Archive for July 2020

Assignment 45, A Harry Flynn Adventure: Finale and Analysis   2 comments

I stopped keeping track of how many Harrys we lost (20?), but victory was eventually ours.

I will narrate the rest of the game, then dive into some exploration of structure. There’s been a lot of theoretical work on the effect of overall choice-structure, but not as much on the micro-pieces therein.

Last time, our hero had made it to the hostage storage area.

BY NOW DR. NON HAS RADIOED FOR HELP. KRUEL REINFORCEMENTS ARE ON THEIR WAY.

1) STUDY THE STORAGE SYSTEM
2) FREE EVERYONE BY DISABLING LOCK MECHANISM
3) EXAMINE THE FILES
4) CALL UEC ON SLED RADIO
5) GET MECHANISM TO PRODUCE MORE PELLET KEYS

Just as a reminder, the hostages are “DATA PATTERNED AND LASER STAMPED” on slides, and we’re trying to rescue a princess. Dr. Non gave Harry one “pellet key” as a “free sample”, but it only works on one slide.

Trying to free everyone:

We start by trying to disable the lock mechanism.

TAMPERING WITH THE LOCK STARTED A BASE DESTRUCTION SEQUENCE. HARRY HAS 60 SECONDS TO DECIDE WHETHER TO:

1) ABANDON THE BASE 2) TRY TO ABORT SEQUENCE

Both are Bad Endings.

HE ALMOST HAD IT, THEN *BOOM!*

Next Harry. Taking his time, he examines the storage system…

FILES
PELLET PRODUCER
LOCKING MECHANISM

…then tries and fails get the mechanism to make more pellet keys.

BY ATTEMPTING TO BYPASS THE PELLET TIMER, HARRY SETS OFF A SIGNAL WHICH ERASES ALL THE FILES! MISSION IS A FAILURE.

The next Harry reconsiders and examines the files more carefully.

THERE ARE MANY FILES. SINCE THE GIRL WAS JUST TAKEN, SHE SHOULD BE AMOUNG THE LAST ENTRIES. BUT HARRY HAS ONLY 1 PELLET.
WHICH FILE IS THE RIGHT ONE?

1) LOAD THE FILES UP AND BRING THEM TO UEC
2) DISABLE LOCK MECHANISM
3) TAKE A GUESS
4) GET MECHANISM TO PRODUCE MORE PELLETS
5) CUT OFF POWER TO STORAGE COMPUTER
6) GO BACK TO SHIP AND USE RADIO

While not obvious, this is the last choice of the game!

First Harry tries cutting off power…

WITH THE POWER OFF THE SYSTEM BECOMES TOTALLY INOPERATIVE.
SHOULD HARRY:
1) TURN POWER BACK ON
2) EXAM SYSTEM WITH POWER OFF

…but examining the system leads to electrocution.

Then he tries to load all the files at once.

WHEN HARRY ATTEMPTS TO REMOVE A PANE FROM ITS HOLDER, THE FILE DISSOLVES. THE GIRL AND ALL OTHER HOSTAGES ON THE PANE ARE DESTROYED. MISSION FAILED.

The next incarnation makes another attempt at producing more pellets, but it turns out as badly as last time, wiping out the system. Finally, he tries going back to call the UEC.

HARRY DRIVES BACK TO THE SHIP AND CALLS UEC. COMPU-CEN SUGGESTS TAKING MICRO-PHOTOS USING THE MEAD CELL AND ANALYZING THEM ON THE SHIP’S COMPUTER.

IN ADDITION, UEC IS SENDING A TASK FO TO SECURE THE BASE.

HARRY RETURNS TO THE STORAGE AREA, AND FOLLOWING COMPU-CEN’S ADVICE IS ABLE TO IDENTIFY THE GIRL’S FILE.

HE SLIPS THE PELLET IN AND A HOLOGRAPHIC IMAGE APPEARS. IT IS KURVI CALLEASE. SHE IS ALMOST MAGICALLY
BEAUTIFUL. THE IMAGE FILLS AND SHE COMES TO LIFE, BUT IMMEDIATELY FAINTS.

HARRY CATCHES HER AND CARRIES HER TO THE SLED. THEY SPEED OVER THE YELLOW SANDS TO HIS SHIP. ABOVE, THE SKY FLASHES WITH RED AND BLUE LASER STROBES AS UEC AND KRUEL FORCES BATTLE IT OUT.

THE GIRL AWAKENS. A TEAR IN HER EYE REFLECTS THE FLASHES OVERHEAD.

‘WHO ARE YOU?’
‘HARRY FLYNN FROM UEC AT YOUR SERVICE.’
SHE PRESSED CLOSE TO HIM, HER HEAD ON HIS SHOULDER.

‘TAKE ME HOME, PLEASE, HARRY.’
‘YOU’RE AS GOOD AS THERE.’

CONGRATULATIONS,
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

Deep thanks to everyone who participated! (I’ll figure out who gets the Steam keys next week.) I wanted to try something a little different, but also, I thought taking a slow journey through the steps might reveal some interesting nuances of game design that’d be easy to miss if I just spilled out the whole plot at once.

Before I analyze a few moments, it’s important to note that this seems intended as a skill-based game; that is, if you think through things carefully, you can make the right choices and not die. This is in contrast to the wild-bouncing structure that can happen in one of the Choose Your Own Adventure novels at the time, where the point is almost more about exploring every node rather than reaching any kind of “success”.

All dotted lines lead to “bad endings”, mission failure and/or death.

The start, riding a sled outside the compound, was relatively sedate: it took at least two choices before a Game Over, and all the initial wrong choices could be backtracked.

But there was still some player confusion; the MEAD cell Harry had could be used to determine laser fire would work on the barrier — “Info” on the map — but choosing then to do an immediate hand laser (as opposed to going back to the sled and using that laser) leads to death. Paradoxically, I think the player who is more reckless at the start and just starts shooting is less likely to lose lives here.

After Harry is captured, and the structure gives four choices.

