Archive for April 2020

Oo-Topos: A Jigsaw Without Edges   4 comments

Before I start, a demonstration of the aliens I mentioned in my last post:

A meter-high alien with a drawn laser blocks your way!
The alien giggles insanely and clumsily points a laser at you and fires!
The beam just misses and sears the wall over your shoulder!
You’re at a dead end.

SHOOT ALIEN

A smile leaps to its four lips as it dodges out of the way.
The alien giggles insanely and clumsily points a laser at you and fires!
The beam slices through you like ah ot knife through butter and you crumple to the ground. In 2 distinct pieces.

You’re going to have to learn to be more careful. Your death comes as quite a jolt to me though I may be able to do something for you. I did study advanced microbiology at the U. of Terra in ’32. Do you want me to help you? (Y/N)

This is randomized, just like the dwarves in Adventure. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you die.

The laser doesn’t work on some of the other aliens, who just ignore your shot and take the laser from you.

I’ve got some but not all of the map. It’s extremely open, with only a handful of obstacles I’ve found so far blocking progress.

Currently, a mess and very much a work in progress.

My annoyances with the game right now are logistical, and in a specialized and odd way that doesn’t show up in adventures much anymore.

There are many items, and some of them seem to be for fixing the ship (like a repair manual), some for solving puzzles (like a cage and a “two-headed snarl” that you can release to defeat one of the aliens), and some possibly just as “treasures” (like a golden ring and a library crystal).

For such a large map combined with a large number of items, the inventory limit is stringent: only six maximum. I kept having to leave items behind.

From Kim Shuette, The Book of Adventure Games.

To make matters worse — and this is the specialized logistical issue — I have no area that seems like a good place to drop them. I’ve seen my ship from afar but don’t know how to get to it. If I knew which location was “close”, I could drop the repair manual and any treasures nearby, but at my present game state, any location I pick is liable to be all the way across the map from its intended destination.

Additionally (as I mentioned last time) there’s an alien who randomly comes to steal your treasures, and I don’t know where they go.

The general emotional impression is akin to doing a jigsaw puzzle without edges; it’s doable, just less psychologically pleasing than it could be.

There are multiple routes across the map, which would normally be a positive thing, but it led to me mapping a maze in a garden which turned out to be entirely superfluous since the end of the maze was somewhere I’d already been, and there were no objects hidden inside.

field nullifier (for nullifying force fields, but it only seems to work on one)
cage and snarl (for defeating an alien)
bottle of elixer
gyro
water system
repair manual
atom transmuter
psi cube
bar of vegan silver
terran food
plasma sphere
energy converter
blue goggles
dart
4-D mirror (you can see your past, present, and future in it)
library crystal
light rod
flask of oily liquid
golden ring
betamax casette
rainbow cloth
oxygen recirculator
matter phase-shifter
gloves (need to pick up the phase-shifter)

Remember, the game has an inventory maximum of six at a time! I haven’t used most of the objects listed above, so I can only “discard” a few. Other than some edges of the map I haven’t filled in yet, I’m presently stuck on

a.) getting a “translator” from a room with a robot; the robot stops me before I can get it, and the robot does not care if I shoot it with a laser

b.) getting past a large alien called a “Tras”; once I enter the room, it keeps trying to jump on me, and hits at random (it is possible this isn’t a puzzle, and you’re just supposed to get lucky)

c.) getting by two force fields at doors (even though I have a force-field disabling device it doesn’t seem to work at them)

d.) getting by a force field at a gravcar (ditto). Reaching the gravcar also leads me to being attacked by an alien with a dart (on the object list) but I can’t throw it back nor does the laser work.

e.) a “cold” door adjacent to the Tras

I expect the game to get more fun once I’ve “contained” it; that is, I’ve got a good grasp of the geography, what the open puzzles are, and which direction I should be wrangling the many, many, items to. Getting to that feeling of comfort can be a slog in many adventures, but the issue is especially pronounced when there’s open geography and not a lot of direction.

Posted April 30, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Oo-Topos (1981)   7 comments

I’ve been looking forward to this one.

You were the one Space Central selected to “volunteer” for this mission. Nothing personal — but a rookie cadet could have handled the situation better. You knew full well what failure would mean, what would happen to millions — perhaps billions — of people if you didn’t return with the plague antidote.

— From the game’s manual

Michael Berlyn, you see, wrote Suspended (1983), one of my favorite Infocom games. Oo-topos is his first game. He formed his own company (Sentient Software) with his wife Muffy Berlyn and self-published it.

Except for the title screen, it was an all-text game for the Apple II; it later had a graphical remake in 1986 published by Polarware (adding Muffy to the writing credits; according to Questbusters June 1986, Michael and Muffy wrote the story together for both versions). I am not averse to playing a graphical-updated version of one of these games for the Project, but I’ve compared the two sufficiently to say they should be considered different games.

I would normally be on my chipper way, except I’ve had warning the original is impossible to complete and crashes near the end. To make things more complicated, the version I’m playing has no version number on the title screen, while this entry on eBay includes a “v1.4”, indicating there’s more than one copy floating around there. Am I playing a broken version or a fixed one? Was the original message just hogwash and the game really is finishable? Is it possible with modern emulation to bust through even if there’s a memory error or some such?

I guess we’ll find out? If all else fails, Voltgloss played the graphical version over at The Adventure Gamer so people can meander over there and read about the ending if this one drops on a cliffhanger.

There’s some random world-building in the manual, but the plot condenses down to: while transporting a vial of anti-plague serum to Earth, you get attacked by aliens who drop you in a prison and strip your spaceship for parts. Your mission is to get the serum back and escape.

