Archive for January 2020

Hezarin: Seen Only Once by Gilgamesh, Who Saw All Things   4 comments

THE SCORPION-MEN OF THE MOUNTAINS OF MÂSHU. Source. Stopped on his quest to find immortality, Gilgamesh must first plead his case to the scorpion-men that guard the mountain, then pass through in darkness for twelve days.

Last I left off on sort of a riddle.

As you take the torch it suddenly flares bright green, and you see a face solidify
in the flame. The face turns to look at you, and pronounces in a solemn chant:
THE WAY TO LIGHT
IS THROUGH THE DARK
THE WAY THROUGH DARK
COMES FROM THE DARK
THAT WHICH IS NOW DARK
WAS NOT ALWAYS SO
The face then turns away from you, and as it fades so the colour of the flame returns to normal.

I’ve only half-resolved it. Immediately after this room is the Fountain Room that the SKCITSHOOP magic word leads to, and any items that fall in the river also land here. This means you can go to the main Poohsticks bridge and toss most of your inventory, and then find it again upon reaching the Fountain Room.

To the southeast of the Fountain Room, there’s a small bag. It seems to be the “destination room” for any treasures; you can FILL BAG and the only thing that will go in are treasures, and your score goes up once they’re placed in the bag. I’m still unclear if finding them is optional.

A bit east of where the bag is there’s a long stretch of dark smoke-filled rooms — 13 rooms worth. This is what the WAY TO LIGHT/IS THROUGH THE DARK refers to. Additionally, THAT WHICH IS NOW DARK/WAS NOT ALWAYS SO seems to refer to the broken lantern; I had already discovered if you open it there’s a map.

So there’s two pits in the dark hall; if you just try to keep plunging ahead you’ll eventually fall, but if you stop at the right points and JUMP you will leap over the pits instead. At the end there is a Brimstone Cavern.

You are in a long tunnel filled with choking black smoke. It is impossible even to see your hand in front of your face.

>E

You are in a small subterranean cavern, whose only exit is to the west. A large pit filled with bubbling magma casts and eerie red glow over the surroundings, providing sufficient light for you to make out a small word etched at your feet.
There is a small vial here, with decorative (but unreadable) runes etched over the entire surface. The vial is filled with clear water, which shimmers and sparkles in the light.

>READ WORD
The word says ‘WOZX’.

Getting back is a problem, though — the pits seem to move so that there are two in a row at the far west end. This makes them impossible to jump over. I’m guessing the way out is entirely different than the way in (and no, WOZX doesn’t work).

I should add I discovered a very nasty bit of meta-game business (before entering the dark hall the first time) involving the save-game feature. If you save nearby there’s a sound of the earth being swallowed up, and the pits move, potentially in such a way it is impossible to jump through them. Again, this is before getting through the first time via jumping; it’s almost comically evil for a game that lets you undo other mistakes.

I was severely stuck enough I went back to previous puzzles. In particular, with the crystals and orcs section…

You creep past the monster, and reach for the crystal, but as you touch it, it emits a bell-like chime, waking the orc. You whirl around just in time to counter its wild leap for your throat, and the orc impales himself on your sword, the blade sinking deep into his soft underbelly. Sword, monster and chain vanish with a loud crack.

…I had killed three out of four orcs, but the last one refused to let me sneak in. The cabinet where I originally got the vorpal sword had another item, even though it looked like it had nothing.

>GET ALL
Invisbility cloak taken

Wrr. I admit only being on the alert to this from seeing a reference in the big list of potential hints in the manual to invisibility. (There’s a list of questions with numbers, and you can type HELP (number) to look up a particular hint. I have yet to use them other than this indirect hint I just mentioned.)

This invisibility cloak is enough to defeat the last orc (who tears away the cloak in the process, so you can’t use it elsewhere). From the four orcs I got four crystals that merged into a crystal key. I was then able to unlock the box I’d been toting around (remember it was the first thing I found underground) and was confronted by some serious plot:

>UNLOCK BOX

You take hold of the crystal key and turn it once. There is a quiet click and the box begins to hum gently. As you turn the key again there is a loud “CRACK” and brilliant shafts of light flash and fade. When your eyes and ears recover, you realise that you are listening to some unearthly voice telling of great feats of bravery from a forgotten past.
“…….and so the casket was lost, and the panels spread around the globe. Your task now, as the opener of the cask, is to find the four panels of light and restore the cask which by its power will aid you in your final struggle with the Darkness which controls the world.
You must journey to lands beyond the ken of living folk. To Mashu, the mountain of the setting of the sun, seen only once by Gilgamesh, who saw all things. You must journey to places far: from wild wood to evil moor, from chilling marsh to unseen sanctum. Fare well, be strong, let not your heart quail. For with the working of your deeds will your quest succeed or fail. With this the voice fades and dies, and you are left in silence, the box open in your trembling hands.

,,,

From here I got stuck again until I realized in a room to the west of the Fountain with some grey doors…

You are in a small square room with a polished floor. A pair of featureless grey doors, with no visible handles or keyholes, are set back into the western wall, and are closed firmly together. There is a word written in coloured lights above the doors. The only other exit is to the east.

>READ WORD

The word is “G 1 2 3”

…that while efforts to OPEN DOOR and the like are rejected, I could just GO ELEVATOR.

