Archive for June 2021

Sleazy Adventure (1981)   7 comments

To recap our misadventures with Atari and the APX catalog, the entire 1981 library consists of

Castle by Robert Zdybel
Alien Egg by Robert Zdybel
Wizard’s Gold by Unknown
Wizard’s Revenge by Max Manowski
Chinese Puzzle by Dennis Koble (haven’t played this yet)
Sultan’s Palace by Dennis Koble (haven’t played this yet)
Sleazy Adventure by Bob Smith (today’s selection!)

Wizard’s Revenge is the odd one out; it’s the only one that followed the APX tagline of “User-Written Software”, as it was originally given away as public domain (under no title at all), resulting in the author being contacted by Atari and the game being added to the catalog in December 1981.

However, all of the other games share the same internal Atari text adventure engine, written by Larry Kaplan, who also worked on the operating system for the Atari 400/800 itself (with David Crane and Alan Miller). All games share the issue of having “initial descriptions” of objects not necessarily match their real names, …

From Alien Egg. The correct action is TAKE SPACESUIT.

… a slightly erratic verb list (TAKE but not GET, TURNON and TURNOFF as single words), and a generic message of “THERE IS SOMETHING IN YOUR WAY” on exits that are blocked off for puzzle reasons (without much help as to what is causing the blocking).

According to Bob Smith, making a text adventure with the engine was something of a rite of passage for new programmers at Atari, and he produced Sleazy Adventure the first few months he was there (before eventually finishing the Atari 2600 game Video Pinball before striking it out on his own and helping form Imagic). The concept came from his younger days when built catamarans in San Francisco and “knew a lot of smugglers”; a group of “hippies” were building boats at the time, and “about half” were interested in smuggling.

You’re really into sailing. Not only do you spend all your spare time sanding and painting the hull of your thirty-foot sloop, but you’ve taken out three mortgages on your home (and an your mother-in-law’s as well) to pay far your dream boat. You suspect you might be going under when your bank starts foreclosing on your home and all your creditors are asking to be invited for a sail. A rich sailing buddy has recently purchased a sixty-foot cutter, currently moored in Thailand. Desperate to make a quick haul and also keen for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to sail a cutter, you volunteer to sail it home for her, thinking you can bring back a little contraband while you’re at it. She agrees that you’re just right for the job and pays your way to the Bangkok International Airport. From there on, you’re on your own. Before you attempt to find the ship, hoist the sails, and head out to sea, you need to explore the town to discover what’s worth taking along. The problem is, Bangkok is known for being a contraband capital. The more you try to take, the greater risks you face, customs officials being just one of them. You’re probably in deeper than you bargained for, but just think about all your creditors if you need a little motivation. Good luck!

Stated faster: you land in Thailand and need to sail a friend’s ship home, and you can (optionally) get some “treasures” to take home with you. It’s the Treasure Hunt genre (from Crowther/Woods Adventure, Zork I, Warp, etc.) but with customs agents involved.

Here’s a video of actual Thailand in 1981:

What follows does not resemble Thailand in 1981. It does not even resemble a random foreigner’s impression of Thailand in 1981. It’s more like a satirical mashup of every pop-cultural notion of Thailand except the protagonist is taking the same drugs that Hunter S. Thompson did in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This is appropriate as Mr. Thompson will be making a cameo.

“You wonder why you came” is decidedly odd for an adventure game of this era, and resembles the parts of Aldebaran III where you “play a character”; the game, after all, is putting thoughts inside attributed to “you” such that “you” are not really you.

Incidentally, the HINT command in this game is custom for each room, and if you type HINT here:

You can here because there are easy, but illegal, ways of obtaining wealth.

The above is the only depiction of the main portion of Bangkok (that is, the majority of the video above if you watched it). The “bad water” stereotype is still around; in 2014 in Phuket improper waste handling caused black water:

Tourists simply do not go to that end of the beach and long-tail boat club members have to stand watch on the beach and warn local children not to go in the water. Contact with the water, the boatmen said, results in itchy skin … Tourists staying in the hotel nearby walk to this point on the beach and then, when they hit the wall of smell, turn around and walk away.

There is nothing useful here to do except go down in a sewer.

The flashlight lets you move forward into the “city cesspool” (see image at the top of the post), where you’ll be stuck. Now is a good time to mention the game’s deeply odd verb list, that you can get from the manual, and includes:

CONTRACT, DROP, EAT, GRAB, HOIST, HUMOR, MOVE, READ, SAY, SELL, STEAL, STOW, STRIKE, TAKE, TURNOFF, TURNON, WRAP

“HUMOR”? “CONTRACT”? STOW, HOIST and WRAP also seem like normal verbs, but I don’t think I’d yet seen one in a game.

Trying to leave indicates “SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY”; based on the text, that “something” would be the nurses. You need to get yourself unsick. The typhoid is still in your inventory…

YOU ARE CARRYING:
FLASHLIGHT
TYPHOID
POISON

…so the correct thing is to simply DROP TYPHOID. Cured! (“You improve 100 percent, and are able to walk again.”) Then you can escape, and the only reason for the whole sewer sequence was to pick up some poison. The world is “open”, so to speak…

…but for the purposes of the journey here, let’s suppose you go west into an ALLEY.

I’m just going to assume the protagonist is completely high from this point.

You fit right into the supposed atmosphere by immediately coming across a drunken sailor and stealing their wallet.

Assuming you want all the treasures. You can skip quite a bit of this, which I’ll get to at the end.

The wallet can be used to bribe a nearby “waif” to make it to a hovel with a mysterious package.

You also need one more thing from this area, a map in order to get past a forest to your boat, and this part isn’t optional.

I feel safe in declaring that this is the only time in adventure game history that the necessary command is HUMOR PERVERT.

Out from the “sleazy” area, you can visit a lumber mill and pick up a bundle of ebony (just a treasure on its own) and get lost in a forest.

This is where the map is necessary. You can then go east, visit a beggar, drop them a coin, and get a mantra; the mantra gets used immediately after with some monks.

This is the third and last treasure, which turns out to be a gold buddha. The package and the ebony are the other two.

Going south in the forest gets to the boat. (You can skip everything except the map and go straight to the boat if you want to skip the treasures.)

Remember, the author used to build boats, so the world model here is fancier than you’d expect from a bare-bones Atari 400 game. Directions now switch to port/starboard/forward/aft, and to get sailing, you need to raise two different sails in different places (JIB and MAINSAIL), you need to hoist a jib after finding a mooring line, and you need to use a compass to set sail.