Just to give a quick idea of the version differences: while this game has the lock already broken by the main character, the 1986 edition requires you to BREAK LOCK yourself. The 1986 opening room also contains a bottle and some food, and you have to LOOK THROUGH WINDOW to see your ship.

The world starts out very open so I’m still mapping things out; I’ll just mention one curious thing I’ve observed:

Aliens do appear as you explore the planet, but they pop out more or less at random and feel inspired by Adventure. The first alien you see drops a LASER which you can then use to blast an alien that appears later (compare with the first dwarf in Adventure dropping an axe) and the fight scene has some randomness which, again, feels like Adventure. There’s also an alien that steals your “treasures” (akin to the pirate), although I’m unclear yet what constitutes a treasure in this game. The long shadow still looms.

After all — one lone human being against an insane alien planet sounds fair. At least it sounds fair to the aliens.

Posted April 29, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Escape from Colditz (1981)   14 comments

The original Crowther and Woods adventure hits above its weight class. It has all the sloppy edges of an innovator, but there’s a tactile atmosphere lacking in most of the imitations that follow, and I theorize that this is due to the original being based on the actual Colossal Cave in Kentucky, closely enough that it is possible to match the map of the game to the cave. It’s awful easy to link rooms called “cave” together just out of one’s imagination, but harder to match the character of the WINDOW ON PIT, or Y2, or the HALL OF MISTS, all real locations.

The strength of coding and reasonable puzzles didn’t hurt, either, but my general point is that a certain grounding in reality can elevate what otherwise would be a mundane room location.

The TRS-80 game Escape from Colditz by Stuart Wilkinson is based on a board game, and the board game was made with consultation of someone (Pat Reid) who lived the experience. So for what qualities the game has, it automatically gets some via the same grounding in reality as Colossal Cave.

Unfortunately — and I regret to inform you, given I wrote two posts worth of buildup — in most other respects, the game is very, very, bad.

At least the title screen is a good rendition of the castle.

The instructions state

THIS IS A VERY SIMPLE ADVENTURE , THERE ARE NO TREASURES
TO BE FOUND ,POINTS TO BE SCORED OR WHAT EVER .

and that before an escape attempt can begin, you need to collect an “escape kit” consisting of a compass, document, map, uniform, and meal. (Compare with the rules for the board game: “The Escape Kit consists of Civilian Disguises, Magnetic Compass, Food, false documents, maps, and money (Reichmarks). For the purpose of this game, documents, maps, and money have been combined together, providing a total of four components to be collected.”)

The opening screen is above. Notice: no room exits, and more or less no description. This holds throughout the entire game. The only way to find out an exit works is to try it out, and even then you may not know, because the game simply reprints the room description if going a direction fails instead of stating outright a particular move is impossible. We’ve seen this before in Arnstein’s Haunted House, which compounded the problem by putting two identical rooms next to each other (so you couldn’t tell you had changed rooms!) Escape from Colditz repeats the same trick.

The Theatre is three rooms. I only found this out very late in my playthrough. I had entered the westmost room, and then tested the exits by typing GO EAST, GO SOUTH, and GO WEST, which of course looped me back to where I started without realizing I was changing rooms! This meant I missed the eastmost room (with a ladder) altogether.

I had found a PASS CARD, a COMPASS, a MEAL, and a TAG that read “DER BEUTELMAUS” fairly early but I was otherwise stuck. I knew I likely needed to go north of the APPEL

THE GUARD ON DUTY STOPS YOU
WHAT IS
YOUR IDENTIFICATION ?

but I was stuck trying “password” phrases, including various permutations of DER BEUTELMAUS. I finally broke down and looked up hints, to find that the prompt was being a continuation of the parser, and rather than the prompt being for what the player would say in response to the guard’s question, it was asking for another parser command, one that had to be typed in exactly.

THE GUARD ON DUTY STOPS YOU
WHAT IS
YOUR IDENTIFICATION ? SHOW PASS CARD

Bravo, game: you found a brand new way to be awful.

Once I made it by the guard I found a KEY and some DOCUMENTS. Combined with the COMPASS and MEAL I was lacking before, I just needed a MAP and UNIFORM.

For the map, I needed to win another epic struggle of getting the computer to understand me.

The MAP is past this door in a tunnel.

For the missing uniform, the game here invokes another nearly unique bad trope, one I’ve only seen in the original Dog Star Adventure. In the earliest type-in version, that game had a supply room where you had to guess at what the room contained and just try to GET stuff (like a BLASTER) and hope you were lucky.

Once I had my uniform disguise, I was able to stride back through with the pass card and make a beeline for the front gate.

Here we come up to the second-to-worst part: there is only a 50% chance the action above will work. (No doubt attempting to invoke the randomness of the board game.) If the action fails, you lose, with no indication it was random chance that did you in.

And yes, I did say second-to-worst. That’s because there’s an entirely different escape route. You remember the ladder from the theater? You can use that plus a rope to try to climb over a wall, but you always get caught, 100% of the time. (This is after going through the work of collecting an escape kit.) You can check Dale Dobson’s writeup for more detail. (He calls it a “bug” but I’m not so sure the game isn’t just trying to be cruel here.)

Looping back to my introduction, despite all the suffering, there is an interesting setting buried in here. The real Colditz has plenty of tunnels and obscure nooks and crannies via the centuries of history, the board game replicates the same thing, and the TRS-80 game tries to do the same. It’s legions off my being able to recommend it to anyone, but there were still moments, like when I first went underground, or I first stepped in the Chapel, that I felt the distant wonder of adventure games.