The doors slide open revealing a darkened room. You step gingerly through. You are in the lift.
There is a bottle of vintage wine nearby!

I haven’t mapped the other levels, but I’m guessing there’s a lot more open now for me to work on, in addition to a lot more ways to die.

You are in a large chamber whose walls glow bright pink. Passages lead north, south, northeast, southeast, and southwest.
A large dragon is napping in the centre of the chamber.
The dragon opens a beady eye and snarls “How am I meant to get any beauty sleep with all these Adventurers traipsing around?!”
He then incinerates you with a short burst of flame, but if it’s any consolation he had to count 8,000,036 sheep before he managed to fall asleep again!

Posted January 18, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Hezarin: Such Earthly Considerations Seem Worthless Trifles   6 comments

I always try my best to cajole my game-playing sessions into a narrative form, but vast puzzle-fests like this can be … maybe not anti-narrative, exactly, but they pull in some sideways-diagonal direction which makes my job harder. The story is painted by lore and place as much as the events that happen.

About 30 yards ahead the river disappears over a magnificent waterfall, at least 1000 feet high, which is illuminated by powerful arclamps high out of reach. A fine mist hangs in the air, quickly soaking your outer garments, but the sheer impressiveness of the falls makes such earthly considerations seem worthless trifles, and you venture right to the edge of the falls.

ONE THING I NEGLECTED TO MENTION LAST TIME

I discussed a marsh where HOLD TWIG gave a pointer to the right directions (“The twig twitches sporadically, and comes to rest pointing in a southerly direction.”); what I didn’t mention was this was cojoined with a bad parser issue. When HOLD TWIG is used anywhere else, the game acts in a very different way:

>HOLD TWIG
You’re already holding the small forked twig.

This is extremely deceptive parser practice; essentially the verb means an entirely different thing (and behaves the same as TAKE) when it is not being used as a puzzle. Even though both uses are “fair” in a grammatical way, there’s no reason for a player to think the verb will suddenly mean something different just because they’re in another location.

Something similar happens with CLIMB while in the hall of torches.

The tunnel levels out here for a while, and the going is a bit easier.
>CLIMB

The tunnels continue dead straight for several miles, and you are forced to rest every now and then.

This is interpreting CLIMB the same as UP in the location. However, there’s a different use of CLIMB, where you can CLIMB WALL:

Your Adventurer’s training stands you in good stead here, and you are able to make full use of the plentiful hand and toe holds available to you. You are perched several feet below the lowest of the torches. Above you the wall becomes smooth and featureless, and you are unable to progress further.

A wall isn’t even mentioned in the room description; you just have to suppose it is there. Urrrgh.

After this you can JUMP and get one of the torches. The torch falls to the ground and goes out, but a bright green light briefly appears and the torch lights up again. This resolved my issue last time with a lack of light.

Lighting up the darkness to the south leads to an open area with an east and a west section; let’s start with the east.

ANOTHER THING I NEGLECTED TO MENTION LAST TIME

I mentioned the plot is to defeat Arijith, and grabbing treasures is somehow part still part of the game, but there’s one other paragraph from the intro I was saving for when it became pertinent:

RUMOUR HAS IT that the Ruling Council of Hezarin, an omniscient body that works in mysterious ways, foresaw the rule of the old tyrant and crafted a magic device, in the form of an old panelled box, which could be used to overcome him; but over the passage of time the box has been lost and the secret of its use forgotten. Other sources say that Arijith himself has consigned the box to a secret location deep in the bowels of the earth, and has woven dark spells and set hidden traps so that no ordinary man may chance upon it…

I admit I thought the moment of pertinence would come MUCH later, but the very first thing I found upon exploring the underground with a torch was:

You are in a small, musty room. There is a large vent set into the eastern wall, and a corresponding one facing it.
There is a box here. The box is locked.

I don’t know for certain if it’s the box, but given the two-word parser isn’t great with adjectives, I think it’s likely the Big Fooble is here in the open early. Figuring out how to use it, then, is the great mystery.

While we’re in this part of the caverns, I should also note some “fun” doors leading to grumpy cats:

You are in a small room. To the south is a large door, decorated with scenes of brave Adventurers fighting huge lions. The only other exit is to the northwest.
>S

As you open the door a large and ferocious lion leaps out. Against his superior bulk and razor sharp claws you stand no chance…..

a music room with a “bonger”

As you walk in through the door you are greeted by the hideous clash of long out of tune clarinets, bassoons and a euphonium.
The room is covered with scenes of people playing various instruments, some of them very odd. The only exit is to the south.
Lying on the floor here is an object which I find myself unable to describe as anything other than a ‘bonger’.

and a pipe where I can use the wheel I found in the rubbish heap to turn it on. Turning it on results in the room with the box being filled with black smoke. (I don’t know if this is useful or just a trap for players who didn’t get the box first.)

This activates something on the west side of the starting underground map, so let’s turn over to that:

The “Poohsticks” bridge is over the same river you can jump into from aboveground to get the magic word SKCITSHOOP.

There’s a curious cabinet where FILL CABINET gets an interesting response:

The passage ends here in a small chamber, hewn out of the bedrock. A large display
cabinet has been mounted on the west wall.
The cabinet is empty.
>fill cabinet

Sorry, only members of the Council are allowed to fill the cabinet.

