Race for Midnight (1981)   2 comments

YOU LIVE IN A SMALL TOWN IN THE 14TH CENTURY. YOU WERE AWAKENED THIS MORNING BY A TERRIBLE PAIN IN YOUR ARM. UPON EXAMINING YOUR ARM, YOU FOUND A BLOODY GASH IN IT. WISELY, YOU COVER IT UP SO THAT NOBODY WILL SEE IT. LATER, YOU FIND OUT THAT THE TOWNSPEOPLE HAD SEEN A WEREWOLF LAST NIGHT. ONE PERSON HAD SHOT AN ARROW AT IT, BUT EVIDENTLY HE HAD MISSED, BECAUSE THE WEREWOLF CONTINUED RUNNING. YOU INSTANTLY DEDUCE THAT YOU MUST HAVE BEEN THE WEREWOLF AND REALIZE THAT YOU MUST FIND AN ANTIDOTE.

Thus begins the instructions for Steven Sacks’s second adventure, Race for Midnight, where you go to the former residence of the wizard Evro in order to find a cure for lycanthropy; the werewolf-ism kicks in again (permanently?) at midnight.

Corny, yes, but just this small amount of effort was enough to get the game’s atmosphere going at another level; as you progress, there’s the occasional message that

YOU NOTICE THAT THE HAIR ON YOUR ARMS SEEMS TO BE GETTING THICKER.

which lends a little urgency; you have 500 moves to win. (Fortunately, in gameplay terms this turns out to be plenty.)

Every room is fully illustrated this time; like one of the early On-Line Systems games, you can switch between image and text by pressing ENTER.


A sample. Yes, that’s a “kobold”. The instructions explain “DUE TO SOME OF THE EXPERIMENTS THAT EVRO DID, MANY OF THE MONSTERS NO LONGER HAVE BODIES.”

Just like Sacks’s previous work Chambers of Xenobia, the game is mostly based around fighting enemies. I show an example in the animation below. (The long delay after YOU ARE DEAD is due to a sound cue the GIF file does not capture.)

The two important additions over Xenobia are:

1.) There’s a 20-sided die that the player “rolls” for the protagonist and separately for the enemy; hitting the space bar or some other key stops the number each time. It’s fast enough that it isn’t really possible to time it, so the same level of randomness is there as if the game picked the numbers, yet the additional shred of player agency was enough to make me feel like I was genuinely participating. (Rolling for the monster is also interesting in a theoretical sense, since if you roll high enough the enemy hits you; usually in a tabletop RPG the game-master does the rolling, so this is acting more like a gamebook, akin to a Fighting Fantasy book.)

2.) While one hit is enough to kill any enemy, the hero can take up to three hits before dying, so failing a roll is not grounds for reloading the game each and every time as it was in Xenobia.

The map is divided into two floors, as shown above; the Magician’s Library contains the most important object of the game, explaining what ingredients you need to win.

This is two screenshots pasted together.

The puzzles are even less significant than in Xenobia; there’s one locked door with a nearby skeleton key, one door that requires KNOCKing to get through, and one door that requires a LODESTONE (found behind the door you need to KNOCK on, so it has to come after solving that puzzle).

Really, the main function of the puzzles is to gate the dragon; since most everything is in the open, it’s likely most players (including myself) will get the lodestone near the end. The dragon feels like a climax fight, even though it works mechanically like the others (unlike Xenobia, there’s no special dragon disintegrator, you just use your sword like all the other monsters).

The image also is re-used from Xenobia.

The other mechanic of note is that some of the ingredients are based on the monsters themselves, like the rat’s tail and toad eyes. There’s no difficulty in finding them (other than being alert to what ingredients you need) but since this recurs a couple times, it avoids the problem I mentioned from Xenobia of having an idea only appear once and not feel like a mechanic; here, the repetition builds harvesting monsters as a plot theme.

Once all the ingredients are found, winning is a matter of making it to the “FIELD” on the southeast corner of the map, then, following the instructions from the book: DRINK POTION, READ SCROLL, SAY ALDORAGAMBA, LOOK MIRROR.

At some fundamental level, this is identical to just collecting treasures, but the inclusion of a ritual to follow at the end makes for a far more satisfying plot ending.

Race for Midnight manages to slot into the puzzle-sparse-exploration-heavy genre I’ve theorized about (see: Ringen, Death Dreadnaught, Haunted Mansion) by filling the gap of “what do we do other than just wander?” with quasi-RPG combat. If nothing else, it’s useful as another example of someone trying to make that idea work. If you’re interested in trying it, Race for Midnight can be played online via the Internet Archive.

Evro’s throne room, complete with vanity letter.

Posted March 24, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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2 responses to “Race for Midnight (1981)

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  1. The kobold is totally a duck-rabbit.

    I don’t know what they’re going for with the bugbear. Evil pizza slice?

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