I did mention last time there were nine Colditz-inspired adventures — here are the other eight in chronological order —

Colditz (Hans-Peter Ponten, 1981, in Dutch)
Colditz Adventure (Superior Software, 1983)
Colditz! (LVL Software, 1983)
Castle Colditz (Felix Software, 1984)
Colditz (Phipps Associates, 1984)
Mission Secrète A Colditz (CPC, 1985, in French)
Colditz Escape (Adventure Probe, 1986)
Colditz (Uto, 2010, in Spanish)

— and yes, the existence of the Dutch Colditz means it may have come first, but I have a few question marks to resolve with that game before I can say more.

Having gone through mounds of research for a profoundly terrible TRS-80 game, I can say there is good reason why Colditz spawned so many adventures; everything is naturally self-contained, the plot is clear and dramatic, and the interaction for most escapes was based mainly on cleverness-with-items rather than smooth-talking the guards (see: Reid’s failure to bribe a guard in his first escape attempt). It also used to be part of the cultural landscape; there was a time the name Colditz gave instant recognition.

And perhaps it still has instant recognition now in some places? A question I put to my trusty readers.

An 1828 painting of Colditz Castle by Ernst Ferdinand Oehme.

Captain Yule also arranged music for the prisoners’ orchestra. The strains often drowned out preparations for breakouts or distracted guards when escapes were in progress. On one occasion, the music started or stopped to signal two escaping prisoners on the whereabouts of sentries who were in view of the prisoner musicians. And a space below the theater stage was used by four escapees as an exit toward passageways leading to freedom.

From the obituary for Lt. Col. Jimmy Yule who died in 2001. As a prisoner at Colditz, he operated a hidden radio. The secret radio room was discovered in 1993 (!) and still had Yule’s old codebook. It included a poem: “Back in London, here we are / Back to clubs and caviar. / Back to Covent Garden’s fruits, / Back to 50-shilling suits.”

Posted April 28, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Escape from Colditz (the 1973 board game)   Leave a comment

For my regular readers wondering “where are the old adventure games?” and perhaps pining after ghastly parsers and erratic typos, rest assured they will return soon; I just happened to hit a game in my sequence that took an abnormal amount of background-building to write about it.

For this was Colditz and these prisoners were the bad types, undesirables in the eyes of German High Command. Many of them had already established reputations as disturbers of the peace with their frequent attempts to get out of captivity. That was why they were sent to us.

— from Reinhold Eggers, Colditz; the German side of the story

In addition to “escape-proof” design sensibilities, Colditz Castle was for Prisoner of War officers. By the Geneva Convention, general enlisted men as POWs could be used for labor, while officers could not.

From Pat Reid’s book — we’ll get to him in a moment.

It had multiple Appells (roll calls) a day where all prisoners went to the courtyard for a head count.

If you squint at the floor plan, you’ll see the aforementioned courtyard, but also a canteen, sick ward, chapel, and theatre. Yes, the prisoners put on plays. Some grew their hair longer to play female parts.

Amidst all this, the prisoners of war and German guards were playing a game, of sorts. Both sides considered it the duty of Allied officers to attempt escape, and it was the duty of the guards to stop them. Punishment for being caught escaping was a month in solitary, not death. By all accounts, Reinhold Eggers, the security officer in charge of Colditz, treated all escape attempts with good humor, although he made sure to take pictures and pass them on to other POW camps when something new was attempted.

When Pat Reid (Royal Army Service Corps) arrived, he had already made one escape attempt from Oflag VII-C (Laufen castle in Bavaria) involving a 24-foot tunnel. At his arrival at Colditz, he attempted a second escape attempt with 12 prisoners, this time going through a sewer pipe, but the guard he bribed had warned his comrades and they were waiting.

As was the traditional punishment, he spent a month in solitary confinement; after leaving he accepted the position of Escape Officer and helped with other escape plans before finally making an escape himself in October 1942. He went in a pit, through a cellar, and out a flue, using the Singen route to make it all the way to Switzerland.

Pat Reid is perhaps the most famous escapee because he wrote about his exploits in his memoirs, which later got turned into a 1955 movie…

From IMDB.

…and then a 1971-1973 BBC series.

From Nostalgia Central.

A writer for the series (Brian Degas) teamed up with Bob Brechin and Pat Reid himself to make a board game, Escape from Colditz.

Picture by Gary James, Attribution Share Alike.

The map for the board follows roughly the real floor plan. The setup is asymmetrical: one guard player, four Allied players, each playing an Escape Officer trying to help their men escape. Movement is done via dice, and the objective of the Allied players is to collect an Escape Kit of Compass, Food, Disguise, and Papers (each represented by a card) before making a final break for freedom. The objective of the guard is to stop that from happening (in the original version, within a certain real amount of time; on a more recent reprinting, within a certain number of turns).

From an old eBay auction.

While the game was quite popular on release, roll-and-move (think, ex: Clue) was the norm. Modern players (including, to be fair, myself) don’t have as much tolerance for highly random mechanics, but I still think Escape from Colditz is a narratological marvel. Gameplay and theme are not only tightly wound but the involvement of an actual Escape Officer meant heightened verisimilitude. I sometimes wonder: if tabletop RPGs hadn’t spawned from standard wargames, but they were still invented, where would they come from? It seems like a small jump from narrative board games — in Escape from Colditz the players are characters in an asymmetrical setup, just like Dungeons and Dragons — to dropping the board and having story scenes start to trump mechanics.

According to the CASA database, Colditz spawned 9 different adventure games. Escape from Colditz (1981) is the first, sharing a title with the board game, and is indeed based on it. I’ll get more into the relationship between the two (and how good the game itself is) next time.

Posted April 27, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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That One Time the Gestapo Helped Some Prisoners of War Escape   3 comments

By the end of summer in 1940, it had become clear to all but the most stubborn that the Nazis were about to take Europe.