If you leave there’s a BANG sound, and if you come back you find there’s a “vorpal blade” inside. This implies that The Council of Hezarin is helping you from afar.

You can use the vorpal sword to slay some orcs:

The passage comes to a dead end here. Chiselled into the otherwise blank wall at the far end of the passage is a small alcove, which contains a sparkling crystal.
There is a large orc, sleeping fitfully, chained to the wall of the passage below the alcove.
>get crystal

You creep past the monster, and reach for the crystal, but as you touch it, it emits a bell-like chime, waking the orc. You whirl around just in time to counter its wild leap for your throat, and the orc impales himself on your sword, the blade sinking deep into his soft underbelly. Sword, monster and chain vanish with a loud crack.

although there’s four orcs in total, and I haven’t been able to do anything with the last one.

Finally, there’s a small hole. If you go in you get stuck. If you haven’t turned the pipe valve from the eastern part of the caverns yet, the hole fills up with water and you eventually drown. If the pipe has been turned on, the result is different:

You are stuck in the hole. The water is up to your nose. Below, you can feel the pressure slowly building up.

Just as the water reaches your nose the pressure finally because too great. With a loud >>POP<< you shoot out of the hole like a cork out of a champagne bottle, execute a graceful triple somersault and crash heavily into the wall of the cave. When you recover sufficiently you discover that you have sustained only minor bruises after all, though they do not feel so yet.
You are on a small ledge above a large, water-filled cavern. Steam curls from the surface of the water creating intricate patterns. A dark tunnel exits north.
There is a wooden torch mounted on the wall here.

>GET TORCH

As you take the torch it suddenly flares bright green, and you see a face solidify
in the flame. The face turns to look at you, and pronounces in a solemn chant:
THE WAY TO LIGHT
IS THROUGH THE DARK
THE WAY THROUGH DARK
COMES FROM THE DARK
THAT WHICH IS NOW DARK
WAS NOT ALWAYS SO
The face then turns away from you, and as it fades so the colour of the flame returns to normal.

This leads to an entirely new and large section. I haven’t done much mapping further so I’ll save discussing it next time. I have already worked out what the chant is referring to, but I’ll save discussing that for next time too, other than me pointing out the green glow has occurred twice now: once for picking up the torch after it briefly went out, and once for the poem/hint. This suggests to me the torch is another avenue the Council of Hezarin is using to help.

Posted January 16, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Hezarin (1981)   11 comments

In 1978, Adventure and Zork arrived at the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge University, and a small group of mathematicians made a custom language designed specifically for writing their own text adventures. So far we’ve seen Acheton (1978), Philosopher’s Quest (1979) and Quondam (1980). (While the first two had surviving mainframe source code that received modern direct ports, Quondam only exists as a port for the BBC Micro.) Each successive game tried to outdo the previous in terms of difficulty, culminating in Quondam actively describing items in a deceptive way and having a save-game feature that killed the player.

Hezarin backs up from this pattern a bit, and is outright nicer in places.

>JUMP
Drawing yourself up to your full height, you leap fearlessly out into the ravine, executing a perfect swallow dive, and smashing your head open on the boulders beneath.
Would you like to pretend you hadn’t done that?
?Y

Alright, but be more careful next time!

Yes, that’s a selective feature that lets you UNDO a turn. Mind you, the game is still known as extremely long and difficult (it has a whopping 1100 points possible, not quite as many as Acheton but still up there).

Hezarin was originally made in 1981 by Steve Tinney and Alex Ship, but that source code is lost; fortunately, it received ports by Jon Thackray in 1990 to MS-DOS as well as the Acorn Electron.

From the Electron version. Mobygames also claims there are Amstrad CPC and Amstrad PCW versions but I haven’t been able to verify this with any primary source.

Being a port means there are almost certainly some changes, but we’ll just have to cope with what’s available. The MS-DOS version is quite easy to get to (here’s a link to play online) so that’s what I’m using.

Now, a confession: I’ve beaten this game before. However, it was quite a long time ago (15 years or so) and fairly early on I started leaning very heavily on a walkthrough, with the result being I remember almost nothing other than the basic plot (you have to stop a tyrant/wizard/all-around-bad-guy named Arijith) and the fact things start out on a relatively expansive aboveground section. There’s also treasures to collect (appropriately marked with a ! symbol) but I don’t know if they’re required to defeat the game’s nemesis or just optional points.

Here’s the starting map, but I’ll need to describe a little of what’s going on.

Some of the “diagonal” connections (NE/SE/SW/NW) have been omitted because they made the map confusing to read.

If you head off north far enough you end up in a forest:

You are struggling through the undergrowth of a dark forest.
>CLIMB TREE
You are somewhat uncomfortably located near the top of a tree in the forest. Branches keep scratching at you, picking your nose and poking you in the eye. The view is completely curtailed by the dense foliage.

South is a marsh:

As you proceed the mist thickens and the ground underfoot becomes soggy and wet. Strange shapes loom in the mist ahead of you, and you are rather relieved to find that htey are merely the stunted, blackened remains of trees. The mist has now become a real pea-souper, and with some trepidation you turn back and attempt to retrace your steps.
You walk for seemingly hours before realising that you have hopelessly lost your bearings, and you decide that hte best thing to do is to sit it out until the ist rises. After a brief wait the mist suddenly rolls back, and you find…..
You are lost in the marsh.

