Birth of the Phoenix (1981)   Leave a comment

WELCOME TO ADVENTURING.

YOU’RE ABOUT TO LEAVE THE ORDINARY, EVERYDAY WORLD YOU INHABIT AND ENTER A NEW WORLD…A WORLD WHERE MAGIC WORKS AND THINGS AREN’T QUITE WHAT THEY SEEM.

–From the opening text of Birth of the Phoenix

Five years ago, the blogger Kevin Smith went through the bestseller lists appearing in the Apple II magazine SoftTalk (1980-1984) and gathered some data. Looking specifically at adventure game publishers by number of games charted, Infocom had the most at 10, Sierra On-Line had the second most at 5, and right behind them was Phoenix Software, with 3 games that made the bestseller list: Adventure in Time (1981), Sherwood Forest (1982), and Masquerade (1983).

If your reaction is, “Phoenix Software, who are they?”, indeed: I knew very little about them until several days ago when I let random.org pick my next game. This was Paul Berker’s first or second adventure game. (According to this interview he wrote Birth of the Phoenix first and used the source code to help write Adventure in Time, but his interview quote here asserts Adventure in Time came first. It’s faintly possible the order of writing was Phoenix-Time and order of publication was Time-Phoenix.)

From the cover for the game, via the Gallery for Undiscovered Entities. This was also used as the logo for the company Phoenix itself.

The cover calls this a “Class 1 Tutorial Adventure” and as Mr. Berker himself states, “The reason we did Birth of the Phoenix was because there was no such thing as a beginner adventure game, most of them were awfully hard.”

The game came with a manual that feels like a genuine instruction guide. It has a “dedication” to “those of you who have never played adventure games. For all of you, the unique challenge of adventuring still lies ahead … the joys, the frustrations, and the ultimate solutions are just waiting for you to discover.”

The objective is to “help the Phoenix become reborn from the ashes of the old Phoenix.” (There are also a few treasures to collect and place in a Treasury for points. I think the idea may have been “lots of other games do this, and we want this to be a tutorial, so we’re going to include treasures so players know it is a thing.”)

I did finish fairly quickly (45 minutes or so) but I got stuck once on what appears to be an attempt to make sure the player read the manual.

The opening rooms, as shown above, seem fairly straightforward — you need to climb a tree and go down a well and use a flashlight. However, past that there’s one combination safe…

…and a cliff that seemed to be just scenery.

Typing HELP at the safe just states “SEE PAGE 11 OF YOUR MANUAL.” At the cliff, “SEE PAGE 9 OF YOUR MANUAL.” I suspect this may have been an anti-piracy measure.*

I prodded at the manual until I found this comment, which clearly applied to the BOOK from the first room of the game:

In the case of a book or similar object be sure to also try “Open Book”. Then say “Read Book” and you may get an entirely different message. Also try “Turn Page” and then “Read Book” as there may be more than one message.

Grr. While this isn’t technically the first time I’ve been foiled by a book, the main issue here is it’s hard to know what READ BOOK really means in a particular game. Quite often it’s “skim through everything and glean out the one important passage”. Sometimes it’s “grab some text at random”. And here we are apparently only able to read a single page and keep flipping. (Surely this exact manipulation had to happen somewhere in 1980 or before for the author to want to include it here, but I don’t remember seeing it.)

Also, to continue the “which game came first” confusion, Adventure in Time gets referenced inside of Birth of the Phoenix.

I suspected (correctly) the chasm was the place to use the magic word PHOENIX, but only from prior adventuring experience. Checking the manual again I found the section “On Uttering Magic Words” with the line “Obviously we want to get across the cliff to the other side but there is no apparent way to do it.” Again this strikes me more of a test of reading comprehension than pure adventuring.

Here also is the safe combination; it probably isn’t clear to a beginner that the word PHOENIX works to travel back to the original side with the safe. (The safe just has some DIAMONDS for some points, so this might even be appropriate; you can also just start over and enter the combination before crossing the chasm because it doesn’t change.)

The other side of the chasm includes a KEY and a nearby CLOCK. You need to take the KEY to the CLOCK and WIND CLOCK, because otherwise shortly after the game ends.

TOO BAD, YOUR TIME HAS RUN OUT BECAUSE YOU’RE RUN DOWN

There is an obligatory maze, but for tutorial purposes, and there’s even a bag with a maze-mapping starter pack.

The maze contains the phoenix…

I thought the phoenix would be dead? You take the live phoenix, kill it, and then it’s alive again.**

…that you can capture it in a net and take to a TEMPLE OF THE SUN for a re-awakening.

So, not long and hard, but it’s definitely an odd time capsule of what someone thinks a beginner to adventure games circa 1981 needs:

  • A puzzle with enough verb difficulties the manual is required
  • A password said at an arbitrary place
  • A mappable maze
  • Treasures and a place to store them for points
  • A puzzle with a time limit

The writing is more solid than I expected; this game is written for 48K machines (3 times the capacity of a Scott Adams game) and is able to luxuriate not only in writing in room descriptions but giving descriptions to every item.

YOU HAVE COME UPON THE INNER SANCTUM OF THE PHOENIX. ITS DEN IS VERY ANCIENT AND THERE IS A SADNESS IN THE AIR. THE SOUND OF DISTANT MUSIC CAN BE HEARD.

IN THE CORNER IS A NEST MADE FROM A FEW OLD LEAVES AND TWIGS.

A SLOW TRICKLE OF WATER RUNS DOWN THE ROCKS IN THE OPPOSITE CORNER.

The writing wouldn’t impress a creative writing workshop (cliché watch: the phrase “a sadness in the air” appears in 34100 Google results), but it was coherent and strong enough for me to get a real feel for environment and setting, enough so that I’m looking forward to Berker’s next (or previous) game, which I will be playing right after this one.

(*) According to Paul Berker lots of people he met in 1981 had played his previous games (like 3-D Space Battle) but nobody bought them. Quote from the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities coverage: “I had an office that was a converted garage about 24’x20′, done up really nicely inside, and we had some “pirate” parties there, which seemed pretty popular in those days. I had written the two games I mentioned above and found that was how most of the people I bumped into knew of me… they had pirated copies of those games. There was no copy protection on them, I had them in Ziploc bags and sold them out of my trunk to various computer stores I could drive to. There were some other computer vendors that sold a few for me as well.”

(**) The phrase “won’t sit still long enough for me to examine it for you” is noteworthy in a theoretical sense; the player’s commands are asking the computer to implement them, but it’s also simultaneously still “you” in the world where things are happening, yet you are not seeing the phoenix with “your” eyes, since the computer has to relay the information. Analogy: imagine the player’s avatar in the world is a blind puppet being led by an invisible computer fairy, and the fairy can help move the player’s limbs and convey what they ought to be seeing.

Posted March 16, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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