In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland; in April 1940, Denmark and Norway; in May, a strike through Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; on June 23, 1940, Hitler went on tour in Paris.

When the Dutch capitulated to the Germans (amidst that dreadful summer) all naval officers were required to sign a statement that they would engage in no hostile activities; some refused, including Lietuenant-Commander Etienne Henri Larive. Larive was consequently sent to the POW camp Oflag VI-A in Soest, Germany.

He got out two months later (using a civilian clothes disguise) but before he made to freedom, he had to get out of enemy territory to Switzerland. He noticed that the railway from Singen to Schaffhausen passed very close to — but did not pass through — a protruding piece of the Swiss border. He theorized that controls would not be as tight as at the place where it actually crossed. Starting from Singen, he went west, then turned south, but got lost and ended up in Gottmadigen.

He tried to ask for directions but aroused the suspicion of locals; eventually, he smuggled into a train for Schaffhausen, but was caught at the last stop before the border, and taken back to Singen.

From Google Maps; you can see how close Larive got, and why a map and compass — which Larive did not have — were important tools in a POW escape.

Under interrogation from a Gestapo agent, Larive admitted he was a Dutch officer.

What happened next was the consequence of two things 1.) the unnamed agent had worked in Holland before the war so was relatively friendly and more importantly 2.) the agent was convinced the war was going to be over by Christmas.

The agent explained how the original plan was a good one, as the Singen train stop was the last before papers were checked; he asked why Larive hadn’t simply gone over the border. Realizing that Larive didn’t know the local terrain, the agent showed just how close he had gotten on a map and explained how the border was not guarded.

Perhaps the agent’s monologuing was also due to Larive’s next destination: Oflag IV-C, aka Castle Colditz, the castle turned maximum security prison, considered “escape-proof”.

It was not escape-proof.

View from the inside. Source. CC BY 3.0 from SKOMP46866.

The war, of course, lasted long past Christmas, and Larive in the meantime spread the word of the “Singen route” before breaking out in 1941, this time for good.

His escape involved a game called stoolball similar to rugby.

Several times a week, prisoners were taken outside the Castle to exercise in a small park. The Dutch discovered there was a bolted manhole.

Under the cover of a “scrum”, two of the prisoners (one of them was Larive) unbolted the manhole and slipped inside. One of the prisoners who stayed outside replaced the bolt with a replica made of glass.

In order to foil the headcount made before going back in the Castle, the Dutch had made dummies:

This photo gets shown off in a brief NOVA video where they re-enact the escape.

The Singen route was used by other POWs escaping from Colditz, including one of the most famous; we’ll get to him — and the subsequent landmark in board game history — next time.

Posted April 20, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Irvin Kaputz: More Like Icarus Kaputz   8 comments

One of my favorite unfinished works of art is the American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain (1783-1784).

The artist, Benjamin West, did not die suddenly or get a creative block; the British representatives refused to pose for the picture.

This is a little bit what Irvin Kaputz is like. We have an adventure game left incomplete, but frozen in time at a particular moment and for — what might seem now, at least — a very unusual reason.

I did “solve” one puzzle since last time by poking through the source. By dropping the flag from the 18th hole of the golf course at the top of a pyramid, a crack in the pyramid opens up; you can use a lantern to go in and find a maze.

The maze hides a parchment (“IT’S ONE OF THE STOLEN TREASURES”), and a CLOSED STONE TOMB.

Past this point, everything is clearly broken. Brian Decker did some source-diving after my last post and found that fully 30 of the verbs don’t even work and just funnel down to EXAMINE. The HELP as mentioned in the instructions isn’t even recognized. While all the rooms “exist”, it is impossible to reach the entire map.

This is probably an example of a “private” game (like some of Roger Wilcox’s work), one not originally meant to escape in the wild. The incomplete nature is non-obvious at first appearances; bugs appear early, but serious bugs even in published work were not unusual for the time.

The author clearly had some ambitious notions about world modeling. In nearly every other game of the period, having MATCHES would mean they would LIGHT LAMP (as they do in this game) but they would apply nowhere else; here, you can not only burn items like a FLAG but they change form afterward into a BURNT FLAG. The water (with the GOLDEN ANCHOR I was never able to get) also affects objects, as the MATCHES turn SOGGY and the PARCHMENT becomes a SOGGY OLD RAG.

Unfortunately, the author ran straight into the dread TRS-80 16K size limit. If you’d like to experiment, go back to the source code from my last post, go to any of the PRINT statements, and add one (1) character. Then try running the code at Willus. The game crashes and refuses to load. Delete a character in any print statement (even a different one) and the game loads again. (The file itself is 13K, but given the “exactly one character” circumstance, they were formatting their disk in the same manner as on Willus.)

When critiquing old games it can be easy to forget the technical limits the people at the time were straining against. For example, I’ve gotten fussy with games that only accept TAKE but not GET as a verb (or vice versa). For taking objects, Irvin Kaputz understands TAKE, PICK UP, GET, GRAB, and REMOVE; it accepts LOOK, EXAMINE and DESCRIBE for looking at objects; and it ran out of space before it could add more. The programmers of many of the games we see from the era likely hit the same limit, but were humble and cut back.

This painting by Joseph Lange of Mozart is not unfinished in the traditional sense. The center rectangle is a finished miniature, and then someone later (probably but not necessarily the original artist) cut-and-paste onto a larger canvas with the intent of expanding it. The kludge is more obvious from a pre-restoration photo. More about this is at Michael Lorenz’s blog.

Posted April 16, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Irvin Kaputz (1981?)   8 comments

One of my lingering questions for the project has been what to do with games that lack both an author’s name and year of release. Where should they be placed in sequence? Without a biography or definite historical context to peg to, it’d be easy for these games to fall through historical memory.