West is an endless plain:

You are perched on an outcrop of rock in the middle of a weed ridden field. To the north you can see the dark, dark green of the forest canopy, while to the east and south a hotch potch of fields prawls across the countryside. To the west a featureless plain stretches to a horizon which is broken only by a solitary shimmering peak.
>D
You are in a large field out which rises an outcrop of glistening white limestone. To the north lies thick forest, to the west an apparently infintie plain, and to the east a thick hedge.
>W
You are on an infinite and entirely featureless plain. The sun beats down on the parched grass and a heat haze shimmers on the horizon.
>W
You are on a featureless plain.
>W
You are on a featureless plain.

(I quoted a little extra at the start there to note the “solitary shimmery peak” seen from the outcrop — I don’t know if it’s possible to reach or just a red herring.)

Rather than just trying to add every connection I cut the map off in each direction. The forest and swamp, in particular, are “random” mazes. As far as I can tell, the best you can do in the forest is wander, pick up a manhole on the way, and eventually get booted to one of the main rooms. The marsh is normally deadly but I found a “forked twig” where if I did HOLD TWIG I got helpful directions

The twig twitches sporadically, and comes to rest pointing in a southerly direction.

On the way out from the marsh, I found a treasure

There are some garnets here!

so that’s puzzle #1 down, out of ….? (A lot.)

In addition to the manhole and the garnets I’ve found a brass wheel, a plank, a broken lantern (with a map).

I’ve found two ways to get “underground”. In one method, I fall into a river, see a magic word (“SKCITSHOOP”) and then SAY SKCITSHOOP to teleport into a Fountain Room adjacent to multiple rooms that are dark.

WHOOOOOooooooooooooooosh
>POP<
You are in an immense hemispherical chamber with exits in most directions. Dominating the cave is a massive stone fountain from which columns of water jet up almost to the ceiling before spraying back into the ornamental pool beneath. Light filters in from a hole in the roof, and refracts in strange fashions inside the water columns, sending dazzling blobs of colour scampering across the cavern walls. The floor is covered in a springy moss-like substance, which hampers walking, especially as watching the psychedelic kaleidoscope is making you dizzy and nauseous.
>E
It is pitch dark.

In the other method, I go down a passage with magical torches until they cut off appearing.

You are at the top of a long tunnel which dips steeply down to the south, while to the north the passage quickly turns round on itself and is lost to sight. The walls and floor are perfectly smooth, as if the passage has been constructed by melted away the offending bedrock, and it is difficult just to keep your balance.
High up, a row of torches cast a dim flickering light along the tunnel.

(…down a few rooms…)

The line of torches comes to an abrupt end here. To the south the passage widens into a large cavern, while to the north the passage continues up for a short way before leveling out.
>S
It is pitch dark.

Either way, my enemy here is darkness. I don’t have a light source. I’ve tried GET ALL in various dark rooms I’ve poked at (remembering that Philosopher’s Quest put a lamp in a dark room) but no luck. There’s not even a LIGHT OR EXTINGUISH or BURN verb available so I suspect magical shenanigans will be required.

Posted January 14, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Inca Curse (1981)   8 comments

The founders of Artic Computing (Richard Turner and Chris Thornton) made their first adventure game (Adventure A, Planet of Death) themselves.

Richard had a friend (that he “met on a sponsorship programme for Ford”) named Charles Cecil. Adventures B (Inca Curse), C (Ship of Doom), and D (Espionage Island) were all by Charles (and he stayed with Artic essentially until they folded in 1986). Charles later went on to found Revolution Software and produce adventures like Broken Sword, Beneath a Steel Sky, and the forthcoming-for-2020 sequel Beyond a Steel Sky.

(ADD: Gareth in the comments points out an interview which mentions the work process — Charles gave the design on graph paper to Richard who then added his own ideas and implemented the game, so he definitely should be listed as a co-author.)

We’ll get to C and D when we reach 1982, but let’s take a look at Inca Curse.

I went straight for the Spectrum version this time, although the ZX-81 version is slightly less blinky than Planet of Death (the screen flashing only happens when you hit the enter key as opposed to at every single keypress).

IN THIS ADVENTURE YOU FIND YOURSELF IN A SOUTH AMERICAN JUNGLE NEAR AN, AS YET, UNDISTURBED INCA TEMPLE. INSIDE THIS TEMPLE YOU WILL FIND LOTS OF TREASURE, YOUR AIM IS TO GET OUT WITH AS MUCH TREASURE AS YOU CAN. BEWARE, DO NOT LET GREED BE YOUR DOWNFALL.

YOUR ADVENTURE IS COMPLETE WHEN YOU HAVE RETURNED TO THE JUNGLE CLEARING WITH TREASURE.

Yep, we’re back to a Treasure Hunt.

I AM IN A JUNGLE CLEARING
EXITS ARE SOUTH
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A BRANCH

If you try to GET BRANCH the game tells you IT IS HEAVY WITH LOTS OF LEAVES (and you don’t get the branch).

The only other location accessible at the start is some TEMPLE STEPS and a door with a LATCH. If you could bring the branch over you could break the latch.