1) BREAK BONDS
2) ROTATE MIRROR FROM SUN
3) USE MEAD CELL
4) PRAY

Pray is an informational choice: it gives Harry the idea that he should use his MEAD cell. Interestingly enough, we picked that one on our playthrough, but when we picked using the MEAD as hinted, the response of “NOTHING HAPPENS” was enough to turn people away. They then went with both BREAK BONDS all the way to the Bad End, and the same with ROTATE MIRROR FROM SUN before going back to USE MEAD CELL.

The “confirmation” structure was deceptive; if the MEAD cell had worked right away the scene would have been over much faster.

Let’s look deeper at the very last choice.

1) LOAD THE FILES UP AND BRING THEM TO UEC
2) DISABLE LOCK MECHANISM
3) TAKE A GUESS
4) GET MECHANISM TO PRODUCE MORE PELLETS
5) CUT OFF POWER TO STORAGE COMPUTER
6) GO BACK TO SHIP AND USE RADIO

When I went through I personally got flummoxed; it really seems like genre expectations are to do something heroic, even if it’s “mechanically heroic”. But the correct choice is to go back and use the ship radio, which sounds like an intermediate step and not something that would win the game at all. (Our players were similarly deceived, and the only option not chosen was “TAKE A GUESS”.)

In general, I found myself fairly grouchy with the game in its original form. There are no saved games, so it takes a lot of repetition to work to the end, and there were a lot of “cheap shot” branches. Especially bad was this one, after Harry “successfully” fakes his death.

NO ONE WILL BE LOOKING FOR HIM NOW.
SHOULD HE: 1)ESCAPE 2)TRY TO CAPTURE DR. NON 3)GET THE GIRL

All three choices lead to death. In practice, this means repeating a bunch of actions to that point (thinking it was the next part of the plot) only to repeatedly meet with failure.

I can see why, plot-wise, it is impossible to do the correct action (destroy the base with the mirror) after Harry fakes his death (someone would have to find his … clothes? … the game never spells out how the faking works … but that means Harry can’t use the mirror any more). Still, in a gameplay sense, this was terrible, in the sense that if I was spelling out a Bill of Player’s Rights for Choice-Based Games this would make one of the entries; don’t block apparent success in a dead-end where a player will have to try all the choices before they realize they’re in a dead-end.

This is the message you get if you pick N to the prompt that asks if you want to try again after losing. This emphasizes the attempt to make the game skill-based. While I appreciate the interesting bits of deception, when I played there just wasn’t enough to grasp the pleasure of working things out; it was more sorting out what happened after I had already died.

Posted July 31, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Assignment 45, A Harry Flynn Adventure: Attack of the Clones   19 comments

An ad printed in the page facing the source code for Assignment 45. Accounting for inflation, $3899 in 2020 dollars is $11,057.76.

Since last time, we had reached Harry #3, who had broken into a complex.

HE IS IN A HUGE COMPLEX OF SILVER GLASS PANES.

EACH PANE IS SCORED INTO 5 CM SQUARES, AND EACH SQUARE IS PERFORATED BY A SMALL HOLE.

1) EXPLORE MORE
2) EXAMINE PANE

Checking out the pane led to a villain monologuing and the longest text of the game:

AS HE TOUCHES THE PANE, HE IS STUNNED UNCONSCIOUS. WHEN HE AWAKENS, HE IS SURROUNDED BY A SECURITY TEAM. A MAN WITH GOLD TEETH IS SMILING. THE MAN SPEAKS.

‘THE GREAT HARRY FLYNN. I NEVER THOUGHT I’D MEET YOU IN PERSON.’

(STANDING UP, HARRY RETORTS) ‘THE INFAMOUS DR. NON FROM KRUEL.’

‘YES, KRUEL. KIDNAPPING, REVOLT, USURPATION, EXTORTION LEAGUE.

YOU, MR. FLYNN, HAVE INVADED OUR HOSTAGE STORAGE CENTER.’

(HARRY PROBES) ‘TELL ME MORE.’

‘OF COURSE. EACH HOSTAGE IS KEPT FOR FUTURE POLITICAL USE. THEY ARE DATA PATTERNED AND LASER STAMPED ON THOSE SLIDES YOU CARELESSLY TOUCHED. INSERT A PELLET LIKE THIS, AND THEY ARE RECONSTRUCTED–UNHARMED.’

‘WITHOUT A PELLET, A NASTY SHOCK IS APPLIED. YOU MAY HAVE THIS ONE AS A SOUVENIR.’
(DR. NON SLIPS A PELLET INTO HARRY’S SHIRT POCKET)

‘TOO BAD YOU MUST LEAVE US NOW, MR. FLYNN… PERMANENTLY.’

HARRY IS TAKEN TO THE SOLAR MIRROR. ONE OF THE GUARDS EXPLAINS THAT DR. NON RESERVES THIS FORM OF EXECUTION FOR SPECIAL GUESTS.

HARRY IS STRAPPED TO THE MIRROR. AT SUNRISE HE WILL BE INSTANTLY TOASTED. THE GUARDS LEAVE.

1) BREAK BONDS
2) ROTATE MIRROR FROM SUN
3) USE MEAD CELL
4) PRAY

Harry prays, and gets the idea of using the MEAD cell (his handy gizmo which allows him to see invisible things and project his mind as force).

He tries his bonds…

MIRROR BUDGES A LITTLE AS BONDS STRETCH.

SHOULD HARRY: 1) KEEP TRYING 2) TRY SOMETHING ELSE.

…and backtracks (option #2) and tries the MEAD cell instead.

HARRY REMEMBERS WHAT ORR SAID ABOUT THE CELL AMPLIFYING THOUGHT WAVES. HE CONCENTRATES ON MOVING THE MIRROR’S POSITION CONTROL LEVER.

NOTHING HAPPENS.
SHOULD HARRY: 1) KEEP TRYING 2) TRY SOMETHING ELSE.

Backtracking again, Harry goes back to trying to break the bonds.

THE MIRROR DOESN’T TURN FAR ENOUGH.

GOOD BYE HARRY!

No doubt in a real Choose Your Own Adventure book there would be a carefully-narrated ending, but the TRS-80 here is already jammed to the gills with text.

Reincarnating as Harry #4, he revives and tries rotating the mirror from the sun instead.