Each direction command now represents traveling a giant chunk of map. It only takes 6 or so commands (jumping between entire continents in single bounds) to arrive at San Francisco.

Above is the result of my first traversal (I didn’t find the buddha the first time, otherwise the IRS would be there too). I forgot the “smuggle” part of smuggling so the ebony and package attracted some unwanted attention. (How did the agents know to show up? I’m assuming the giant spans of time where just going EAST hops you from the Indian Sea to the Pacific included a few stops for supplies that got elided in the gameplay.)

The key here is to clear out a secret shipping area (there’s a rat, the poison from the sewer gets rid of him) and use the WRAP and STOW commands I mentioned earlier to hide each of the three treasures.

Doing the trip again with everything properly hidden led to a better ending.

Remember, this was published by Atari in 1981, the richest videogame company in the world (Washington Post headline, November 8, 1981: Warner’s Atari Video Games Are a Rocketship to Riches). This was originally a “private” game which only got unearthed because the APX crew was desperate for product; the initial APX catalog allowed for a bizarre stab in the dark to go commercial.

(Thanks to Kevin Bunch who helped on finding a source.)

Posted June 29, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Dragons of Hong Kong (1981)   9 comments

Opening screen for the Apple II version of the game. (Confirmed with an anonymous correspondent and the Hong Konger Jeremy Salkeld: that’s “Hong Kong” in fancy lettering.)

It was five years ago I starting playing through Robert Lafore’s self-proclaimed “interactive fiction”. It’s finally time to wrap things up with his last game.

To recap, he didn’t use a traditional parser, but rather his own keyword-searching setup that pretended to understand full input and encouraged role-play as part of the story. With his system he wrote:

Local Call for Death (mystery which includes investigating a room, stunningly good for 1979)
Two Heads of the Coin (Sherlock Holmes knockoff mystery)
Six Micro Stories (odd experimental collection of “short stories”)
His Majesty’s Ship ‘Impetuous’ (the Age of Sail, starts with a “puzzle” where you need to solve a dilemma unprompted)

For Dragons of Hong Kong, in order to adequately explain the premise I need to start with inflation in the 1970s. Seriously.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

In the 1972-1974 period in the United States both food and energy prices rose (there was a Saudi Arabian-led oil embargo on countries thought to support Israel in the Yom Kippur War) and a second food price hike kicked off more inflation from the 1978-1980 range. (There’s some mess in the early 1970s involving Nixon wage-price controls but I’m skipping over that.) The end result was an average inflation of 6.85% over the decade, eye-popping compared to the prior two decades (2.38 and 2.56 percent respectively) and at some points the inflation reached double digits. (For excessive detail, see Blinder, The Anatomy of Double-Digit Inflation in the 1970s.)

Inflation was bad enough during the decade that in 1974 there was a WIN (Whip Inflation Now) campaign led by US President Ford complete with novelty merchandise.

Image public domain.

When Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in 1981, inflation was near 10 percent, and credit for bringing it down goes mostly to Paul Volcker (chairman of the Federal Reserve System, appointed by Carter) who cranked the federal funds rate all the way to an eye-popping 20%, a level it has never been at before or since.

1981 is, of course, the year of our game, when not only the United States but a good chunk of the world had been inflation-weary for an entire decade. This helps explain the bizarre premise–

Professor Goodman, twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Economics, has asked to meet you, (insert YOUR NAME HERE), in Big Al’s Bar to inform you of an important discovery.

“SO,” YOU SAY, “WHAT’S THIS ASTOUNDING DISCOVERY?”

“I’VE FIGURED OUT,” HE SAYS, LEANING INTENTLY ACROSS THE BOOTH TOWARD YOU, “WHAT’S CAUSING INFLATION.”

So the whole premise is: there is a secret society that worships money — the Gregarine Order — based on Hong Kong. They have found a way to manipulate markets causing excessive inflation. They have their own currency, the dogecoin Liroon, and their goal is to eradicate all other world currencies and substitute their own. They are led by an eeeeevil economist with an eyepatch, Akbar D’evile.

The professor also gets you to promise to send his nine-year-old niece a notification should anything happen to him, because her birthday happens in three days.

Immediately after telling you all this, and you agree or disagree to help go to Hong Kong, he dies via a jade dagger thrown at his heart. The people at the bar think you committed murder and you have to run away.

“DON’T GIVE US THAT. THE OLD GEEZER HAS A DAGGER IN HIS CHEST AND YOU’RE THE ONLY PERSON HEAR HIM.”

You then manage to “borrow” a passport from a friend in order to get a trip to Hong Kong in an attempt to clear your name.

Or you can end the game early here, which is kind of boring. Through all this you don’t get many choices — i.e. you can try to type something other than “RUN” to react to being accused of murder, but then you’ll just get annihilated by the bar patrons, so it isn’t really a “choice”.

Close to boarding, you remember about your promise regarding the professor’s niece, and the game lets you choose if you want to stop to send a letter or just board the plane to avoid the risk of missing a flight.

YOU STOP IN MID-STRIDE. WHAT ABOUT YOUR PROMISE TO THE PROFESSOR? THE LETTER TO HIS NIECE? IF YOU DON’T MAIL IT NOW, IT WON’T GET TO HER BY HER BIRTHDAY. YOU WOULD NEED TO BUY A CARD AND A STAMP, WRITE THE THING, AND FIND A MAILBOX. DO YOU HAVE TIME? THE TICKET MAN TOLD YOU TO HURRY–THE FLIGHT WAS ALREADY BOARDING. A PROMISE IS A PROMISE, BUT AFTER ALL, THE MAN IS DEAD, AND IF YOU MISS THE FLIGHT…

This is a gotcha-choice — similar the kind used in a lot of a Fighting Fantasy books at the time — if you choose wrong, you’ll lose in a future chapter. You have to send the letter. I’ll explain why later, but I do want to note the first time through I ended up choosing wrong just because the parser misinterpreted what I typed. Here’s the relevant source code:

5472 IFINSTR(I$,” STEW”)THENB$=”STEWARDESS”:GOTO5488
5474 IFINSTR(I$,”AGENT”)ORINSTR(I$,”TICKET”)ORINSTR(I$,”BOARDING”)ORINSTR(I$,”GATE”)THENB$=”TICKET AGENT”:GOTO5488
5480 IFNF=0AND(INSTR(I$,”WRITE”)ORINSTR(I$,”SHOP”)ORINSTR(I$,”STORE”)ORINSTR(I$,”BUY”)ORj
INSTR(I$,”NOTE”)ORINSTR(I$,”TURN”)ORINSTR(I$,”STAMP”)ORINSTR(I$,”MAIL”)ORINSTR(I$,”CARD”))THEN5500
5482 IFINSTR(I$,”KEEP”)0ANDINSTR(I$,”PROMISE”)ANDNF=0THEN5500
5486 GOTO5490

If your string contains any of the keywords mentioned (“BUY”, “MAIL”, etc) the game assumes you meant to send the letter, otherwise it skips on to “THE FLIGHT IS DELAYED BRIEFLY. YOU WOULD HAVE HAD PLENTY OF TIME TO WRITE, BUT IT IS TOO LATE NOW.” I typed SEND LETTER which, you’ll notice, is not caught by any of the source code lines above. I went ahead and rolled with it, but I just wanted to emphasize how risky the keyword approach is even when being quite thorough (it also seems extremely easy to have the command interpreted wrong the other way, with DON’T SEND MAIL having the word “MAIL” get snagged).

On the plane to Hong Kong you find yourself next to a young lady from Wyoming named Daisy Rae, on a missionary trip.

I should mention the game assumes male and hetero. You actually can choose to be female at the start but the game says “ALAS, THIS STORY HAS A RATHER MALE PERSPECTIVE. WE SUGGEST YOU ADOPT A MALE OUTLOOK AND A MAN’S NAME.” I think assigned roles and sexualities can work — the entire otome genre, for instance, assumes female main characters romancing male ones — but I found pretending there was an open choice followed by a forced reversal grating.

Upon landing, “YOU PASS THROUGH IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS WITHOUT INCIDENT AND SAY GOODBYE TO DAISY RAE” and note ominously that “SHE’S HIDING SOMETHING WITH THAT COWPOKE ACCENT, YOU THINK. YOU WONDER WHAT IT IS.”

This is followed by a choice between hotel room (Peninsula Hotel, expensive, Singapore Hotel, medium, YMCA, cheap); picking the Peninsula will lead to a game over later. This is followed by a meeting with a second potential romantic interest.

This is Francine Tang, a secretary for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. You eat food and talk and as she leaves there’s another note of suspicion.

AS SHE TURNS TO LEAVE, HER LONG BLACK HAIR SWINGS ASIDE TO REVEAL, FOR AN INSTANT, A JADE EARRING ORNAMENTED WITH TINY GOLDEN DRAGONS.

Still no choices (other than the sending a birthday message one), just conversational roleplaying. You wander Hong Kong a bit (…hoping to find a secret society by luck, I suppose) and get your fortune told.

The middle paragraph differs if you’ve sent the birthday message. The last paragraph is supposed to be a clue for what to do during an event happening shortly.

Finally, you get to make a choice — you can call either Daisy or Francine the next day to spend time with them, and this also opens the opportunity for romantic choice (although, as you’ll see, it isn’t forced). Before plowing ahead with the plot — is this the first time this has happened in a computer game? That is, there is a choice of romantic partners, like many a visual novel? We can dip all the way back to 1930 with Consider the Consequences for this kind of choice in a printed book, but in electronic form?

Above is part of the trip with Francine. With Daisy Rae she confesses that the whole “missionary thing” is a way to get setup and she wants to get rich in Hong Kong

LISTEN–I WORKED IN A NEW YORK REAL-ESTATE OFFICE FOR SIX YEARS. I THINK I CAN GET RICH HERE.

As the scene ends, news of a typhoon rolls in. The protagonist, that is, you, decide to be less than cautious. (There is no choice here or even free-for text roleplaying, it just happens.)

Wandering the docks, you are approached by a man with a newspaper.

AS YOU STAND WATCHING THE WAVES A SHORT DARK CHINESE MAN APPROACHES YOU. HE IS CARRYING A FOLDED NEWSPAPER.

AT THAT MOMENT THE FIRST HARD GUST OF WIND SWEEPS ACROSS THE HARBOR. HIS NEWSPAPER IS BLOWN OPEN LIKE AN UMBRELLA,
AND SOMETHING CLATTERS TO THE SIDEWALK. IT IS A KNIFE WITH A JADE HANDLE, ENCIRCLED BY GOLDEN DRAGONS IN A LOVER’S KNOT.

Finally things pick up! …. and you get the choice to chase the assassin (who flees by boat) or make it to safety. If you take the action route, you find yourself dead.

I realize part of the setup with the fortune teller was to make the choice to chase a little more like solving a puzzle, but I have doubts any players would have made their plot choice on the basis of that.

So, a brief failed assassination, and back to romance. (Assuming you didn’t pick the expensive hotel to stay in — otherwise that’s when it’s game over, as you get deported back to the United States and convicted for the murder of the professor.)

I’m cutting out some moments, so this isn’t hurried or ridiculous, just it shares the issue with many Game Romances of feeling like a Setup rather than something natural and organic.

If you remember my writeup on Impetuous, there was a “third option” in an early moment in the game that was a puzzle of sorts. The game suggests “seduce” and “just friends” are the two only choices, but there’s a third one, where you instead proclaim your love.

4540 IFINSTR(I$,” LOVE”)ORINSTR(I$,” FALL”)ORINSTR(I$,”MARRY”)THEN4600
4550 IFINSTR(I$,” SEDUCE”)THEN4650
4560 IFINSTR(I$,” FRIEND”)ORINSTR(I$,”BACK OFF”)THEN4700

What makes this doubly interesting (if not great gameplay-wise) is that the reactions to Daisy and Francine are entirely different. Daisy only responds positively to “seduce” (if you try for “love” she responds “GOD WHAT A BORE MEN ARE.”); Francine, on the other hand, responds the best to “love”.

SHE SAYS NOTHING, BUT SHE REACHES ACROSS THE TABLE AND TAKES YOUR HAND, AND YOU SEE, DEEP IN HER OWN DARK EYES, AN ANSWERING FIRE.

After this scene, the next day our lovestruck/rejected protaganist decides that Akbar D’evile (the evil economist) must be at a special club for the rich.

I’m not sure where this leap of logic came from?

You find out that the US Undersecretary is visiting the club, and the Undersecretary happens to look a lot like you. So you (assuming you want to move this plot along and not just abort) decide to do some impersonation, and make it inside, where you are faced with a choice. Hope you remembered the description of D’evile from the start of the story!