To get the branch you need to

>CUT LEAVES
OK..

which makes no sense as a verb given the player has no cutting tool! Not only is the player being asked to refer to a “second-level” noun inside the noun, but “GET LEAVES” or “REMOVE LEAVES” don’t work even though they’re more logical verbs for what’s happening.

INTERLUDE

From an interview with Charles Cecil at Gameboomers:

Without doubt the film that profoundly influenced my first games, and many since, is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. My first game for the Sinclair ZX-81 was called ‘Adventure B: Inca Curse’. It started off “You are in a jungle clearing” – that was the extent of the description. In my mind that jungle clearing had huge trees towering above you, dappled light shining through the canopy of leaves, the squawks of parrots, the distant roar of a jaguar. But all I wrote was “You are in a jungle clearing”. And years later when I was the head of development at Activision one of the producers came to talk to me, and he was very impressed that I had written ‘Inca Curse’. He told me that he remembered the game so well – how it started off in a jungle clearing, there were huge trees towering above you, the dappled light shining through the canopy of leaves, the squawks of parrots, the distant roar of a jaguar etc. I realised at that moment the power of interactive narrative – and that he had given me much more credit than I was due!

I’ve somewhat had this effect before, where minimalist descriptions nonetheless convey a much deeper world than depicted in the prose, certainly moreso than the equivalent description in a novel…

…but not on this game! When I played this I never got visualizing past the branch. In the quote, not only is the visualization strong but the memory of it includes extra detail not in the original. I’m wondering if this is a “lost effect” from early games that can’t be recaptured in 2020 the same way — Inca Curse could easily be someone’s first or second adventure game, so it probably had some intrinsic magic to players.

END INTERLUDE

The finangling with the branch was an unfortunate way to start the game, but fortunately, the rest of the was (intentionally) fairly easy. The temple is structured into two layers. Here is the top layer:

The most important section is a FIRE ROOM with a FIRE, a LAMP, and a MAGIC RING EMBEDDED IN FLINT. You can SMOTHER FIRE (as long as you have a MAGIC BLANKET) and take the RING and LAMP along. You can then use a CHISEL on the MAGIC RING to de-embed it.

In the “SLAVES WAITING ROOM” you can find a HYROGLIPHIC TRANSLATOR used to read a sign further on:

Incidentally, if you don’t have the translator, you are told

I CANT READ IT….
IT IS WRITTEN IN SPANISH..

Clearly, this wasn’t a well-researched piece, but just to spell things out: a.) the Inca did not have a writing system, although they did have “talking knot” recording devices called “quipu” and b.) it makes no sense for them to be writing things in Spanish and c.) it definitely makes no sense for Spanish to use “hyrogliphics”.

If you ignore the sign and go down, you find you are in a SAND DUNGEON where a PORTHOLE LEADS DOWNWARDS. You can arrive in the exact same location from a SACRED STONE ROOM which has a sign warning of death if you GO WEST unprepared.

The only way back to the top level is if you have a ROPE and type USE ROPE. Otherwise, you’re stuck. (Well, the game did warn you.)

In order to go down to the next level, you need the MAGIC RING from back in the fire room and a BLUE STONE that happens to just be lying around. (There’s also a RED STONE but it appears to be useless. ADD: Lee Parker mentions in the comments there is a particular passage in the lower level not visible unless you’re holding the red stone. There’s no indication you’re “solving a puzzle” as this is happening and I’m guessing a lot of players missed it.) If you don’t have these items and try to go down the game says YOU ARE NOT CARRYING THE CORRECT POSSESSIONS. Otherwise:

In any of the “Maze” rooms a wrong direction will loop back to the same room.

This is essentially just a big maze. All the treasures are here, and there are no puzzles whatsoever (except for the maze itself). There are eight treasures in total, all golden (golden knives, golden brush, gold coins, golden statue … you get the idea).

Winning requires, simply taking at least some treasure to the jungle clearing at the start.

I was doing the typical thing of having a big pile awaiting liberation, so I was startled because the game ends immediately upon reaching the exit. Also, you can carry at most 6 inventory items, but remember there are 8 treasures, you have to leave some of them behind.

The only reason this works structurally is the upper level-lower level format — if there was a treasure or two “in the open” at the start it would be too easy to end the game with “success!” immediately. (This also makes Inca Curse feels a little bit like an “optimizer” game akin to Mystery Mansion, except the treasures essentially all being “in the open” once the lower section is reached makes it almost more a shopping trip than an optimizable puzzle.)

I did have a much more enjoyable time with Inca Curse compared to Planet of Death insofar as I didn’t get stymied by a parser issue every other turn. The author was clearly trying to build more of an environment than a puzzle game. However, this did result in empty sections…

There are no objects here, or descriptions past the room titles.

…which I think may have heated up the imagination of a 1981-era player, but felt to me kind of meaningless.

Still, I don’t think my time was wasted, and if you’d like to try exploring yourself, the ZX Spectrum version is easy to play online. (There’s also a forthcoming Android version made with permission from copyright holder; I’ll post about it when it goes up.)

We’re going to stay in the UK just a bit longer. While the home computer scene was just starting, the mathematicians at Cambridge University were still busy cranking out long and difficult puzzlefests, and in 1981 they produced what is arguably their largest game.

Posted January 13, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Planet of Death: Finished!   15 comments

Planet of Death was the first a very long line of games for Spectrum computers, and consequently provokes enough nostalgia that there’s both an Android remake and an iPhone remake.