THE MIRROR DOESN’T TURN FAR ENOUGH.

GOOD BYE HARRY!

Oops! On to Harry #5, whereupon our audience realizes the MEAD cell was right after all. While the first time using it, nothing happens…

NOTHING HAPPENS.
SHOULD HARRY: 1) KEEP TRYING 2) TRY SOMETHING ELSE.

…picking #1 to try again leads to success.

FINALLY THE LEVER MOVES AND ROTATES THE MIRROR AWAY FROM THE SUN. THIS GIVES HARRY THE TIME HE NEEDS TO BREAK FREE.

1) SNEAK BACK TO HOSTAGE STORAGE AND USE PELLET
2) ESCAPE AND RETURN WITH REINFORCEMENTS
3) CAPTURE DR. NON AND USE HIM TO BARGIN FOR THE GIRL
4) FAKE HIS DEATH BY TURNING MIRROR BACK INTO SUN
5) USE MIRROR AS WEAPON

Harry first tries to sneak to hostage storage:

AS HARRY SNEAKS BACK HE IS SURPRISED BY A SECURITY TEAM.

Reincarnating as Harry #6, he tries faking his death, which succeeds! The games options are:

NO ONE WILL BE LOOKING FOR HIM NOW.
SHOULD HE: 1)ESCAPE 2)TRY TO CAPTURE DR. NON 3)GET THE GIRL

although it turns out all of these are dead ends! We lose Harry #7, #8, and #9 this way.

Reversing time to the previous decision, Harry #10 tries to get reinforcements.

HARRY MAKES IT OUT OF THE COMPLEX, BUT WITHOUT THE SLED. HE PERISHES IN THE DESERT.

Finally, Harry #11 has success when trying to use the mirror itself as a weapon.

HARRY TURNS THE MIRROR ON THE INSTALLATION AND DESTROYS IT.
DR. NON, HOWEVER, ESCAPES IN HIS PERSONAL SHUTTLE.

SHOULD HARRY: 1) GO AFTER DR. NON 2) GET THE GIRL

Harry decides the princess is the top priority and goes to GET THE GIRL.

HARRY MAKES HIS WAY TO THE HOSTAGE STORAGE AREA.
BY NOW DR. NON HAS RADIOED FOR HELP.
KRUEL REINFORCEMENTS ARE ON THEIR WAY.

1) STUDY THE STORAGE SYSTEM
2) FREE EVERYONE BY DISABLING LOCK MECHANISM
3) EXAMINE THE FILES
4) CALL UEC ON SLED RADIO
5) GET MECHANISM TO PRODUCE MORE PELLET KEYS

What should Harry do next? Please vote in the comments.

(I’m going to restrain myself from commenting too much, but the events above contain two fascinating theoretical bits — the part where the use of the MEAD cell did nothing and the players went back and died on the other options, and the “dead end” where faking death was a success but it led to 3 losing options. We’re almost there, so I’ll get into a full discussion next time.)

Posted July 28, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Steam Key Giveaway

So, I’ve been having trouble keeping the momentum going on the playthough of Assignment 45 (which is close to done!) so for the last leg, I’m going to do the tried-and-true method of GIVING AWAY STUFF.

To recap, Assignment 45 is a TRS-80 game from 1981 in Choose Your Own Adventure style, and we are playing through in the comments. All you need to do is read up to the current update and post a number corresponding to your next choice.

Here’s all the Assignment 45 posts so far together

Here’s the current thread

Now, it so happens that Orihaus (who is likely reading this, hello!) sent me some keys for his interactive fiction game To Burn in Memory to do with what I wanted. I have four spare keys so the next four people who vote (as of the time of this post) each get a Steam key to the game! (Assuming they agree to getting one; if someone passes I’ll move on to the next person.)

In addition, for everyone who has participated (including back to the very start of playing Assignment 45), I will drop everyone’s comments in a randomizer and pick three people who can grab a game of their choice from my pile of Steam keys.

Antichamber
Stardew Valley
Last Word
To the Moon
The Geneforge Saga (This is all five games.)
Owlboy
Puzzle Agent 1 & 2
Epistory – Typing Chronicles
Sam & Max: Devil’s Playhouse

I did say comments, which means the people who participate more have a more likely chance to win. (Only one win per person, though.) And yes, that’s more than 3 games, but I want the last person in line to be able to choose rather than just pick what’s left.

Note I will need access to your email for all this to work, so if you put a dummy address on your reply I’ll have to do some follow-ups. Drawing will happen after the game is over.

Don’t respond to this post — go to the current thread!

Posted July 24, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Atom Adventure (1981)   10 comments

For today’s contender in First Britventure, I bring forth a game published by Hopesoft, written by Paul Shave for the Acorn Atom (a system we previously saw in Acornsoft’s Atom Adventure(s), a game whose title is only differentiated by the “s” there).

So in 1981 when the Acorn Atom came out, it seemed a wonderful opportunity to get back into programming (but obviously not giving up the day job). I splashed out on the top-of-the-range model with 12Kb of RAM and taught myself 6502 assembler. Later that year, Hopesoft was born. I’d recently come across the original Colossal Adventure on the mainframe and was fascinated by it. I started doing text adventures and arcade games for the Atom, but the adventures were my real love, with the challenge being how to cram the maximum amount into my 12Kb. When I’d got a few programs ready, I put a small ad in one of the computer mags, and it all grew from there. I started off buying data cassettes from WH Smith, and spent the evenings saving the programs onto the tapes as the orders came in.

— From an October 2000 interview with Paul Shave

Planet of Death and City of Alzan both appeared in the August/September 1981 issue of Your Computer; this makes it appear both came out in July 1981.

Gareth Pitchford, a blog regular here, has already done the legwork on Hopesoft and concluded from the first game had an approximate release date of July/August 1981. In other words, based on what we’ve seen so far, the title of first Britventure is now a three-way tie.

Mr. Shave wrote his own adventure-writing database, according to him, all on his own (unlike Planet of Death and City of Alzan, he hadn’t seen the Ken Reed article with its own adventure system). You can peruse the source code of his “Sample Adventure” here that came out with his “Write Your Own Adventure” tape (his second title published, after Atom Adventure).