This is after me typing my response, completing the sentence.

D’evile finds out your knowledge of world events is a bit lacking and becomes suspicious, and asks you “the password”. The first time through the game I had no idea the password, so quickly became mincemeat.

For the early-fatal-choice, at least the game was good enough to have the fortune teller warn us partway through the plot something was wrong. If you sent the message to the niece, you get a helpful response back in one of the earlier chapters:

SHE THANKS YOU FOR WRITING AND ADDS A PS: “UNCLE TOLD ME ONCE THAT HE HAD LEARNED THE GREGARINE PASSWORD–IT’S INFINITE INFLATION. I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS, BUT MAYBE YOU DO.”

With INFINITE INFLATION, your imposter disguise holds, and you get an invite to the Gregarine HQ. Our goal now (which was in one of the screenshots earlier) is to get the MASTER TRANSACTION FILE. However, the file is in a vault that needs to be broken into at night, and you need a confederate.

The endgame here is a result of who your romantic interest is, and what choice you made with them. Both Daisy and Francine were spies for the Gregarines the entire time! If you pick SEDUCE with Daisy, James Bond style, Daisy will decide to turn against the Gregarine. If you pick something other than SEDUCE with Francine, the same thing happens.

“I COULDN’T HELP GOING TO BED WITH YOU, BUT I HATED MYSELF IN THE MORNING, AND I HATED YOU MORE.”

“CUT THE GAB,” SAYS D’EVILE, PRODDING YOU WITH THE GUN. “YOU’RE GOING FOR YOUR LAST RIDE.”

Assuming you handled the romance appropriately, you’ll be able to follow through with the vault plan, steal the master transaction file, have an opportunity to murder D’Evile (don’t do it, you’ll just get arrested), and escape to victory.

With the “friendship with Francine” ending, you get the sequence above, and find out Francine joined a Buddhist temple. If you went full romance with either character:

8560 A$=” YOU TWINE YOUR FINGERS IDLY IN HER LONG ”
8570 IFFF=0THENB$=”GOLDEN”
8580 IFFF=1THENB$=”MIDNIGHT”
8590 C$=” HAIR.
#YOU KNOW, #5, FAME AND GLORY ARE FINE, BUT YOU’RE THE ONLY THING THAT REALLY MATTERS TO ME.#

#OH, #1,# SHE SAYS BREATHLESSLY, AND MELTS INTO YOUR ARMS, LIKE A SCOOP OF ICE CREAM ON A WAFFLE-IRON.”

Another picture from the Apple II version of the game.

Well. I wish I could say the series ended on a strong note, but Impetuous was definitely the better game. Structurally, that game had an early puzzle — which made it explicit it was a puzzle, and one interesting to figure out — then branched based on choice of first officer in such a way that the same events occurred, but you had to choose differently based on the nature of the first officer. The “unimportant” roleplaying choices throughout (like remembering to say “sir” to a superior) felt nontrivial. This all led to a final naval climax where prior choices came into play.

The “choice of spies” for Dragons was meant to be analogous to the first officers, but structurally, the end result was a “puzzle” where you choose how seductive you want to be. The plot otherwise lagged terribly, with an assassination attempt over as soon as it began, and a main character who essentially just wanders Hong Kong with no direction for the majority of the action before getting the bright idea where to find D’Evile. The roleplaying was relatively weak — for example, Impetuous has a moment of freeform swearing right at the start of a battle, whereas this game has you make your choice of swear at character creation.

This felt to me like an evolutionary game, but where no games followed to continue the ideas. I can see the author trying new structures — let’s have the two characters like the previous games, but space out their interactions, and try to put some essential information the player must remember to keep them on their toes — and while they didn’t work, there was so little at this time to refer to, the concepts needed to be tried out first. I still hold that, especially given more modern advanced AI, there are paths to new forms of gameplay lurking here, and the innovations died (or at least, didn’t get picked up again until roughly 10 years ago) not just because of cultural inertia but because they were too early for the technology to handle them in a smooth way.

Let’s let Lafore (who went on to be a prolific writer of programming textbooks) have the last word (via Softline, September-October 1983):

What sort of people like interactive fiction? Hard to say. Perhaps people who are technofreaks but who are also interested in traditional literary forms. Some people think it’s sacrilege, using computers for literature. Of course, they’re the same people who think it’s sacrilege to use computers for anything.

Strangely enough, schools seem to be the most interested in our interactive fiction games. Both universities and high schools are using interactive fiction in creative writing courses—they find it can help a beginning writer start putting lines on paper—or on the computer. Once the student has talked back to a bunch of fictional computer characters for a while, he’s ready to start writing his own stories.

As to the future, it’ll be nice when voice recognition and speech synthesis become common enough to be applied to interactive fiction. And now that the interactive laser disk is with us, I don’t think it’ll be too long before we have interactive movies. Imagine: Pretty soon you’ll be able to play Bogart’s role in Casablanca—or just inject yourself into the story and slip off with Ingrid Bergman … make Shane come back … convince Dorothy to stay in Oz. 1 don’t think anyone can imagine where it will all lead.

Posted June 25, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Earthquake San Francisco 1906: Finished!   11 comments

From Mobygames.

Mostly parser struggles up to the end, although there was one bit where the coding just had bizarre issues. As usual, you should read my previous entries about this game before getting to this one.

I made some small progress on my own via my first “off the keyboard” solve in a while — I was standing in line at a store waiting when I decided to run through game scenarios in my head, and it intuitively occured to me if the game wasn’t letting me use the ladder to get across the crack (even though that’s reasonable based on the depicted size) maybe I could pole vault over. Back on the computer, I tried VAULT and got a response WITH WHAT?, which meant I was on the right track. I needed a pole, but I was out of options for finding one, and meandered uselessly across the map for long enough I set a timer (15 minutes) and resolved to check hints if I couldn’t make progress in that time. (I’d already done this twice earlier in the game, and both times I had a breakthrough.) With no luck anywhere, I finally found out I was supposed to sit on a cushion.

Hmm, OK. Except SIT and SIT ON CUSHION and any other plausible variant fails to be recognized. I finally hit upon

SIT DOWN

and had to stop playing for a while, because I was infuriated. Usually I can laugh goofball parser antics off, but somehow this one made me feel much less worse than normal, especially since the end result was causing an “EVIL LOOKING MANDARIN” to bring a plate of food. Eating the food leaves a FORTUNE

IT READS….”HE WHO EXAMINES GATE….PREVAILS”.