But: we’re doing all the adventure games here, even though I was tempted to let this one slip away (for reasons you’ll see shortly).

I tagged this game as “1981” for a few reasons:

  • This was from a TRS-80 Model I disk. Tandy replaced the Model I with the Model III by 1980 and the number of Model I-specific games started to decline.
  • In archaeology, when an artifact can’t be dated based on its own properties, it helps to look at the layer it came from and if anything nearby can be used as a date instead. At Ira Goldklang’s site where this was first archived, the disk collection it was in had one program each from 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1982.
  • It’s a treasure hunt with *asterisks around the names of treasures* (13, in this case, hidden by the “thief-eccentric” Irvin Kaputz). We’ve only had 3 and a half treasure hunt style adventures in 1981 (Inca Curse, Miser, Chambers of Xenobia, and I’m counting Hezarin as half) which puts the percent roughly at 20%; this means in 1981 the style is still around but starting to fade out as a plot device (compared to around 40% of games the year before, and more than 60% the year before that). If we’re playing the odds, 1981 might even be an overestimate.
  • The title screen has the “I am your puppet” phrase which started to be less common after 1981.

Still, I want to emphasize this is a straight guess, and there’s nothing preventing the game from being from 1987 or some such.

The parser of Irvin Kaputz is bizarre to the extent I was unclear if I was seeing bugs or “intended” messages. For example, UNLOCK DOOR at the screen above leads to

IT’S NOT LIT

The game was thinking UNLIGHT and only looking at the first three letters of the word. But then, I tried OPEN DOOR

I SEE NOTHING VERY SPECIAL

which led me to suspect the verbs were mismatched and not going to the right actions. After a bizarre scene with a robe…

…and the fact that the HELP command mentioned on the title screen from the top of this post doesn’t even exist, I decided this was one of those adventures where studying the source code was going to be part of the challenge.

Before I get to the source code, let me lay out what I’ve managed to reach:

Out in the open at the start there’s a *GOLDEN CALF* and *JEWELED FRUIT*. The northwest corner of the map has a golf course where a *RUBY* hides within the 18th hole, and in the sea next to a boat there is a *GOLDEN ANCHOR*. I haven’t been able to get out of the sea once I’ve gotten in.

The boat itself has some MATCHES which I can use to light a RUSTY OLD LAMP, but I haven’t been able to get into any dark places and the lamp has otherwise not been useful.

Other than the LOCKED DOOR at the start I haven’t been able to get in, there’s also a CLOSED GATE (ditto) and a DRAWBRIDGE with PORTCULLIS (same).

I’ve put the source code here. If you want to test it out, you can go to the Willus site I use and pick a random BASIC program (like this one, Election Simulator 1980), cut and paste the source code, then hit “Emulate edited program”.

A few observations I came up with based on the source:

  • I originally thought the game only understood GO NORTH and so forth fully spelled out, but the abbreviations N, S, E, W, U, and D are in; they need to be typed with a period after them. I’ve never seen this before in any adventure game, and is distinct enough if I ever see it again I will suspect the game is somehow linked to Irvin Kaputz.
  • There’s a message about LEAVE YOUR TREASURES HERE AS YOU FIND THEM that I haven’t come across in the game proper; I suspect I haven’t been to the right room yet. The game’s SCORE command says I have so far recovered 0 treasures.
  • The game has weirdly detailed rules for burning things that aren’t the lantern. You can burn the robe (you die because YOU BURN WITH IT), the flag at the 18th hole of the golf course, and a parchment which I haven’t found yet.
  • The I SEE NOTHING VERY SPECIAL message is coming from the game defaulting to an item’s EXAMINE description if an action isn’t done. That still doesn’t mean the actions aren’t broken, but this might be quirky game design rather than a bug.

What I haven’t been able to do as of yet is make progress. This is partly my tentative desire to not completely spoil the game — I haven’t line by line tried to see what verb might apply to the gate, for instance — and partially because I was frankly hoping/expecting to find a simple bug due to a character corruption (or something similar) that doesn’t seem to be there.

I’m also willing to call this one “done”; I’ve squeezed out some interesting information regarding the movement and detailed arson abilities, but I don’t know if Irvin Kaputz has anything else left to give.

Posted April 15, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Thunder Road Adventure (1980-1981)   3 comments

To set the mood, here’s a clip from Smokey and the Bandit from 1977. (Basic plot: Burt Reynolds makes an illegal beer run from Georgia to Texas and back whilst being chased by Jackie Gleason.)

It’s been a while since we’ve checked into The Programmer’s Guild (whose wares included Death Dreadnaught and Temple of the Sun) but they kept busy in 1981.

IN THIS ADVENTURE YOU TRY TO DELIVER WHITE-LIGHTNING (MOONSHINE) FROM YOUR FARM IN GEORGETOWN THROUGH THE HILLS AND HOLLOWS TO KNAWBONE — BUT WATCH OUT FOR THE REVENUER’S AND THE SHERIFF. THIS IS YOUR LAST RUN. IF YOU ARE SUCCESSFUL YOU WILL HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO GO TO COLLEGE. YOU MAY ONE DAY BECOME PRESIDENT. BUT REMEMBER, IF THE LAW DON’T GET YOU THE MOUNTAIN WILL.

Don and Freda Boner — a father and daughter team from Indianapolis — published four games through them, starting with Thunder Road. I believe the ad below (January 1981) is the first time this game is mentioned in print, but given magazine lag time, I felt it appropriate to include 1980 in the date.

This is an unusual game for more than just the premise. For most of the game, you and the car are essentially equivalent.

You start by getting some spare tires from the barn, then ENTER CAR at which point all regular directions (NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST) move the car, rather than yourself.