From Everygamegoing.

It really is just a sample and not worth me “playing” for you, but it demonstrates a map, a hungry man, some cheese, and a treasure chest he’s guarding. Even though he didn’t see Reed’s system, rooms, objects, events, and messages get separated out in the same way. Here’s the messages for Sample Adventure:

5000*MESSAGES 8
5010 0,IT FALLS ON THE FLOOR AND GOES OUT.
5030 2,THE MAN LOOKS VERY FIERCE. HE WON’T LET ME NEAR THE
5040@ TREASURE.
5050 3,THE MAN GOBBLES UP THE CHEESE. HE LOOKS MORE CONTENT.
5060 4,THE MAN TURNS VERY NASTY. HE TEARS MY
5070@ THROAT OUT. I’M DEAD.
5080 5,CONGRATULATIONS, YOU GOT IT!
5090 6,GOODBYE.

(There’s also the infamous I CAN’T message which we have only seen with the other two Reed-derived games, which makes me wonder if the author really did see Reed-related code at some point and is misremembering, but it’s not important enough to be fussy about.)

The same system gets used for the stand-alone Hopesoft games from 1981, Atom Adventure and Pirate Island. Pirate Island will wait for another post, so let’s get into Atom Adventure, later advertised as:

A traditional Adventure in caves and a castle.

So this a usual hunt-the treasure plot again, but, remember: the only adventure game the author had previously played was Crowther/Woods Adventure. It turns out, despite initial appearances, there’s something very non-traditional about the game. What if, in designing a game, you made all the puzzles “easy” yet made getting the best ending “hard”?

Atom Adventure certainly felt simplistic in my first 20 minutes of play. You start outdoors, with the Classic Adventure Mostly Standard: lamp, keys, matches, bottle of oil. (The items are randomly distributed, and the bottle can even start underground; this will be important in a second.)

There’s a cave system, with two entrances; either down stairs from a building, or from a grating outside.

Underground you find (again with some scattered randomly) an elastoplast (which you need when a troll hits you, you have to USE ELASTOPLAST to stop the bleeding or die), a knife, a gold bar, a diamond ring, a hamster, and a hamster-eating snake.

To get to the next level you need to find a rusty locked door, use the oil in the bottle to OIL DOOR, then use the keys to UNLOCK DOOR. (You can, if you like, refill the bottle with water after using it for oil.)

Past the door (which is a one-way trip, the door gets barred behind you) is a small castle.

A dragon is satiated by “damsel-flavored crisps”, there’s a magic bean that requires water (and sprouts a silver flower), an underground cellar with an oyster that requires the knife to open, a ruby, and a scroll with a magic word (OKAPI). You use the magic word to open the treasury and finish the game.

However, everything above is much more complicated than it sounds, because you have 1.) a very tight timer before the lamp runs out 2.) an inventory limit of four items and 3.) the randomization makes it impossible to fully predict where objects will show. This means the challenge in getting all the treasures to the end is not in solving the puzzles, but in optimally getting through the game with all the objects you need.

By tight I mean, essentially, you have to squeeze out every turn of lamp light possible, and even then, you sometimes randomly just have an object in a wrong location and can’t make it. For example:

You can enter the underground from the building (top diagram) or the grating (bottom diagram). With the building entrance, you start in darkness. With the grating entrance, you start in light (the sky is visible) meaning you can wait a little longer before lighting your lamp, and the path to check for objects all the way to the river is one step less short than from the building. This is sufficient to make a difference; I don’t think the best ending for the game is possible using the building entrance!

You might also notice that one “Cave, River” room has a connection to another, and the other happens to be next to the exit door for the cave section. You can THROW ITEM OVER RIVER to get it out of your inventory. If you don’t do this with the keys you will not be able to win, because you need the space and can’t cart items over fast enough! (Also fun, the game models some physics here; if you throw the bottle of oil it makes it over the river and breaks, if you try to throw a bar of gold it falls in the river and sinks.)

One other trick I did was throw the matches over the river. When I hit the cave room at the door I was able to TURN OFF LAMP to save a little energy, and the game fortunately let me OIL DOOR, UNLOCK DOOR, and OPEN DOOR while in the dark (and use the keys even though they were on the ground). Then with the matches on the ground I was allowed to LIGHT LAMP again and book it to the cellar in the castle before the lamp ran out.

Even after massive optimization steps I still was running short on space. I needed to get out of the cave with

1. the lamp (the castle is mostly lit, but the cellar which has a treasure is not)
1. a bottle of water (for the magic bean)
3. a gold bar (one of the treasures)
4. a diamond ring (one of the treasures)
5. a knife (for opening an oyster and getting a pearl)

This is five items, and remember the trip is one-way. I could only hold four! I had tried and discarded the idea of wearing the diamond ring since WEAR RING doesn’t work, but I found out after proving to myself the game was impossible that — on a second, desperate pass — that PUT ON RING does work, and saves you an inventory spot.

Here’s what you need the water for.

I was fully prepared for a time to declare the game buggy and impossible, and I even partially wrote and discarded a blog post to that effect, so I’ll say I earned the screen below.

The OBE is the Order of the British Empire, which I also believe I earned.

Just as a reminder, the blog play-along of Assignment 45 is still in progress. Please go vote!

Posted July 23, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Assignment 45, A Harry Flynn Adventure: You Only Live Once, Unless You’re Playing a Choose Your Own Adventure Style Game in Which Case You Die Lots of Times   44 comments

We’ve got far enough in our traversal of this ancient TRS-80 game that it’s time for a story update. Remember, this is blog-play-along style, so feel free to chime in as to what to do next in the comments.

This is the first “section” of the game. I suspect there will be one or two posts left to go, after which I’ll follow with an analysis. (You’ll notice immediately this is not the simplistic “deadly gauntlet” of Albino’s last game. I’m interested in the general effect interactive structures have and how much deaths should be the “player’s fault”, so to speak.)

The cover of the 80 Micro magazine in which Assignment 45 appeared.

In our story so far, Harry Flynn, Special Agent, was on the search for a kidnapped princess.