The only gate I could think of was the iron gate that I struggled earlier to unlock, so I poked and prodded and searched and got absolutely nothing, and because my patience was ruined by the earlier puzzle, checked to find I had to PULL IRON GATE which somehow yields an IRON ROD.

VAULT works with the iron rod, leading to a pagoda with a locked glass door. Given I’d used most of what I was carrying (except the paddle and diamond) I tried out the diamond:

Then I got stuck again (the graphic suggests I’m supposed to reach through the hole and unlock from the other side) until I realized the game is obsessive about the verb CLIMB, which works to go directly to another locked door. Some frustrating wandering later (and using the philosophy that almost every room has something, and the garden next to the restaurant hadn’t been used yet) I came across a helpful person who gave me a brass key for no apparent reason.

The word here shows up in older dictionaries without much fuss (see Fowler’s 1926) as an analogue to “Irishman”, “Englishman”, etc., but still had some slur use early, and by 1945 H.L. Mencken points out it is definitely considered a slur in the Chinese community (see Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing). It’s possible someone circa 1981 might overlook the problem but remember “EVIL LOOKING MANDARIN” just happened too.

Passing through yet another locked door, I finally found myself on a street with a dead body.

This scene will come up again later.

Heading east my progress was blocked off yet again, so I dutifully toted my inventory over — including Fruity the small dog, meaning the wet pants are canon — and Fruity was helpful one more time.

You have to leave for a while and come back to find a hole dug. Fruity takes off, I choose to assume to safety.

The hole dug by Fruity led me to a hotel room and yet more frustration.

Despite the game never having any prior, the safe is a red herring. I wasted so many verb attempts trying to get something to happen.

Trying to go any of the directions led to HUH? I just shrugged and looked up the next step: PRY BOARDS. They’re in the picture but I don’t know how to make “BOARDS” show up in the text description, which makes it the first and only time in the entire game where this happens.

This led me to a soldier who wanted me to drop my stuff so he could steal it.

Good atmosphere, but too bad the game keeps alternating good moments and frustrating ones.

This would have been fine had the soldier only appeared once, but he camps if you bring along any items whatsoever. It turns out — again I just looked up hints — you can OPEN DOOR in one of the locations just past the soldier, which will lead you back to the hotel room. Then, subsequent OPEN DOOR commands will let you skip the soldier area. I assume the intent was a door that was locked on the other side that you then unlocked, but if you try to refer to that door from in the hotel room before reaching it from the other side, the game just goes “HUH?” like it doesn’t exist.

Finally I reached a dock for escape from San Francisco, only to get stopped again.

The key here is the dead woman I left behind earlier — you can dump your wet pants and UNDRESS her to get her dress, which is apparently sufficient to disguise as a woman. If that makes you feel uneasy, just wait for the next scene:

After a few turns, a hole appears…

…and the boat sinks and everyone dies, except you manage to swim to a piece of floating wood.

Some use of the paddle later and you make it to Oakland, and can hop on a wagon.

A quick reminder because it sure was easy to forget when playing: our goal was to reach the Portman Hotel in Oakland to pay some kidnappers and get your wife back. You need to pay attention when the wagon is passing by the aforementioned hotel and CLIMB DOWN, because if you stay on any longer the wagon tumbles down a hill and everyone dies.

I was disappointed at the end — I was expecting to have a double-cross, and maybe a shoot-out using my handgun, but no — you just PAY the dodgy-looking gentleman (assuming you remembered to bring your cash from the start of the game all the way to the end) and you get a win screen.

The immediate words that come to mind here are “wasted potential”. There’s a fair number of intense scenes: you get buried under a building and the screen turns black, you have to shoot a soldier who thinks you’re a looter (or is just shooting without caring), you have to deal with a soldier who is himself a looter, and the boat to safety turns out to be a deathtrap. However, the overlay of parser frustration ruined many of the parts, and the tone was just off — it’s simply difficult to convey the gravity of mass death in the format of sharply truncated text and slightly askew Apple II graphics.

Will Moczarski (who wrote about the game here and here) expressed that “the story of Earthquake clashes with its setting” which I believe is referring to the actual acts done by the player compared to the seriousness of the disaster. Additionally, having the criminal genre mixed with the disaster genre is a time-honored tradition, but that’s not quite what’s happening here, and in the end, the plot hook and conclusion seem incongruent with the rest of what’s going on.

We’ve still got some Jymm Pearson to go — he had a busy 1981! — as his next venture is Saigon: The Final Days (set in the Vietnam War) and his first game where his wife Robyn Pearson is listed as co-creator. For the curious, I’m now at the three-quarters mark in my sequence with about 25 games left to go before wrapping up 1981 entirely.

Posted June 18, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Earthquake San Francisco 1906: Adventures With Fruity   Leave a comment

(This post won’t make much sense without reading my previous ones in this series.)

Slow and jerking progress. I’ve somewhat got “in the mind” of the author here.

Reading the Author’s Mind Point #1: The parser has some “general” verbs that work anywhere — I listed them last time — but also some locations/objects with custom responses even on verbs that normally provoke a “huh?” and a custom phrase in one case (that is, the verb was not recognized, but the full verb-and-noun-combo was).

For example, SCREAM in order to get un-buried from the rubble doesn’t work anywhere else. (I had solved the puzzle before I went and made my verb list.) Rather more frustrating and important is that I was staring at the blank wall from last time…

…looked at the lumber in my inventory, and thought to try MAKE LADDER. This led to the response

YOU LACK SOMETHING…..

which does not happen if you try to make a ladder anywhere else, even though there’s no logical reason for this! I was just lucky enough to try the command in the right place.

Moving on, I needed the aforementioned “something” I lacked — I presumed nails, and possibly a hammer, so went searching for them.

Reading the Author’s Mind Point #2: Events can happen in previously visited places. The game doesn’t keep track of the number of turns (except for if you are in imminent danger and have one turn to react) so this is event-based, meaning if you hung out and searched a place for many, many, turns, you may still have missed anything, because time doesn’t “advance” until you get further along.

Case in point: I had sauntered back to the start and somehow encountered the dog below near where the fruit seller was. I will call him Fruity.

Nooooo Fruity that’s rotten fruit, you’ll get sick.

I’m not sure what triggers Fruity to appear — I think it may just be getting into the sewer, or something close to that — but it means that after any progress, prior locations need to be checked.

Points #1 and #2 combined to have me go back and scour each location looking for nails (or a hammer). It occurred to me at the ruined hotel there could be some nails in the debris, even though I did LOOK on everything I could think of.