Planet of Death was a technical miracle straining against its original hardware.

Planet of Death ambitiously included multiple solutions for at least two of its puzzles.

Alas, that still doesn’t stop Planet of Death being a very bad game, at least in its original incarnation.

Last time, I was stuck trying to get a mirror from a “green man”.

I AM IN A QUIET CAVERN
THERE ARE EXITS WEST,EAST AND SOUTH
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A MIRROR
A SMALL GREEN MAN SLEEPING ON THE MIRROR

I had a failure of visualization here; I was thinking “short” in human terms but it really meant “small enough to just pick up”.

>GET MAN
UGH! HE IS ALL SLIMY

You can then set the man down and get the mirror.

The second issue I had was with a force field.

I AM IN A PASSAGE
THERE IS A FORCE FIELD TO THE SOUTH : BEWARE OF SECURITY
THERE ARE EXITS TO NORTH,EAST AND WEST
I CAN ALSO SEE : A LOUDSPEAKER WITH DANCE MUSIC COMING OUT

I needed a walkthrough. The right action is to be holding the laser gun, and then to…

>SMASH FIELD
IT HAS WEAKENED IT

..not, HIT, SHOOT, BREAK or any other logical alternatives work. Those three verbs are even understood by the game, just not here! Guess-the-verb can be slightly manageable if it’s a matter of “I clearly haven’t communicated my intentions yet, I’ll keep trying” but when the game appears to have understood an action but just ignored it, it makes puzzle-solving almost impossible.

We aren’t done yet!

>S
I CANT GO IN THAT DIRECTION
>GO FIELD
IT HAD NO EFFECT

The right way to get through is to DANCE while holding the MIRROR. If you don’t have the MIRROR you fall over, although this happens if the field has been smashed or not so it’s unclear what function the mirror is having.

>DANCE
I AM IN A LARGE HANGER
THERE IS A LOCKED DOOR TO THE WEST
THERE ARE ALSO EXITS EAST,NORTH AND SOUTH
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A SMALL BUT POWERFULL SPACE SHIP
A SLEEPING SECURITY MAN

This is near the end of the game: the goal is to be able to launch the ship and leave. Unfortunately, entering the ship right away is a trap; the ship can’t launch yet (for unclear reasons) there is no way to leave once entering.

You first need to go west into a “lift control room” with “3 switches” and a sign that says:

5,4 NO DUSTY BIN RULES

Here is an excerpt of my attempt at operating the switches:

It turns out you can just PUSH 1, PUSH 2, and PUSH 3, although they need to be done in the order 3, 2, 1.

If you’re as puzzled as I was what the DUSTY BIN reference has to do with anything, it’s from the old British game show 3-2-1. Dusty Bin is the mascot for the show.

After hitting the switches a lift opens. You can get an engine from another room (where there’s an OUT OF ORDER sign, implying the engine doesn’t work, but I guess it does) and then take it into the ship, and finally launch…

…except make sure you don’t push the MAIN button because the spaceship blows up. The AUX button works:

Let’s go back to those two puzzles with alternate solutions. You might notice nowhere above did I mention the ice block from the maze I was puzzling over in my last post. That’s because it’s an entirely optional way of going down, although one I don’t see how anyone at all would ever find in either the original ZX-81 or Spectrum versions. Here is the relevant room:

I AM IN AN ICE CAVERN
THERE IS AN EXIT TO THE EAST
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A BLOCK OF ICE

Although mentioned nowhere in the text, there also to be an exit DOWN;

>DOWN
HOW?
>WITH ICE
I AM IN A QUIET CAVERN
THERE ARE EXITS WEST,EAST AND SOUTH
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A MIRROR
A SMALL GREEN MAN SLEEPING ON THE MIRROR

(Note this only works if you’re holding the ice block — it can’t just be in the room, even though I think you’re supposed to be “riding” the ice.)

This is the same room you reach if you just go down a pit using a rope, which is not exactly a difficult puzzle. So even though the ice block represents an alternate solution, the method of solution it is used for is so obscure it might as well be a red herring instead.

Additionally, I mentioned occasionally being tossed into a prison.

I AM IN A PRISON CELL
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A LOCKED DOOR
A BARRED WINDOW
TELL ME WHAT TO DO

There are two ways to escape. You can LOOK UP (!?) which let you see the bars are loose, and then you can KICK BARS (by some miracle I came up with this verb on my own). Or if you have a gold coin from doing GO LAKE earlier (something I missed in my playthrough) you can USE COIN and that bribes … an invisible guard, I guess?

This is interesting in a theory-of-game-craft sense. Red herrings can be painful (especially when there’s a puzzle like a maze attached to reach them) so what do you do when you have alternate solutions that rely on different objects? — can alternate solutions only use objects that are easy to reach, or is it possible to make them in a way it doesn’t feel like part of the game is wasted? At the Gaming After 40 writeup, Dale Dobson finished the game without knowing what the ice and gold coin did at all, and had the exact same frustrations a real red herring would provide.

I once tried (and failed) to design a small adventure game where each puzzle had 3 or 4 solutions, but it never occurred to me until now that adding solutions, while making a particular puzzle easier, might make a game holistically more difficult. Objects intended as possible solves to early puzzles might never be applied, but the player wouldn’t know that and might fruitlessly try to use those same objects in later puzzles.