He immediately came across a cluster of huts guarded by a force field. Trying to be circumspect, he scouted around.

HARRY DRIVES UNTIL DARKNESS APPROACHES BUT FINDS NOTHING.

1) RETURN TO HUTS
2) KEEP LOOKING

Trying to be even more circumspect, he scouted even more.

HARRY DRIVES ON IN THE DARKNESS. SUDDENLY HIS SCANNER DETECTS A MAMMOTH FORM DECENDING FROM THE SKY. ATTRACTED BY THE LIGHTS, A GIANT MANTA MOTH SWALLOWS THE SLED.

Oh dear. Let’s try that again.

Harry #2 has a MEAD (“Matter Energy Amplification Diode”) which brings makes invisible things visible and decides to try it out.

Harry disembarks the sled, hides it, and goes to the barrier.

AS HE APPROACHES THE BARRIER HARRY HOLDS UP THE MEAD CELL. HE STUDIES THE COMPOSITION OF THE FORMERLY INVISIBLE FIELD. IT MAY BREAK DOWN UNDER LASER FIRE.

1) RETURN TO SLED
2) CONTINUE TO EXPLORE
3) USE HAND LASER

Since he happens to have a handy laser at hand, he tries to use it.

HARRY DRAWS HIS HAND LASER AND BLASTS THE BARRIER.

IT HAS A NEGLIGIBLE EFFECT BUT SETS OFF AN ALARM THAT BRINGS ARMOURED SENTRY ROBOTS. THE HAND LASER CANNOT STOP THEM. HARRY GETS VAPORIZED!

Alas, poor Harry #2.

Harry #3 materializes in a poof of light!

Harry uses his superior firepower.

HARRY FIRES THE POWERFUL TWIN LASER CANNONS POINT BLANK INTO THE BARRIER. THE BARRIER HAS BEEN WEAKENED SUBSTANTIALLY, BUT SENTRY ROBOTS OPEN FIRE ON HIM.

1) TURN ON SHIELDS
2) USE LASER CANNONS
3) GET OUT OF THERE

Followed by shields.

LASER BOLTS FLASH AGAINST THE SLED’S SHIELDS.

1) GET OUT OF THERE
2) RAM THE BARRIER

Ramming speed!

WITH FULL POWER TO FRONT SHIELDS, HARRY CHARGES THE WEAKENED BARRIER.

HE BREAKS THROUGH AND ZOOMS PAST THE SLOW MOVING ROBOTS.

HARRY QUICKLY HIDES THE SLED AMOUNG THE CLUSTER OF HUTS.

WITH LASER GUN DRAWN, HE CHARGES INTO THE NEAREST STRUCTURE

IT TURNS OUT TO BE AN ELEVATOR THAT PLUNGES DOWNWARD

HE IS IN A HUGE COMPLEX OF SILVER GLASS PANES.

EACH PANE IS SCORED INTO 5 CM SQUARES, AND EACH SQUARE IS PERFORATED BY A SMALL HOLE.

1) EXPLORE MORE
2) EXAMINE PANE

What do you do next? Please post in the comments.

Posted July 22, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Assignment 45, A Harry Flynn Adventure (1981)   17 comments

You may remember Victor T. Albino as the author of Mount St. Helens, probably the first “stateless” CYOA game designed for computer.

He didn’t stop writing there; in an article for 80 Micro in December 1981 he gave the source code to his game Assignment 45, depicting the adventures of one Harry Flynn, a special agent of United Earth Command. Yes, we’re in the Future.

I admit finding the article oddly vague (the word “flowcharting” shows up quite a bit) but it’s interesting in that most people of the era would not expect a Choose Your Own Adventure in the context of learning to write an “adventure” for computer.

After the, ah, dramatic pauses in the opening above, you are informed of trouble in the “Siran System” as “Abar Callease, Ruler of Sira” has had his daughter kidnapped.

HIS POLITICAL ENEMIES ARE BLAMING EARTH AND DEMAND WAR. CALLEASE HAS ASKED FOR OUR HELP.

You/Harry have a “MAKO JET SLED” for travel, with a “TWIN LASER CANNON, SHIELD GENERATOR, AND FORWARD SCANNERS”. You also have a MEAD CELL (“Matter Energy Amplification Diode”) which brings makes invisible things visible and can direct your thoughts into a “SMALL FORCE BEAM”.

You start your search at the last known whereabouts of the princess.

THE CARGO DOOR OPENED DEPOSITING THE MAKO ON THE SANDY GROUND. HARRY GOT IN. THE ENGINES WHINED, THEN SCREAMED AS THE SLED LIFTED A METER OFF THE LAND AND SHOT FORWARD.

You find a cluster of huts and a force field which is an “electronic barrier”.

Well, indeed. What should you/Harry do?

That question is posed to you, the reader. Yes, I’m doing this one blog play-along style like we did way back with Spelunker. Post votes in the comments, and I will update periodically, and once enough plot has passed, I’ll make a new post. (This isn’t a long game, so I suspect only two more posts after this one will do it.)

I will go by majority-rule on a choice if there’s a clear winner, or pick randomly if there’s a tie. If you/Harry die I’ll rewind to the previous choice. If you want people to vote with you, try justifying your answer rather than just giving your number. Good luck!

Posted July 20, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Demon’s Forge: Finished!   6 comments

At the end, this game raised all sorts of questions about what it means to study digital history.

MS-DOS cover, via Mobygames.

I had left off last time … I mean two times ago … with a killer rabbit.

Unfortunately, the method of getting by was a bit absurd. The vial I used for anti-poison could be refilled at the well (I had discovered that myself, at least) but what I did not find is that GIVE WATER is the right command to get past. (The parser also does its one of only two times using a secondary prompt. “TO WHAT?” to which you need to reply RABBIT.)

I mean, meat-eaters need to drink too, but I’m still baffled as to the general intent here on the puzzle. The puzzle was doubly frustrating in that on one of my runs the rabbit didn’t let me get *any* commands in and I had to restart; after restarting and apparently nothing changing, I got enough moves in to GIVE WATER. This might have been bad luck (some sort of RNG triggering the rabbit to attack that I wasn’t able to reset) or there may have been something genuinely different that incited the rabbit to immediately attack rather than wait (that is, the parallel universe problem, except I still don’t know what the difference between the two games was, then).