FRAGILE WALLS BLOCK YOUR WAY NORTH, EAST, and WEST. A DOOR STILL STANDS TO THE SOUTH.

I apparently hadn’t done LOOK WALL because that yielded me … a handgun? (I tried another look after and the game said NOT NOW!) Well, that doesn’t solve the ladder problem, but I did have a soldier to deal with, and unlike the poor human we gunned down in Escape from Traam he’s actively trying to hurt us, so:

Still feel kind of bad, because the only reason for doing this is to steal the nails from his pack.

Just nails and lumber aren’t quite enough, though. After some frustrating attempts at searching nearby some more…

Still haven’t found anything here, for instance, but the game has me absolutely paranoid something will eventually pop up so I have to keep returning.

…I hiked back all the way to the hotel, and amidst my searching, tried LOOK WALL again. Remember, I found a handgun but couldn’t find anything else!

I double checked, and it looks like the hammer will not appear until you use the gun. I very much get the impression the author had a “script” of action, but even with liberal use of “drama time”, I don’t understand why the handgun and hammer can’t appear at the same time.

With hammer, nails, and lumber in tow, I was finally able to walk back to that wall and MAKE LADDER (and of course I had to walk back first, given that MAKE LADDER doesn’t even get recognized as an understood phrase elsewhere in the game!)

Horray! I was able to ladder myself over the wall, only to drop into a courtyard with an iron door that was too hot to the touch from a fire on the opposite side, and to have Fruity pee all over my pants. This left my inventory with WET PANTS, and no, I’m not kidding. You can avoid this if you immediately go away from the courtyard and don’t try to interact with the door while holding Fruity — more Drama Time it seems. The WET PANTS take up an inventory slot and you can’t drop them without eventually getting arrested for indecent exposure, so I’ve got one save game where I keep the wet pants and one where I avoid getting them to have that extra inventory slot.

ASIDE ABOUT INVENTORY SLOTS: The inventory has a maximum of six, and since the game is linear, it’s a royal pain — whenever I’ve made progress I’ve done back-and-forth trips trucking all the items in the game farther to the front of the line. Will I still need the gold and silver keys used earlier? Probably not, but I got bit so hard in Traam I’m not taking any chances. As part of the back-and-forth trips you have to be careful not to block your progress by not taking along key items; for instance, a crowbar that you use at the very start needs to stay in your inventory to be able to use the manhole cover to the sewer (it’s not obvious this is the case, but the game stops you if you aren’t holding the crowbar, which I found out the hard way).

Fruity runs to the south after the incident and, perhaps to make up for past transgression, digs up a boat paddle (which I haven’t gotten to use yet). I wasn’t getting anywhere with the hot door (I thought maybe the wet pants might serve to cool the handle down or some such) so I had to move on, by jumping up some stairs (steps are missing so if you just CLIMB you die) and finding a horse.

CLIMB HORSE and RIDE HORSE both work (although it took me a while to work this out, progress was much more disjointed than I’m making it seem) leading up to a cliff. Unfortunately, the horse took off on its own and died. Trying to climb further led to death.

This better not happen to Fruity or I’m going to get grouchy.

Back a room I found a CREVICE

THERE’S QUARTZ IN IT.

so I had to LOOK QUARTZ

THERE’S AN INTENDATION ON IT.

followed by LOOK INDENTATION

THERE’S A FLAT SPOT ON IT.

followed by LOOK FLAT SPOT

THERE’S AN OBJECT ON IT.

followed by LOOK OBJECT, finding a DIAMOND and leading me to wonder if the author was attempting some analogue of a shaggy-dog joke in puzzle form.

Speaking of shaggy dogs, I was stuck so decided to go back and try the iron door again. This time, the fire had abated and I was able to go through. In a Drama Time sense this makes sense, but why couldn’t we have waited the fire out earlier …? It’s very easy for Drama Time (in the way this author is using it) to interfere with puzzle solving.

Past are the three rooms above. The first two I thoroughly and tried every manner of LOOK and MOVE and DIG I could think of, but I found nothing. It wouldn’t surprise me though if after making a small bit of progress I’ll find a postage stamp under one of the cushions for no good reason.

This means the only puzzle I have to work on is the crack in the ground, but trying to CLIMB or JUMP or apply the ladder in any sense has led to falling to my doom For the record, my inventory (carried and uncarried) is CROWBAR, HANDGUN, SMALL DOG (Fruity!), LADDER, GOLD KEY, SILVER KEY, LETTER, WAD OF BILLLS (from the very start of the game), PADDLE, HAMMER, DIAMOND, and depending on what reality fragment I’m in, WET PANTS. I’ll take speculation as to what to do next in the comments, but if you outright know the answer please use ROT13; I’ve somehow managed to go without hints so far, and I’d like to try for at least a little longer.

Posted June 17, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Earthquake San Francisco 1906: Diegetic vs. Non-diegetic Plot   9 comments

From Mobygames.

I’ve mentioned, offhand, the idea of “diegetic plot” before without much expansion, but it’s useful here.

In movies, “diegetic music” refers to music that is part of the world itself, as opposed to background soundtrack. In a game, often there are actions that are not really part of the story, either by restoring saved games (as I wrote about with Pyramid of Doom) or more subtly, being nonsensical. If a fire is raging through a city, and I decide to test every verb possible to just to see what might work (WASH APPLE, SLIDE APPLE, CLEAN APPLE, …) even if no death occurs to “reset the world”, the story is essentially “paused”.

More subtly, if the player does LOOK FLOOR and LOOK CEILING and LOOK WALL and all sorts of other actions which may or may not even be referring to real objects in the game, even amidst a riot, is that really part of the plot?

Following from last time, as I was stuck, I did indeed try to examine every location carefully to see if I missed something, and found if I use DIG at the opera house I could find a locked iron box, but I had no key. I eventually resorted to restarting and checking the instructions carefully, which mention to use your “eyes and ears” to avoid missing anything. Oho. Perhaps (as the verb list above shows) I should be trying LISTEN everywhere?

The above was in the portion of the map leading to a dead end which was previously just scenery. After LISTEN I was able to CLIMB to find the missing child.

After the rescue, and returning the child to the father, the child left behind a gold key. The gold key — cosmically — unlocks the iron box back at the opera house, which itself holds a silver key. The silver key then works on the iron gate I was being stymied by last time.