The authors clearly had a sense of what makes an adventure game interesting; alternate solutions are still pretty rare in our chronological sequence, and they at least attempted to stage “scenes” rather than arbitrary obstacles. However, as early trailblazers, it would have been hard to know how to write scenes that come across to the player in a logical way.

Take the central puzzle with the security barrier — it’s reasonable, on its own, to shoot the barrier with a gun; it’s reasonable, on its own, that dance music might prompt the music DANCE; it’s reasonable, on its own, that a MIRROR might mess with a security system somehow, but when all the parts are jammed together without logic or explanation (and the absurd verb SMASH) it makes for a dreadful puzzle. I don’t think it would have been so obviously dreadful on paper, at its inception; being aware of the effect would require realizing what the implementation would be like (and how hard the verbs would be to find).

We’re not leaving Artic Software just yet, because their next game was also released in 1981. The author is different this time; someone famous enough that there’s a good chance you’ll recognize some of his more recent work.

Posted January 9, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Planet of Death (1981)   21 comments

For All the Adventures, we’ve seen British games with Acheton, Philosopher’s Quest, and Quondam, but they were all based on a single university mainframe. The general public never saw them until later (in the case of Acheton, much later).

Planet of Death is a strong candidate for “first British commercial text adventure” (we’ll reach some more possible games eventually, but there’s not many). Given the absolute flood of UK-authored text adventures that eventually hit the market, this is a significant milestone indeed [1].

One might reasonably wonder why it took so long for the first Britventure to come out, but note the first two UK-manufactured home computers came out in 1980 (the Acorn Atom and the Sinclair ZX80) and both had staggeringly low memory in the base models (2K for the Atom and 1K for the ZX80) [2]. Haunted House from 1978 for the TRS-80 managed to fit in 4K but that’s more or less the required amount to reasonably fit an adventure game.

Richard Turner and Chris Thornton founded Artic Computing in 1980; Richard had a choice between a disco party and a ZX80 for his 18th birthday, and he chose the computer (source). In 1981 the duo released the first of what was to be a series of eight adventures.

Via ZX81stuff. As the cover art implies, a 16K memory expansion was needed for it to work.

This was written for the folllow-up ZX81, but there was still the issue of no video card, and … allow me to just have Kevin Gifford take over.

Since the computer’s video signal was generated by the Z80 processor, whenever you overtaxed the system with too resource-intensive a program, you ran the risk of having the screen go all wonky and flickery. Programmers had the option of turning off video output entirely to let the CPU devote all its time to running code instead, which is what Artic Computing seems to have done for this adventure game. A lot. After every single keypress, in fact.

You can experience this yourself with this accurately rendered online version of the game. I had to avert my eyes to play it because I started to get nauseous. I contemplated putting a GIF animation of the effect but I want to be polite to my readers.

You’ve crashed on an alien planet, and your job is to escape.

The starting area has a mountain, a lake, and a maze. Of course there’s a maze.

The maze may not look so bad, but I omitted the fact that every exit not included on the map above sends you to the starting room. This is the all-or-nothing structure (as seen in, for instance, Adventure 500) which tries as hard as possible to keep a player from reaching the destination by random luck. On top of that, inside the maze, there’s an ice block, and if you don’t make it directly to the exit as fast as possible, the ice melts. (On top of being on top of that, I have no idea what to do with even the unmelted ice.)

I’m usually fairly zen about the inclusion of mazes in games, but somehow this one actively offended me. Even in slightly deranged maze configurations, there’s often a little bit of verisimilitude and structure; for example, the Zork I maze had a “lower level” and an “upper level” with a skeleton of a past adventurer at the midpoint. This means text adventure mazes are a combination of some bit of puzzle and some bit of world-building (if not outright narrative). However, the all-or-nothing structure is so blatantly anti-realist that the maze is clearly standing just as a puzzle, and since it’s a repeat of one from many, many other games, it’s not even an interesting puzzle.

…ok, enough grumbling about a five-room maze. Adjacent to the starting place there’s a rope; adjacent in another direction is a pit. You can GO DOWN followed by WITH ROPE in to get to a belowground area. I unfortunately got stuck soon after I arrived.

I AM IN A PRISON CELL
I CAN ALSO SEE :
A LOCKED DOOR
A BARRED WINDOW
TELL ME WHAT TO DO

Trying to do anything (including unlocking the door with the key!) just gets the response I CANT. I don’t know if this is meant to be a puzzle or a “trap” that is impossible to escape.

Other than that, I have to deal with

a.) a green man sleeping on a mirror; it’s possible to walk peacefully by, and it’s possible to SHOOT MAN (that breaks the mirror, which implies to me that it’s wrong)

b.) a force field with the message “BEWARE OF SECURITY”

c.) a computer with a keyboard where any command I attempt to type just gets “I CANT”

Other than the melting ice and rope I’ve managed to find BOOTS, a LASER GUN, a PIECE OF SHARP FLINT, SOME STONES, a KEY, and SLIMY GLOVES. The available verbs I’ve found are CUT, CLIMB, BREAK, OPEN, KILL, HIT, UNLOCK, JUMP, PUT, PUSH, TURN, SLEEP, WEAR, KICK, SHOOT, FIX, SAW, STAND, TYPE, CROSS, and USE. I’ve resorted to trying every verb on every item but still no luck.