This plays more like a choose-your-own-adventure style rather than a regular adventure game. The branch shown above is the first reached. Going NORTH ends the game, reaching a dead end (where the LONG ARM OF THE LAW gets you), as does going SOUTH, where you crash in FOG at the DEAD MAN’S CURVE.

There’s no puzzle here. You just went the wrong way.

If you go west, you end up at a ROAD BLOCK manned by DUMB OLD DEPUTY ERNEST HARDLEY. You can RUN ROADBLOCK to get through. (I didn’t find any other parser command that worked.)

Other hazards include engine trouble, a A CUTE BLOND LADY HITCHIKING, tire damage, and a missing bridge.

There’s a secret road here you can find by leaving the car and moving the trees.

There’s a church with an organ inside which has KEYS. (I don’t think this is meant as a metatextual in the same way Kidnapped did the joke, where the key from a piano literally turned into a key. The organ has keys, but the organ also just happens to have keys.)

The keys unlock a gate at a bear.

You’re supposed to just ignore the bear; you can fight the bear and “win” but then the law catches up with you.

After the bear, you have one more three-way exit where only one of them is correct.

You knew there had to be a bridge-jumping scene somewhere.

Past the ridge jump is Knawbone, and victory.

The lack of a save-feature made the game a drag — especially when paired with the worst feature of CYOA books, that of blindly bad endings. There is no way to know whether EAST, SOUTH, or WEST is best at a particular juncture other than trying it and dying.

I’m not sure if a proper UNDO feature (or even a saved game feature) would fix things. When bad endings for CYOA do appeal, it’s in them being amusing and/or theatrically written. There’s even a blog called YOU CHOSE WRONG that ran from 2012 to 2016 dedicated to bad endings.

From Choose Your Own Adventure #17: The Race Forever.

Compare with the “moonshine gone to waste” ending earlier in this post — it aims at the same sort of feel, but Adams-style minimalism isn’t enough to make the death edifying rather than annoying.

Still, if you want to decide for yourself: you can play Thunder Road Adventure online here. (Click on “Emulate edited program” to start.)

From Be an Interplanetary Spy #1: Find the Kirillian.

Posted April 13, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The City of Alzan (1981)   20 comments

Planet of Death published by Artic was one of our candidates for First Commercially Released Britventure.

We’re going to look at another one, which is linked to Planet of Death in an odd and unexpected way.

In 1980, after the ZX80 computer came out on the 29th of January and caught the UK market by storm, there was a flood of books including Making the Most of Your ZX80, Learning Basic with Your Sinclair ZX80, The ZX80 Magic Book, and important for our purposes right now, The ZX80 Pocket Book.

The ZX80 Pocket Book, written by Trevor Toms and originally released November 1980 by Phipps Associates, got a revised version after the ZX81 came out, predictably called The ZX81 Pocket Book.

According to The Centre for Computing History, the ZX81 version of the book came out in July 1981 (source). The specific month is important, because the earliest we know of Planet of Death comes a magazine dated August 1981.

From Your Computer, August/September 1981. (Special thanks to Gareth who spotted a forum thread giving me this lead.)

Going by standard print lag times, it means that the original ZX80 version of Planet of Death likely came out in July, the same month as the ZX81 book did. The book was even advertised in the exact same issue as the news clipping above.

So, based on what I’ve currently gone through, the title of First Commercially Released Britventure is a tie between Planet of Death and The City of Alzan, a game Trevor Toms included in his book in order to showcase his adventure-writing system.

Being (apparently) released in the same month is not the “odd and unexpected” connection I was referring to earlier. I’ll get back to that after I’ve gone through the game itself.

Starting on page 88 of the ZX81 book, Mr. Toms lays out a generalized system for writing adventure games, with a Master program written in BASIC. To write an adventure, the user is supposed to add “room descriptions” and “text messages” with PRINT statements that just continue the code

7010 PRINT “THE DOOR IS SHUT FAST”
7015 RETURN
7020 PRINT “THE DOOR IS OPEN”
7025 RETURN

and then use a “generator” to enter “keywords” and actions linked to them.

13 19 B01. B01 L. (take lamp – object 01
14 19 B01. C01 L. (drop lamp
13 19 B02. B02 E03 L. (take (lit) lamp – object 02 – also sets lamp marker 3
14 19 B02. C02 F03 L. (drop lit lamp – unsets lamp marker 3

The book then gives a “test adventure” which isn’t worth going in detail on, but here’s the map:

This is followed by the code for City of Alzan itelf.

No treasures to find here. Escape the city, escape the plague.

The ZX81 version is available online, and just like Planet of Death, the screen updates every. single. keystroke. I cranked the speed to maximum and the game became tolerable, albeit needing a flashing warning.

The “L” on the bottom is just the cursor.

The game is both very tiny and very frustrating; I was stumped on things like TAKE being understood but GET just getting a I CANT message.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is that there are (possibly) two methods to escape. Here’s the one I used.

Step 1.) Grab some WOOD from a nearby alley.

Step 2.) Go into the “Cinema” and TAKE TORCH that the usher is holding. (It’s listed as within the description of the usher; I tried GET TORCH and got rebuffed with an I CANT so assumed I couldn’t just grab it out of the usher’s hands, but I was just using the wrong verb.)

Step 3.) Use the torch to go down a manhole and get some NAILS, next to a “tomb” which has a BARLAYCARD.

Step 4.) Buy a HAMMER from a hardware shop. (They have a LADDER too but I wasn’t able to buy it, I’ll come back to that in a moment.)

Step 5.) Die.

OH DEAR. YOU MUST HAVE CAUGHT THE PLAGUE IN THE TOMB. IT SEEMS THAT YOU HAVE DIED.