Fair, it’s just adventure game logic, try not to think too hard about why the child has a key for a box in an opera house (that out of all the things inside, is the one thing we find in the debris) and the box contains the essential key we need for more progress — the focus is on we rescued a child from a burning fire in the 1906 Earthquake rather than sneak by a dragon or something.

To get to this moment, there was a lot of flailing. I could just try to focus on what worked — listening — but even if I consider some of my wilder stabs at progress to be “out of canon”, so to speak, it’s hard to zero in on the true progress.

Enough distraction —

Past the iron gate is a street with “extreme heat” and a manhole cover leading down. After LIFT COVER (which again, took lots of non-diegetic noodling around to find)…

I got stuck in a very tiny sewer maze with only two rooms. After a great deal of back and forth I reached into my bag of difficult-game tricks and came up with LOOK UP, getting the image above (just like in Nuclear Sub and Forbidden Planet except this time I learned my lesson and tried it on my own without checking hints).

I was able to then CLIMB up to an area with a street leading to a dead end, where again I’ve spun my gears with various LOOK attempts with no luck. The only thing I’ve managed to do is get killed, because in the spot where you first poke out of the manhole, if you LOOK (rather than just leaving) a soldier finds you, and then in the turn after shoots you.

It’s possible I’m supposed to confront the soldier somehow, but throwing various objects doesn’t help, and I don’t have a weapon. Maybe I missed one in the territory I’ve been through so far? Time to check everything over again, I guess.

I have the feeling the “final plot” is going to be smoothly scripted, it’s just figuring out how to get there which is bumpy.

Posted June 15, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Earthquake San Francisco 1906 (1981)   3 comments

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

On April 18, 1906, the San Andreas fault ruptured, estimated magnitude (by most current research) from 7.7 to 7.9. It lasted less than a minute but was devastating: buildings collapsed, fires raged through the city, and the water mains broke meaning the firefighters couldn’t use them. Artillery troops tried to control the blaze by dynamiting particular buildings (it didn’t work). Full-on looting caused the mayor to declare looters would be shot on sight. Estimated deaths were originally at 700, although that likely understates the true number by at least a factor of 3.

“Souvenir Hunters” from a photo in the National Archives.

75 years later, Jymm Pearson wrote a game on TRS-80, later ported to Apple II, the second of his games set in a historical time period. (Previously: Curse of Crowley Manor.) You awaken on the day of April 18 in a hotel room, with a wad of cash and a threatening letter: your wife is being held for ransom.

Given this is 1906, I suppose that means our character is male. We haven’t seen a lot of defined-role games so this doesn’t bother me, although since there isn’t much character painting past this point, I think most modern players would want to choose both genders.

Just to be clear, this is the regular Jyym Pearson parser we’ve seen before, where there’s an entirely separate room description found by hitting ENTER, so items aren’t shown in the graphical window (unlike Wizard and the Princess or Creature Venture). Additionally, there’s extensive use of LOOK, and you need to both LOOK alone and LOOK at every item carefully to avoid missing anything.

Gameplay-wise, the opening is rough; there’s a wad of cash (only referable to by the full phrase WAD OF BILLS, not WAD or BILLS) and a locked door we can’t open (the key never turns up). You can LOOK to find an envelope on the dresser, but can’t get the envelope, but must instead LOOK ENVELOPE to see a letter inside, which if you try to read says you need to pick it up, so you can finally GET LETTER and READ LETTER to get the screenshot above.

South there’s a bedroom where you can MOVE BED to find a crowbar (…?), and a few turns after is when the earthquake hits. (Yes, that means it is set not real-time but drama-time — the earthquake doesn’t hit until you find the crowbar, as opposed to being after X turns. This is much more polite than many games of the period. It’s possible to miss the letter or cash before the earthquake happens, but it is fairly unlikely.)

You can use the crowbar to lift a beam off your feet and find yourself in the collapsed building.

Outside is an apple seller…

Just to show off the how the text side looks, although this scene also lets the player know about the soldiers shooting looters.

…a piece of debris hiding a gold watch (which you can find via CLIMB and DIG)…

…and an opera house that collapses upon approach.

This scene appears to be here purely for drama (which is kind of impressive for 1981). There were two distinct quakes but they happened within the same minute, but I’m still willing to allow this scene as hedging to historical record.

I was stuck here briefly until I realized I could CLIMB at the original looted hotel.

Bribery via gold watch works here.

Climbing farther is a locked gate and firefighters at work.

Trying to head south from here to a dead end. I had a building collapse on me.

I was expecting a YOU DIED screen, but no, this is all intended: you’re supposed to SCREAM and have a soldier find and dig you out.

You can grab some lumber from the fallen building.

I admit I’m impressed so far! This came off as a series of dramatic events with a main character struggling to survive (and an interesting plot hook, to boot) as opposed to a jammed-together mix of puzzles, even with the slightly confused parser. I’m not sure if it will hold up to the end, as I am now stuck from here. I assume the locked gate is my next objective, but nothing I’ve tried has been successful at barreling through.

My (obviously incomplete) map so far.

Posted June 13, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Gold: An Utterly Dark Place   Leave a comment

I finished Gold, thanks to Voltgloss discovering how to fix the BASIC source code. One line in particular

9310 LOAD

should be

9310 SCROLL

It’s possible to do this fix even on the online emulated version. Just quit the game (with X, then Q) and type the “9310 SCROLL” line and hit ENTER (or NEWLINE as the keyboard puts it). You don’t actually type the letters S C R O L L but rather the letter “B” which types the word all at once. Then, typing GOTO 1 (“G” gives a full GOTO) will restart the game with the fix.

This indicates that the command is being stored as a single byte so this is likely just a corruption from dumping the tape (like Scott Adams’s name being misspelled on the version of The Golden Voyage I had).

Leaving off from last time, I couldn’t get east of a particular cliff without the game crashing. Actually taking the route…

…led to a “treasure room” next to a locked door. This locked door turns out to be the same as the one I couldn’t open before (even with a ring of keys) but unlocking the door works from the other side, and landed me to the north of the bridge where the gold was stored. So this represented an alternate way of reaching the gold:

I assume there’s a better way of drawing this out so the crazy-connection up top isn’t necessary.