I’m going to hold out and be patient a little longer, just for the historical status of this one, but I really do typically need a little variety in my parser responses to stay engaged with a game.

[1] Consider, for example, this list of over 500 games using the Quill system; while not all of them are commercial or UK-made, it gives an idea of the scale at which the games were being produced.

[2] Of course, the production (or lack thereof) of adventure games isn’t just technical, but also cultural. Sweden had the ABC 80 by 1978 which seems to be perfectly capable of running an adventure game, but as far as I can find no adventure games were written for it and the Swedish adventure market didn’t start going until later. the earliest Swedish home-computer game we know a date of is 1982. This is despite the fact the first non-English adventure game is in Swedish (but it was mainframe-only until 1986).

Posted January 6, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Adventures up to 1980 in Review   6 comments

Here are all the plot types of adventure games that I’ve been able to play up to 1980. Note that the categorization is in some cases very approximate.

Really the idea for this chart was to get a rough idea of how much the “treasure hunt” style game persisted (that is, just copying the Crowther and Woods concept). You can think of it as an “evolution of creativity” curve, showing how long it took for authors to take the narrative aspect of the game in new directions. Up to 1978 treasure hunts dominated; by 1980 less than half of all adventure games had the format.

When I finished with the 1970s I wrote about some “curious firsts”.

– First use of relative direction: Mystery Mansion
– First use of landmark navigation with no compass: Empire of the Over-Mind
– First defined player character: Aldebaran III
– First use of choice-based interaction in a parser game: Stuga
– First dynamic compass interface: Spelunker
– First dynamic puzzle generation: Mines
– First free-text conversation in an adventure context: Local Call for Death
– First adventure game comedy: Mystery Fun House

As the calendar gets more crowded with games, it gets harder to definitively say any particular game was “first” at something, but there were still some in 1980 worth highlighting; I’ve also added some 1979 games I played since the last list.

– First adventure to use graphics in every room: Atlantean Odyssey by Teri Li
– First Tolkein adventure conversion: Ringen by Hansen, Pål-Kristian Engstad, and Per Arne Engstad
– First Lovecraft game of any type: Kadath by Gary Musgrave
– First graphic adventure with some action solely in the graphics: Mystery House by Roberta Williams
– First adventure written specifically for children: Nellan is Thirsty by Furman H. Smith
– First “stateless” CYOA game written for computer: Mount St. Helens by Victor Albino
– First 3D graphic adventure: Deathmaze 5000 by Frank Corr, Jr.
– First adventure game that involves traveling back through time: Odyssey #3, Journey Through Time by Joel Mick and James Taranto

Now, what I think quite a few people like to see with these things is “but which are the best”? And of course, that’s a wildly subjective question, but I am aware there are very few people that are going to play enough of these games to make a qualified opinion, so I’m going to first grumble a bit (grumble grumble) and then produce four lists:

1. Games everyone should play

Crowther and Woods Adventure, 350 points (1977)
Zork I by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling and Bruce Daniels (1980)

Not long, I know; these are the ones I’d pitch as worthy to the general game-playing public; there’s still enough wonky things to deal with amidst this era I’d be hesitant to recommend anything else without knowing more about their interests.

2. For adventure enthusiasts

Assuming you’re more tolerant of the quirks of adventures, there’s a lot more to choose from. I restrained myself to 10 games.

Crowther and Woods Adventure, 350 points (1977)
Voodoo Castle by Alexis Adams (1979)
Local Call For Death by Robert Lafore (1979)
Kadath by Gary Musgrave (1979)
Empire of the Over-Mind by Gary Bedrosian (1979)
Zork I by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling and Bruce Daniels (1980)
Wizard and the Princess by Ken and Roberta Williams (1980)
Gargoyle Castle by Kit Domenico (1980)
Deathmaze 5000 by Frank Corr, Jr. (1980)
Will ‘O the Wisp by Mark Capella (1980)

These aren’t the only 10 I could pick, but I did try for a group that was representatively interesting, not too painful to play, and included both type-ins and commercial software. (The roughest experience on there for modern players is probably Deathmaze 5000, but if you download a map beforehand and are willing to spoil the calculator puzzle that mitigates the worst of it.)

3. Things I personally enjoyed quite a bit that didn’t make the above list

I realize untranslated Dutch games or ones reliant on late-1970s in-jokes might be a bit of a push for the average adventurer. (If you do speak Dutch, go play Dracula Avontuur.)

Trek Adventure by Bob Retelle (1980)
Crystal Cave by Anonymous and Kevin O’Gorman (1980)
Dracula Avontuur by Ronald van Woensel (1980)
House of Thirty Gables by Bill Miller (1980)
Odyssey #3, Journey Through Time by Joel Mick and James Taranto (1980)

I should add I really did in some sense enjoy everything, even the bad games, even the ones like Quondam that actively tried to be evil. I almost always regret making a list like this as soon as I have it written. Games, don’t fret not being on the list, you’re just fine the way you are.

4. Some bonus games for historians

The Count by Scott Adams (1979)
The Prisoner by David Mullich (1980)

I had reason to be slightly grouchy while playing both of these, but I recognize they do some stellar things with narrative design.

Posted January 3, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction