The Staff “Slake” (1981)   8 comments

The ever-prolific Roger M. Wilcox still has seven games left for our 1981 roster, so let’s knock one down, shall we?

His previous two (In the Universe Beyond, Creatures that Live in the Sun) were a bit wacky (that’s technical jargon for “the work of an imaginative teenager who was noodling around with sci-fi ideas and kept cranking games out without worrying about being published”), but this game plays it straight with another collect-a-thon, where the most interesting thing is the title item.

>EXAMINE STAFF
“Slake” is a magical staff composed almost entirely of gold save a ruby on its front tip. Its bottom seems worn from tapping against the ground. It is capable of a “retributive strike” down its middle, which seems divided for this purpose or possibly for another. Its design has three gold snakes wrapped around the entire length of the staff, which is a symbol of weaponry and protection.

The closest I could find to the staff the game is named after. This is a religious staff (a crozier) used by the Eastern Orthodox religion, and is short one snake. (Picture by Kokkarani, CC BY-SA 3.0).

You start fairly traditional aboveground, with a lantern and a passage into darkness. To get the lantern going requires pulling materials from a mound of “white phosphorus” and a “pile of sulfur” (which just happen to be lying around) and MIX them in order to LIGHT LANTERN.

You can use a shovel to dig out some “dirt walls” to find, rather creatively, a “river of wine” that you can use to fill a canteen, as well as a stone called “Staffbreaker” that will be helpful later.

I was stuck for a while on the “Stronghold Entry Point” on the map — there’s a locked gate and no key. I had tried DIG everywhere (including at the aforementioned river of Dionysian bliss) when I hit the realization that while shovels in text adventures usually don’t bother with nouns, it’s still possible to use one.

The key appears in the room description when you DIG SULFUR. This doesn’t really count as guess-the-verb, guess-the-noun, or any sort of standard bad parser behavior, yet I was still psyched out by the parser.

Past the locked gate I was able to get into a treasure room with the staff from the title.

The staff later gets three different uses, all cued by the description text I quoted earlier: the “ruby on its front tip”, the bottom that “seems worn from tapping against the ground”, the middle allowing a “retributive strike”, and it being a “symbol of weaponry and protection”.

For example, proceeding further, you come across a warrior at a “guard station”.

The warrior is swinging a magic sword at you right now!

where the right action is to PARRY.

You parried the swing! In fact, the parry caused your attacker to drop his sword onto the floor. He runs away in fear, leaving the sword behind.

This would have been a hard verb to normally summon up, but I had been stung before by In the Universe Beyond where the hints give information nearly impossible to find otherwise, so I had tried HELP earlier to see if it worked.

I know the verbs PARRY and FILL.

The warrior runs away but does not leave; in order to exit back upstairs (either right after the initial confrontation, or later) the sword left behind must be used against its original owner.

Speaking of odd verbs, just trying to EXAMINE the body indicates two puncture wounds. To find the hidden items — a two-handed sword and a bag — you need to FRISK ADVENTURER.

The second function of the staff is to shoot at stuff; in particular if you jump into a pit (there’s a treasure down there) your way out is blocked by a boulder.

Realizing that you need to “turn” first is subtle and non-obvious. The way I figured it out was fascinating in a ludic-theory sort of way: the game helpfully warns you if you jump in the pit without the staff that you’ve made the game unwinnable, and offers to let you back up. It struck me the only difference between getting the message and not getting the message was having the staff, so the staff had to be the solution, leading me to experiment more and arrive at TURN STAFF. Solving by realizing what was in the negative space, so to speak.

The third use — and more or less the climax puzzle — requires destroying the staff altogether. There’s a stone door where zapping with the staff won’t work, and there’s no key, but you can drop the staff and throw the “Staffbreaker” stone (from back at the river) and cause it to blow the staff up. This is interesting insofar as the staff as it is a treasure, but in being destroyed it makes a new treasure which works as a replacement: gold dust.

I needed to meta-solve past a bug, though. When the explosion happens, the screen flashes RETRIBUTIVE STRIKE! and the main screen returns … but not the prompt. However, game saves were still possible via the menu, so I saved and reloaded, and found myself with an open door and gold dust as was apparently meant to happen.

It isn’t necessarily the climax puzzle because there’s a few side puzzles to mop up (some leprechauns want the wine from the canteen, for instance) the most amusing being a carnivorous goose who can only be satiated by the taste of human skeleton bones.

Untitled Goose Game: The Early Years.

However, I managed to end at 100% treasure without too much trouble after.

The game doesn’t end. You just can take the hint from the declaration of victory and skedaddle whenever.

I did like the game centering around an object with multiple uses that was destroyed in the end. It reminded me of Wilcox making a consistent set of puzzles around an object with The Vial of Doom. The Vial of Doom still remains his strongest game I’ve played so far; The Staff “Slake” isn’t quite top tier simply due to the mundane nature of the treasure hunt, but it still came with some interesting ideas.

Posted March 2, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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8 responses to “The Staff “Slake” (1981)

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  1. “a carnivorous goose who can only be satiated by the taste of human skeleton bones”

    Hey, the calcium used to make its eggshells doesn’t come out of thin air!

  2. The game doesn’t describe a key appearing or anything like that after you DIG SULFUR. Were you just guessing trying GET KEY at that point?

    I’m a little confused how sulfur alone (?) is resulting in a “gunpowder explosion” when you turn the key. But I suppose I should be glad the game doesn’t make you find sources of charcoal and saltpeter.

    FRISK, ugh. I will allow, with some grumbling, that EXAMINE and SEARCH may denote slightly different actions. But FRISK doesn’t belong anywhere outside of something police-themed.

    Is the only verb that works in the pit TURN? Can you POINT STAFF, for instace? With TURN I was picturing something like holding it upright and then rotating it on its vertical axis, whereas I think maybe I’m meant to be picturing a forward turn such that it’s horizontal to the ground. (Describing the ruby as being on the “front tip” of the staff rather than the “top” is kind of throwing me here.)

    you can drop the staff and throw the “Stonebreaker” stone

    I think you mean Staffbreaker.

    Untitled Goose Game: The Early Years.

    LOL.

    Either I don’t want to know about the size of this goose, or you’re giving it a tiny phalange or something. A goose that can crack femurs would be terrifying.

    • I’m not sure that was a real goose.

      …wait, it’s male, but it lays an egg??

    • Fixed the typo, thanks!

      TURN is the only thing that works. I did think of turning the ruby, but my visualization was more in a metaphorical sense than a concrete one.

    • oh, realized I missed a question — the key just appears in the room description above. A problem with trying to convey what’s going on in Scott Adams style games — they sometimes have changes marked with just Ok.

  3. “The game doesn’t end. You just can take the hint from the declaration of victory and skedaddle whenever.”

    Are you sure you’ve actually won? Perhaps reaching 100% is necessary but not sufficient for victory. Perhaps you have to find a way to reconstitute the staff, using the gold dust and the ruby rod?

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