful; if you WAVE VIAL you can distract people or get a burst of strength.

You are in a pawn shop. Visible items:

Store clerk. Large dagger. Turquois gem. Sleeping pill.

Obvious exits: south

The clerk wants money for the items, but you can just WAVE VIAL

The clerk is now hypnotized.

and use the five-finger discount method.

The parser is unfortunately very awkward; the game even states upfront “I know the verbs STICK, SWING, and PLUCK” but it’s hard to know where they get used. STICK turns out to be handy for STICK COBRA

Into where (one word)? CONTAINER
Squirt! The container fills with venom, and just as quickly, the cobra awakes!

I admit not to thinking through the above action at all, but simply running through every verb possible before the event happened.

I got stuck on one parser issue enough I had to poke through the source code. In front of a jewelry store there is a guard with a thermos of coffee, and I knew the sleeping pill that I already had lifted from the pawn shop would be useful, but I could not for the life of me apply one to the other. The right sequence turns out to be SWING GUARD. THROW PILL. (That doesn’t sound terrible, but I had went through many permutations of PUT PILL and INSERT PILL already, and PUT is even an understood verb, just not the one the game wants.)

At least the actions on a story level are fun. It’s as if the author built up a number of set pieces and only worried about if it was possible to communicate after the fact; at least you get to pluck an eyeball directly from a basilisk and suck ink from a sleeping octopus.

Getting away from the aforementioned octopus triggers the final battle, right back at where we started the game.

You’re still able to go back here and mop up any missing ingredients, but I was led astray a long time because I assumed the way to win and stop the giant battle was to finish the ritual, and I had no bowl. Being granted “great strength” by Law was the key. Perhaps a better clue would have been to use a longer phrase, like “enormous strength, more than you’ve ever felt before”.

I’ve given enough clues you can theoretically try solving the puzzle yourself before going on.

Picture here for spoiler space; this is from a parody ad Roger M. Wilcox made for the game.

The right action is to dig back down to the pyramid location (remember, we’re back at the start of the game), but rather than entering the pyramid, pick up the pyramid itself, go back up, and throw the pyramid at the Chaos giant.

Whump! Chaos is down! Law wins the fight, and says: Make the mixture here!

This absolutely boggled me; the game took what normally was an enterable location and turned it into an object you can pick up.

After taking down Chaos, the Vial still needs to be destroyed. You find an alabaster bowl in the rubble, which is enough to finish the ritual.

The vial vibrates, getting ready to explode. Oh, by the way — ** YET ** !!
> RUN
You’re on the side of a mountain. Visible items:

Wishing rock.

Obvious exits: up

The vial goes off in a red, Chaotic mushroom cloud.
you have only six (6) seconds until the fireball reaches you!

One more action leads to safety:

Posted December 17, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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14 responses to “The Vial of Doom (1980)

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  1. “You” are normally the small white creature as expressed by the sentence “BABA IS YOU”, but if you push the word “ROCK” to form “ROCK IS YOU” you switch to controlling the rocks (all of them, at once).

    I guess you could call this “repurposing”, but since it’s relatively explicit in the words on the screen it seems to me more like a “job change” system, or like manipulating switches to turn modes of operation on or off.

    Chaos is the bad guy, Law is the good guy; I guess Mr. Wilcox wasn’t using Dungeons and Dragons alignment charts.

    Wasn’t?

    The parser is unfortunately very awkward; the game even states upfront “I know the verbs STICK, SWING, and PLUCK” but it’s hard to know where they get used. STICK turns out to be handy for STICK COBRA

    Into where (one word)? CONTAINER
    Squirt! The container fills with venom, and just as quickly, the cobra awakes!

    That’s an interesting verb (if difficult). I suppose PUT in this case simply places the cobra in the container and what we should be picturing for STICK is more of a “grab it with one hand, thrust it out away from yourself into/towards the container, but still hold on to it” sort of gesture?

    Did you ever use PLUCK?

    The right sequence turns out to be SWING GUARD. THROW PILL.

    What exactly happens with SWING? I’m picturing “grab by the wrists and heave to the side in a curved motion” and that doesn’t make a lot of sense here. If SWING = PUNCH (take a swing at) then I wonder why the pill.

    the game took what normally was an enterable location and turned it into an object you can pick up.

    Definitely points for originality!

    • AIUI “Stick” is supposed to mean sticking the snake’s fangs into the plastic top of the container so it bites and releases venom. (Wilcox commented on Gamingafter40’s review that if you search for pictures of milking a cobra, you’ll see what he had in mind.)

      “Swing” means swinging the vial in front of the guard to temporarily or hypnotise him. (In the Windows version of the game, you have to “Swing Vial” which makes it clearer.)

      Interesting point about the D&D alignments. This being 1980, he could be using the original 1st edition Basic D&D alignments which only had Law/Chaos not Good/Evil.

    • I’m making the repurposing in Baba is You seem “obvious” the way I’m describing it, but it does take a moment of enlightenment to first get there (and there are some very gnarly combos late in game — if you don’t mind some spoilers look up The Stack’s play-through):

      https://www.wurb.com/stack/archives/5707

      Yeah, “wasn’t” using the alignment chart — the usual chart (which I should find a link to) which gets used in all the memes has Law Chaos and Good Evil on separate axes, so you can be Lawful Evil or Chaotic Good. This means Chaos is not necessarily the Bad Guy.

      PLUCK was used to get the basilisk eye, which makes it sound like a kung-fu movie.

      I worked out SWING was referring to the vial, but… the first time I used it, it was on an airplane attendant, and the message was “the attendant seems a whole lot friendlier” which made me wonder if it was some kind of euphemism.

      • I know about D&D alignments; the early Law/Chaos only version solar penguin mentioned is why I questioned “wasn’t”.

        For SWING I am now picturing something that might be more at home in a Leisure Suit Larry Game…:)

      • Ah, gotcha.

        I really should read some Moorcock. I learned browsing just now that he wrote a Dr. Who book with a cameo by his character Jerry Cornelius.

    • I was looking for a good explanatory alignment chart and this one is hilarious but not actually helpful and might even be cursed.

    • OK, I clarified the text some and added a link to the Moorcock Law vs. Chaos thing.

  2. For more on D&D alignments and their history, you can check out this 1976 Gygax essay — https://web.archive.org/web/20130819035816/http://dndfluff.devhub.com/blog/686520-a-history-of-alignment-in-dd-part-i/

    It did start as just Law vs Chaos in 1974, but pretty quickly expanded beyond that.

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