Oops! There’s a time limit after visiting the tomb.

Step 5b.) Take the NAILS, HAMMER, and WOOD and BUILD LADDER. Use the LADDER to climb out.

Somehow you are magically cured of the plague if you leave fast enough?

There’s another method of obtaining money which involves going in a BANK and coming up with the verb ROB. Mind you, the bank has no description other than having some bored guards.

If you are carting around money you have a random chance of being robbed yourself by “El Grabbo, the local thief”. I tried to BUY LADDER whilst holding the money but I was told I didn’t have enough, so I’m confused if I’ve hit a bug or not; this is potentially an alternate way to escape.

Eagle-eyed readers (or at least superfans of Planet of Death) may have noticed I mentioned a I CANT error message. That error message is very distinctive, and we’ve only seen it in one other place: the Artic games. Of course, given Alzan and Death were published the same time, how could they have come up with the same message, other than coincidence? Well, they could have both been at least partially derived from the same original source.

In Practical Computing, August 1980, Ken Reed wrote an article laying out a system (using Z-80 assembler) to write adventures. It includes a database of events akin to Alzan’s.

The way the variables are laid out is quite similar; here’s a code comparison which shows how the non-available-directions are calculated:

The Toms system is in pure basic so had to have at least some originality. What about the Planet of Death? I haven’t got round to decomposing, but no less an authority than Graeme Yeandle, author of The Quill (the most famous adventure-writing system from the 80s) claims that the Artic code is based on the Reed code. So I think it highly probable both UK games sprang from the same source.

You may also be wondering if the August 1980 magazine came with an adventure of its own. It did, sort of.

I have managed to get myself lost in the forest on my quest for the seven golden keys of Waydor and don’t know what to do next. So it is up to you to help me.

Give me your instructions and I will obey. For example, if you want me to go to the north. Type “Go NORTH”, if we should come across some keys and you want me to get them, type “GET THE KEYS”.

There’s a few rooms, a lantern for light, and a part where you get bitten by a vampire and need holy water to cure yourself

Some one has lept out of the shadows and BITTEN MY NECK!!!!

but there’s no proper “ending” and none of the aforementioned golden keys, so this is clearly a partial demo. Hence Reed’s article is the progenitor of the ZX adventure market while not being the actual first game.

If you really want to get fussy and come up with an honorific, Planet of Death may be the first standalone commerical adventure from the UK — City of Alzan was on a compilation tape that could be bought alone or with the book. I find the confluence of games to honestly be more interesting than any kind of title; also we’re still not quite done yet investigating potential candidates for the Britventure throne.

Posted April 9, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Asylum: Finished!   10 comments

Rather like the word “illogical”, the word “difficult” when used to describe adventure games can do too much heavy lifting. Sure, saying a game is “easy” or “hard” can be useful for determining the best mood for maximum playability, but does a game test lateral thinking? Aptitude at coordinating many events across time? Skill at visualizing geographic relationships? The ability to spot minor word clues?

Or, as the case with Asylum, a willingness to be patient and keep track of everything? (Or, more bluntly: a tolerance for tedium?)

Asylum does have some puzzles that are difficult for general reasons, but it was clear the game wants you to grind through lists. Find a new key? Painstakingly try it on every single door in the game, since the game doesn’t label what goes where. Facing a reticent NPC? Try giving every item in your inventory, then when you’ve tried everything you are carrying, go to your special cache of items and get another set and try giving all of those. There really are circumstances where the lack of clueing is meant as a feature rather than a bug.

So, reversing time a bit, I found a BRASS KEY, a UNIFORM, and some CIGARETTES off a guard. The brass key is useful on … nothing. Absolutely nothing. I tested it on every door twice assuming I missed something, but nope, it’s a key that’s a complete red herring.

While the key was a dud, the cigarettes were useful. One of the inmates was asking for cigarettes; once I typed GIVE CIGARETTE TO INMATE I got them to follow me in the halls.

As the inmate followed — and as far as the TRS-80 graphics go, they really did follow — they picked locks on some of the doors. Not all the doors were useful to visit.

I received a round peg from one inmate, and a fake nose from another. The inmate following me also picked the lock on one of the “side” doors of the pentagon, leading to a new large maze.

When you go in, you are “rubbed with vanishing cream”, and shortly after hit what seems to be an invisible wall. It’s a mirror, which you can see by wearing the fake nose. However, in addition to being a reflection, this is also showing a square hole (!?), and you need to INSERT ROUND PEG IN SQUARE HOLE to get by. The word “illogical” might be used too often in describing puzzles but it certainly applies here. I think the intent is a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland effect where the hole doesn’t exist until you see its reflection, except … the fake nose isn’t a square. I just don’t know.

By large, I mean essentially twice the size of one of the mazes from Deathmaze. The word “tedium” again comes to mind. I got very, very, tired mapping things out.

Just part of the map; there are teleports and “revolving” walls.

The maze had a BAT (the kind you swing), a HAT, a BALL, some FLIES, and a NOTE (which you saw in my last post). To be clear on the note: it says to LOOK UP, and a piano falls on you if you do, but the note itself is not trapped and typing LOOK UP anywhere in this game will summon the piano.

In one small section of the maze, a carpenter builds a wall behind you as you step through a particular spot (essentially a one-way-door) and you start being chased by an axe murderer.

I think this is the best puzzle of the game, and you technically know enough to solve it, so a brief pause for a picture from the manual:

>SHOW NOTE TO INMATE

(alas, not GIVE, Asylum’s parser is still dodgy)

After self-defense via piano, you can take the murderer’s ax and cut your way through the wall the carpenter made. The ax murderer area also has a STEEL KEY you can use to get back to the main asylum pentagon area.