After the mess that was the rabbit puzzle I scooped up the wand and was able to use it to burn through another door via USE WAND. (Not WAVE, the game doesn’t understand that.)

Fortunately, I was able to use my blanket and SMOTHER FIRE, which is the only time in the game I came up with an unusual verb and it worked first try. From inside I grabbed an axe that I used to get by a “maze” via SMASH MIRRORS.

I originally tried mapping it by dropping objects and so forth, but I realized pretty quickly I was being sent in random directions so I knew the maze had a “gimmick.”

This led me up to the area with the library and the long useless hall I talked about in my last post.

Since last time, I found a carrot in a garden, after struggling with a guess-the-noun puzzle (you have to dig GROUND or DIRT specifically).

However, the real interesting action happens in a “room of staves”…

…and an “intersection of the elements”. Each direction in the elemental area goes to a room seemingly dedicated to a classical element (a hopper in a mine, a torch on a wall, a well with water, and a glass room with a bottle).

The statue blocks your way, and the business with the staves needs to be worked out. After taking the first stave from the statue room, it turns into a shovel. I realized (after some genuinely edifying thought) that the four staves and the elemental area are connected, and I needed to somehow fulfill the shovel’s destiny in the room with the hopper.

Dropping the shovel? No luck. Trying to DIG there? Also no luck (the game seemingly doesn’t understand the word). Typing commands like HIT MYSELF WITH SHOVEL and SERIOUSLY WHAT into the parser, definitely no luck, but maybe some psychic gratification.

Again I had to run to hints; I found out I missed a room. Unlike my old nemesis Whoops I Didn’t Try North Here Even Though It’s Literally in the Room Description, I’d say this case is most definitely not my fault.

Do you see RUNGS on the wall there? I most certainly do not. At least CLIMB WALL works even if someone doesn’t grab the particular noun “rungs”, but notice there isn’t even a hole in the ceiling to climb into. (This graphic got a new render in later versions of Demon’s Forge, but I’ll be getting to those versions at the end of this post.)

So, climbing up goes to a den with a pendant and boots. The boots cause you to float near the ceiling, and LOOK PENDANT indicates it says DIG WHERE X’S AREN’T. (It only does this if you’re holding the pendant, though!)

Going back to the statue room, I realized the ceiling was X-free, so WEAR BOOTS plus DIG CEILING gave me some dirt. I then toted the dirt over to the hopper, did FILL HOPPER, and finally got results: YOU FILL THE HOPPER WITH THE DIRT AND IT ROLLS OFF. This teleported me back to the stave room where I found the second staff was glowing.

The second staff had a message MY DEATH IS YOUR LIFE so I went and burned it at the torch. The staff poofed away and I went back to the statue room again. Second element down, two more to go.

The third staff need a drop in the well, giving me a message

TO AVOID ETERNAL STRIFE
YOU MUST GIVE THE BREATH OF LIFE
DO THIS DEED FIRST
PAY NOTHING ELSE HEED
OR THESE WORDS MAY BE
THE LAST THAT YOU READ

and following the advice of the poem, before I touched the fourth staff I went down to get the bottle and filled it with AIR. (If you don’t do that, taking the fourth staff kills you.)

The statue asked me to drop the fourth staff again and then I could proceed. The last section of the game is much tighter and less red-herring prone.

The section starts with a dropoff where you need to toss a pillow first, otherwise you die from the fall.

The most outrageous puzzle — the one I remembered from many years back — is right over a bridge.

If you are carrying any inventory past 1 item and try to cross the bridge, you die. The problem is the other side has a silver, gold, and platinum sphere, and you need all three. How do you take them back without dying? The bridge won’t let you make multiple trips, and just trying to throw them from one bridge to the other ends up not working.

The image is a bit mangled, this is another thing fixed on later editions.

I’m not going to spoil it here, because I’m curious if anyone can come up with the answer. Feel free to guess in the comments. Remember, there’s three spheres that need to be carried over a collapsing bridge. I will say I don’t think the physics technically make any sense, but at least the puzzle is memorable.

Moving on, I ran into a sign that was too far away to see.

I, fortunately, had kept a carrot from the garden in the previous section, and due to the long-standing mythology about carrots doing magical things for eyesight, I was able to read the sign.

WITHIN THE FORGE ANARAKULL GOES
TO TEST THE METTLE OF HIS FOES
TO PIT HIS CLAWS AGAINST COLD STEEL
SPIN WISE THE GLOBES INTO A WHEEL

THE SAGE CONFERS A SECRET RHYME
IF HE CAN BUT FIND THE TIME

OF SWORD AND SPEAR–THEY HARMETH NOT
NOR AGELESS COLD OR TIMELESS ROT
BUT BALLS OF VALUE SHIRK HIS HOLD
WHEN HURLED WITH POWER…SLIGHT TO BOLD

I immediately knew the last line meant I needed to throw the spheres I had already obtained in some order, but I still had yet to find the demon — I was being stymied by a locked door.

I needed hints again, and found out I was stung by a parser issue with long-reaching effects. You see, I knew from attempting and failing a few times that CLOSE just gave me an error message (for example, at the chest of the start of the game, I could OPEN but not CLOSE it). So I assumed CLOSE was off the verb list. Not so. It just happens to only work in one place.

In this place, and this place only, you can CLOSE DOOR, which reveals a new room!

The room had the key I sought after, so I was able to break into the demon’s room.

Following the poem, I threw SILVER, GOLD, and PLATINUM spheres in that order (“SLIGHT TO BOLD”) and was victorious!

THE DEMON’S THRONE SLIDES ASIDE REVEALING A DIM CAVERN THAT WINDS ITS WAY TO THE SURFACE. YOU STEP INTO THE BRIGHT SUNLIGHT AND ARE IMMEDIATELY ARRESTED BY GUARDS.

THEY BRING YOU BEFORE THE KING, WHO RETURNS YOUR ORIGINAL WEAPONS AND CLOTHING. ‘WELL DONE ,CHAMPION. BY RETURNING FROM THE DEMON’S FORGE YOU HAVE REGAINED YOUR FREEDOM.’