Fortunately, unlike the brass key, the steel key does work in places; after the usual “try everywhere” stratagem I found a fisherman who wanted the FLIES and gave BOOTS, a room full of water that I needed to be wearing the boots to survive, and then a named character…

…who I was able to give the boots to and get a BURRO and LANTERN in exchange.

The BURRO went to a guru who traded me some NAILS, and then I used the steel key again one more time to find a second large maze (20 by 20 again).

The “invisible wall” shtick starts the map again, although this time you get through by using the bat and ball.

I became exhausted. The density of puzzles on the map is just too low; about half is composed of squiggles for no reason other than to fill space. I found some MARBLES, some GOLD, and some annoying puzzles; one of them was a strong candidate for the most tedious puzzle of any adventure I’ve ever played.

The hall above has 20 doors, 10 on each side. Your goal (not spelled out, you just have to be bored enough to try it) is to enter each and every door. Most of them lead to an empty loop and teleport you back to the hall (in a way it’s easy to lose orientation). When you get to door #20 you get “rewarded” with some matches.

I also had some difficulty with a gorilla, especially because the game does not consider DROP MARBLES to be the same as THROW MARBLES (he slips and you can pummel him with the bat), but where I really entered the “start using hints and rely on them for dear life” phase was a long hall where upon reaching the halfway point, I got ran over by a roadster.

The trick here was to light Exodor’s lantern with the matches from the doors-of-tedium. I guess the hallway is too dark for the driver to see you? Except the game doesn’t describe the hall as dark, and there are a few “dark areas” where you can’t see walls (the guru room was one) so really, the interface is implying the hall is well lit.

Once you can get halfway through the hall in safety, you can drop some nails, leave, the roaster comes (even though it previously only came when you were in the hall) and wait for the roadster to wipe out. The screen fades to white (the explosion knocks you out, I reckon) and you wake up after time has passed and it is 5:00 AM. So much for being efficient with previous game actions: you now have 30 in-game minutes (20 minutes real-time) until the guards nab you and you lose the game.

After the “accidental” crash, the hall is filled with car parts, including red herrings like a WINDSHIELD WIPER and TIRE. There’s a VOLTAGE CONVERTER and CRANK that turn out to be useful but it’s very hard to know they’re useful early and you can’t carry everything at once; it’s pretty much guaranteed you’re going to have to restore to a saved game once you know what’s needed.

Past the gorilla (defeated earlier via marbles and baseball bat) was a copper which allow return to the main asylum. The key works on yet more doors in the pentagon, including one with an inmate offering a wire hanger.

I found I could TRADE CIGARETTES FOR HANGAR (and yes, I think it needs to be the verb TRADE, just GIVE CIGARETTE won’t do).

When you examine the hanger after you get it you find out you are literally in the darkest timeline. One quick restore later and the problem is rectified by asking for a PASS KEY as opposed to the hanger, but — again I was both severely annoyed and impressed by the game’s chutzpah. You need to make a wrong choice first to find out what the right choice is; there’s not even a slight pretense of the hero’s continuum being the one where they got lucky.

The pass key unlocks a final set of doors, including a room with a desk and a note (that I could never figure out the parser syntax on) and an adjacent room with a computer. The pass key also unlocked the room of an inmate I’ve been hearing “giggling” since the start of the game.

The inmate wants the gold from the second big maze (the description of the gold is “fool’s gold” and the inmate is supposed to be a fool) Then you can … and no, I did not figure this on my own … SIT ON BED, and it will set off an alarm.

To get by the alarm, you have to take the BAT (still handy!), go back to the computer room, and SMASH COMPUTER WITH BAT. (Not HIT COMPUTER WITH BAT, and my hate for Asylum’s parser burns with the heat of a thousand suns.) After disabling the alarm, the secret passage takes you to a final area.

The area has a professor who you can give the VOLTAGE CONVERTER (from the roadster) to…

At least in the 16K version, there’s no hint the converter is the right item. The professor fixing his time machine rewinds the in-game time by a little; remember, after the roadster scene you normally only have 20 minutes left to beat the game.

…and a catapult which is the final challenge, and one I was not up to, because oh god the parser.

SIT ON CATAPULT
WIND CATAPULT WITH CRANK
BURN STRING WITH MATCHES

I appreciated the variety of characters and events (amidst a sea of way-too-large mazes), but by the end my tolerance for frustration had bottomed out. I get the sense the authors got caught into the trap of wanting to make everything Bigger and More Complicated (including the map, the puzzles, and the parser) but a lot of the charm of the earlier games was lost in the process. Labyrinth and Deathmaze 5000 might have had some “meaningless squiggle” sections but for the most part every niche was accounted for and interesting.

On the positive end, the hub structure was essentially satisfying (although it would have been much better had there been some notion what each key did) and the small bit of character movement with the lockpicker was innovative. The Corr/Denman duo clearly did not lack for creativity, but unfortunately, this was to be Frank Corr’s last game; Asylum II (1982) is credited to Denman only (Corr is still listed in the manual as making the “graphics” but I think that’s due to re-use of Asylum I assets).

I was never able to read the note next to the computer room.
>READ NOTE — YOU AREN’T CARRYING THE NOTE.
>GET NOTE — NOTHING HERE!
>GET NOTE FROM DESK — CAN’T BE DONE!
>GET NOTE OFF DESK — WHAT IS: OFF
>EXAMINE NOTE — IT HAS A MESSAGE ON IT!
>GET MESSAGE — NOTHING HERE!
>GET ALL FROM DESK — CAN’T BE DONE!
Did I say a thousand suns? Maybe up that to a million.

Posted April 8, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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