This is followed by “credits”.

I know Mike Cranford did art, I don’t know if they all did, or if some of the people listed are playtesters or had some other role. It’s interesting Brian Fargo isn’t here even though his name is on the cover.

Demon’s Forge (1981) has an enormous number of parser issues. There are likely some I’m forgetting, but

  • There’s a costume early you need to LOOK to search, and an assassin later you need to SEARCH. When the wrong word is used it isn’t an error, just nothing remarkable is found.
  • CLOSE doesn’t work earlier in the game, and gives an error message that makes it seem like the word is not recognized, except it is essential for a puzzle near the end.
  • There’s some hunt-the-noun going on, like with DIG GROUND in the garden (DIG being another verb that throws off error messages) and the rungs in the guard room.
  • The wand seems to react only to the command USE.
  • There’s a part (the bridge) where you need to drop off all your inventory but you have to drop each item individually.
  • There’s a red gem you have to refer to as RED even though there is only one gem in the game.

Here’s the thing: in the later (1987) DOS edition, nearly all the problems above are resolved. DROP ALL and even DROP EVERYTHING are understood. CLOSE works like it is supposed to. EXAMINE and LOOK are mapped as synonyms (alas, not SEARCH, although if you try to EXAMINE the assassin, it says his pocket “looks full”, so at least there’s an indicator you need a different verb).

The red herrings also had some alleviation in the DOS port. One room full of empty boxes (and wasted time on my part) was cut entirely; the closet is still around but the game just asks “what are you doing in the closet?” rather than keeping mum; the old man at the end of a passage suggests you read some books rather than coming back later (more clearly a joke, given the nature of the library, which skips trekking back and forth the enormous corridor to see if the man says anything different later).

While the points individually may seem small, they added up to wasted time; the sort of thing that seems small on the author end but enormous on the player end. I would say a fair third of the game (for me) was eaten up by strange parser oddities. Even when the parser was acting correctly, I didn’t trust it enough to know if a particular action was the wrong one (the shovel and ore hopper come to mind — I tried many, many actions while there, and I wasn’t able to interpret the parser’s discouragement as letting me know I was on the wrong track).

So: would it have been better if I had played the later version? I haven’t always been picky — I played Zork II in a later edition, for instance, because I knew Jimmy Maher had already tried the first edition, and the same goes for Adventureland. There are some definite upsides to seeing the first version; when Data Driven Gamer tried out Sokoban he insisted on the very first edition for FM-7 computers, and discovered in the process how half the levels required “digging” out rooms in a way no later edition kept.

On the other hand, I’m not here just to document history, but to document the act and psychology of playing games and solving puzzles, and explore how to improve puzzle-solving from the user end and not just the author end. If I only wanted to know what Fargo and his D&D playing friends were up to in 1981, the version I played was fine; if I wanted to experiment with optimal puzzle-solving, the later (and more fair) version would have been a better setting. On top of that, from what I gather the later version was more widespread than earlier ones; if I’m trying to document what other players might have thought of a particular game, an obscure edition none of them saw is likely not the best test.

Further reading: Ahab at Data Driven Gamer also played Demon’s Forge (the 1981 one, of course) and he calls it the worst adventure game he’s ever played. I have played worse, but such are the perils of playing All the Adventures. However, I think it’s fair to say while it still isn’t a good game (there’s still the only-briefly-seen skinny man and the water-drinking rabbit), the 1987 DOS version is much better. If nothing else, it’s interesting in a comparative sense as far as how much a bad parser hurts a game.

(A brief warning: in addition to the 1987 DOS port, there is a 1987 Apple II edition also published by Mastertronic. It seems to be identical to a 1983 Apple II edition published by Boone, but I haven’t studied either. Perhaps a future historian can take a crack; I can tell you that CLOSE doesn’t work on the chest in either version.)

Posted July 17, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Demon’s Forge: 78 Books   Leave a comment

I’m going to pick up with the narrative again on my next post. I wanted to point out an unusual moment later in Demon’s Forge where you come upon a library.

Most adventure games struggle with libraries. They typically either let you read only one book (feels unrealistic) multiple ones chosen at random (generally bad game design) or have some sort of index where you have to look up a particular book to find it. One other option is to simply go ahead and implement a bajillion books, but that’s pretty rare. Even Myst, a game not afraid to infodump from books, had its library previously set ablaze to limit the amount of material.

Demon’s Forge gives a specific and relatively realistic number (78) and if you try to READ BOOK, it gives you a helpful syntax:

HOW ABOUT TELLING ME WHICH BOOK. LIKE READ 23.

On my merry way I did READ 1, READ 2, READ 3, and so forth, told each time THERE WAS NOTHING INTERESTING.

The only change happened at READ 51.

IT’S A STORY OF A MAN WHO WASTED HIS LIFE AWAY READING BOOKS IN THE LIBRARY.

Cheeky! This reflects the game’s generally giving out gobs of red-herring rooms. I can’t confirm yet how many are really red herrings, but there’s already been two labs (one with an empty vat) that have been useless, and while this waterfall room looks like it ought to have something, it’s potentially truly here just for a joke:

Although perhaps you can “become a king” later.

The ratio of useful to useless rooms in the latter part of the game so far has been something like 3 to 20. It’s honestly a bit unusual for this time frame, where computer games have space at a premium. Even the mainframe games of the era, while not conserving space, generally used giant-open area as a structural conceit rather than a joke (see: Haunt, Warp).

There’s additionally a giant corridor composed of many rooms (including the arch above) with an old man at the end who tells you to “come back later”. I peeked at some hints and, apparently, there is no “later”.

Posted July 16, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Demon’s Forge: Omnivores and Carnivores   1 comment

A brief side jaunt into history before starting on the Demon’s Forge proper:

In the book Stay Awhile and Listen, Brian Fargo discussed his early efforts to sell the game. He put one ad in Softalk that cost $2500, 50% of his budget, then would call retailers and tell them he was trying to find a copy of Demon’s Forge and asked if they had it.

They said, “No,” and I said, “Oh, I just saw it in Soft Talk. It looks good. They said, “We’ll look into it.”

Brian would then get an order from the retailer a few minutes later on his other line. Computer guerilla marketing, 1982 style.

He would go on to found Interplay one year later with Jay Patel, Troy Worrell, and Rebecca Heineman (known in those days as Bill Heineman).

(I’d show you the ad, but page 31 which supposedly has it in the Internet Archive scan is missing.)

Last time one of my frustrations was a “skinny man” who ran by but I never saw again. I tried setting out the ration as a “trap” but none of my shenanigans worked, so I broke down and looked it up: you have to FOLLOW MAN the moment you see him, and if you miss doing that you have already lost the game. Once you do that, you can find a previously hidden room:

I was right about the rations, at least: he’ll give you a rod in exchange. This immediately suggested a solution to another problem I had, which was a statue beak grabbing on my hand. One rod application later, and I had a red gem.

If you then GET GEM the game asks you to use RED as the noun instead. I suspect there are multiple gems and the game is trying the hacky way of preventing nameclash.

I then hit some dumb luck. Since I was stuck, I went through my standard list of verbs to see which ones the game understands. As a guinea pig, I used a chest (one that previously held a blanket and pillow) and ran through all the combinations: KICK CHEST, BURN CHEST, FEEL CHEST, etc. This was purely to check for error messages (the message is different when the game doesn’t know the verb at all versus the verb didn’t do anything) and was startled when MOVE CHEST revealed a previously hidden item.

I was able to toss the bag of ashes into the brazier I mentioned last time and summoned a fire elemental named Joe. (If you don’t have the red gem, the fire elemental kills you instead of becomes your friend.)

The fire elemental burned a hole in the double doors I was stuck on, revealing an assassin with a poisoned crossbow. When I attempted to attack I died. Here I needed hints again: I had done SEARCH COSTUME (the one from the start of the game) but not LOOK COSTUME, which revealed a VIAL. The vial turned out to be an anti-poison agent, so I was able to get through.

I was fortunately alert enough to try both LOOK ASSASSIN and SEARCH ASSASSIN; even though LOOK was what found the vial in the costume, SEARCH is the proper verb here (grrr) and that netted me a chime.

The elemental has a second use, of drying up the water in a well (which burns it out; alas, poor Joe).

Ringing the chime opens the door and sends the player into a “trick room”.

Fortunately not hard: you just need to GO LEFT and then GO RIGHT repeatedly until reaching the exit. (The room image above gets repeated once, so I could see someone getting tripped up and going left again, but I was following the instructions literally and kept going right until reaching a room with a sign that said STOP.)

The “carniverous” rabbit is where I’m stuck now. It follows me around and eventually bites me after a few turns. In addition to the wand and hat in the magic room I still have the costume, I’ve filled the formerly anti-poison vial with water, and I additionally have the blanket, red gem, pillow, and chime. The adjacent rooms don’t seem to have anything helpful but I haven’t done much experimentation yet.

(Since I know someone will mention it: I did try getting the rabbit to go into the hat, but haven’t had much luck with any verbs I’ve tried. I freely admit that may still be the solution and I just need to express it properly.)

Posted July 15, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Demon’s Forge (1981)   10 comments

Brawling with the king’s guards is a crime punishable by death. But in considering your prior service as a mercenary in his pay, the king has decided to be lenient. In lieu of death sentence, you have been banished to the dungeon network infamously titled the Demon’s Forge.

You reason that you may as well have been executed. The dungeon has an exit as well as an entrance, but none of the many prisoners sent into it in the past century have left the labyrinth alive. It is little wonder, for they were required to embark without weapons or armor, or even the clothes on their back.

— From the manual

Brian Fargo is a developer still at work today with a long track record of games, including being a designer on Wasteland (1988) and executive producer of Torment: Tides of Numenera (2017). He started his career in high school collaboration with Michael Cranford on a game called Labyrinth of Martagon which “probably sold five copies” but unfortunately seems to have otherwise have vanished (I don’t even know if it is an RPG or adventure according to Andrew Plotkin reporting from a Bard’s Tale postmortem, it was an adventure game). His first game that got “real” distribution came the same year, and was a humble text-adventure-with-graphics for the Apple II.

The cover from the 1981 version.

The cover above I don’t believe has anything to do with the game itself. (Saber Software was Fargo’s creation, so this was still his choice of art.) As the manual’s opening implies, your goal is simply to escape a dungeon; the manual also hints at “a demon of horrible prowess and deadly cunning” named Anarakull who I’m guessing we’ll meet at the end.

I’m going to try taking my time here, because I bought this one back when you could get a new copy! While 1981 was far too early for me, it got republished in the late 80s for DOS by Mastertronic and I snagged that version and played all the way through; I recall needing hints from Kim Schuette’s book but I otherwise don’t remember much except for one (admittedly interesting) puzzle near the end.

I’m playing the original Apple II version which starts you with just “rations”, but I should note the DOS one states you are also carrying your “birthday suit”. I had never heard the term at the time so I spent a while confusedly trying to drop the birthday suit or otherwise interact with it.

I’m stuck fairly early. I found a blanket and pillow, a skinny man running by …

… a statue with a beak with something inside (but trying to reach in gets your hand stuck) …

… and a locked set of doors.

Other than a lab with an empty vat, a brazier, and what appears to be an empty closet. I don’t have access to much, but I’ve only just started playing around.

One last comment on the closet before I close out, though. This is one of those post Hi-Res Adventure games that sometimes describes things in text, and sometimes describes things visually. For example, in the room with the skinny man earlier, the banner is considered an item even though it is only in the picture. Exits are also only given in the visuals; or at least mostly given in the visuals, because it appears the game requires you test some things out randomly. Here’s a brazier …

… but not visible in the brazier picture is an exit to the NORTH, which has the closet.

I assume that’s a “shelf” in the picture but that noun isn’t recognized by the game.

This isn’t nearly as crazy as the map in Goblins, though — everything is rectilinear and only NORTH/SOUTH/EAST/WEST are allowed, not NE/SE/SW/NW. Still, I need to keep up remembering to try random directions as my playing goes forward.

Posted July 14, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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