I’m unclear if this really had anything to do with reaching the end of the game, but since I knew I was no longer even potentially stymied by a bug, I went to work trying to figure out where the wraith stored the gold after hiding it “well”. Since the character is clearly based off the pirate of Adventure hiding treasure in a maze, I took the guess the same thing happened here, and went for the odd three-dead-end-room spot I mentioned last time:

Got it in one! However, the prior exits blocked off were still blocked, so I started wandering in case another random event came up. As part of my wandering I tried entering the laboratory, thinking something different might happen rather than getting kicked out; indeed, instead of a laboratory there was a room with the “rumbling bowels of the earth”. (Voltgloss theorizes this triggers the second time you get the gold, I haven’t tested enough to be sure.)

Heading on from there leads to a small maze which I didn’t even bother mapping but just wandered hoping to get lucky, and then a dark room:

I was thusly deposited at the entrance past the obstacles and able to escape!

I have no idea if this is the max score. If it is I reckon the contest-givers assumed 103 would be an unlikely guess for a final score, so only someone who won would find it.

I don’t have much else to comment on, other than it is quite curious how closely this game resembled Quest in structure: go in to find a treasure also purely by navigation, get the entrance blocked off (at least two different ways), get the treasure stolen (to be recovered in a dead end) and only find a true exit in a maze deeper in the map. I don’t think it’s genuine direct influence (although there were a few Commodore PETs in England at this time, there were not many); rather, both authors were riffing off of Adventure, and when boiled down to its fundamentals of navigation, the twin ideas of “require an alternate exit” and “have a pirate-like figure steal the treasure” become natural ways of adding a smidge of plot to the proceedings. After all, Adventure itself had a gold treasure that was too heavy to carry up stairs, and required an alternate exit to get it back to the starting house.

Posted June 11, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Gold (1981)   11 comments

Via zx81stuff.

Hilderbay Ltd was founded in 1979 and claimed in a later ad that their first product was for vacuum tube computer. Their software held to a general theme:

  • Critical Path Analysis
  • Stock Control
  • Mortgage + Loan
  • Payroll
  • Simple Word Processor
  • Statutory Sick Pay
  • Kempston Centronics Interface S

Somehow, amidst all these utilities and business software, they produced a two-pack game cartridge for the ZX-81: Pick a Word and Gold. (No name is attached to any of them, although they did publish a short book attributed to Andrew Pennell.)

YOU AND I MUST PICK 1 OF THE 9 WORDS DISPLAYED IN TURN. THE FIRST TO GET THE SAME LETTER 3 TIMES WINS.

For example, if you can pick KEN, CRIME, and PEST, you win the game, since they all have the letter E. I admit I don’t know what the optimal strategy is, but the game claims on difficulty level 2 the best you can do is hold the computer to a draw.

Now, this is All the Adventures, not All the Computer Renditions of Tabletop Games (although here’s a link to play Pick a Word online), so what really interests us is the other game from the set, the wildly obscure Gold, which does happen to be listed on Mobygames, but under the category Compilation where nobody can find it. I came across it by browsing the website zx81stuff more or less at random.

The game is one of the surprisingly few from this era that ditches having a parser (see: Quest, Adventure in Murkle); even games which clearly stretch the machines they are designed for include the tried-and-true two word (or some multi word variant).

This is partially just cultural inertia — after all, strategy games of the time, from Oregon Trail to Taipan, were perfectly comfortable with menus. Even Japan started with a parser, even though the Japanese language doesn’t mesh with the two-word standard so well, and they started getting creative with menus when forced to by constraints. (Adventure in Murkle in particular also drops a parser due to be stuffed into a tiny 4K of space.) There’s design issues, too, but let’s get exploring now and save discussing them for after–

The map as I managed to get it. I can’t say it is the “complete map” for reasons I’ll get to.

As implied by the opening screenshot, your objective is to grab “a huge treasure”, and you are limited to direction commands, Get, Leave (drop stuff), and Open. As expected, a great deal of the gameplay consisted of just wandering around, and since the game doesn’t bother to specify exits, you have to test N/S/E/W/U/D on each and every room.

My first time through. I tried to get the strongbox if I couldn’t unlock it, thinking I could tote it around. Note that the way to specify an item is simply to list the first letter, so I was spoiled as to the existence of Sapphires when I was really trying to get a Strongbox. Somehow the game managed to make an almost-no-verb setup feel awkward. Also, the “man-eating spider is not here” message is going to become important.

The keys for the strongbox above are nearby, and inside the box are the sapphires, so there’s not much suspense in finding them. Most of the room descriptions are the standard “imagine what a random fantasy cave might look like” form…

…except for this part.

You get looped if you go into the laboratory back to the place you were in. “Pale, sightless creatures” is an interesting phrase; not common enough to be a cliché, but standard enough it shows up in that exact order in a number of books; ex: “Aidan had expected a dark, dreary place, one fraught with jagged edges, cold pools of water, and pale, sightless creatures.” When is a turn of phrase too stale, however colorful it may be?

Structurally, the game lets you meander in a fairly straightforward way to the northwest corner of the map and grab the “gold” of the title, just past an ice bridge (with a locked door I’ve never managed to open). Where things get interesting is when you try to get out.

The front exit has two routes, but they are both blocked off as shown above. (Quest did the exact same trick, where once you found the treasure you couldn’t go back the way you came.) A third exit through a trapdoor doesn’t allow you to fit the gold through either. Wandering back to see if I missed anything, I had a wraith steal my gold.

I’d love to talk more at length about how even with extremely limited actions available the game managed something of a plot structure, but things cut off right here — I haven’t gotten farther, and with the current extant copy, I don’t think I can. That’s because one exit — east at the “sheer wall” quoted earlier — is the only one I haven’t tried, but it crashes the game. It is faintly possible I missed an exit on my map, as has often happened before, but I did treat things quite systematically. The only hitch is the dead ends.

One way a number of these games saved on space is to have rooms in mazes have a simple “Dead End.” as the description. It allows tossing in a bunch of extra navigational headache for the player without much more work for the author. On my map I started marking the dead ends as “cut off” exits because it took too much space to keep adding the rooms:

Two rooms right at the entrance. The “Turning” has a dead end going west and a dead end going down.

I started testing exits on each dead end just in case they weren’t really dead ends (The Tarturian did this trick) but after about 10 or so with no luck I just started assuming every dead end was real. Then near the end of my mapping I came across this by accident:

Yes, going east from a dead end didn’t say that direction was impassible, but rather, took me to a new dead end. However, the result was just a multi-dead-end as opposed to a new secret area. It is still faintly possible one of the myriad dead ends holds something genuinely interesting, but because of the crash on the cliff exit, I don’t have high confidence the game is winnable as is.

Or if “winnable” is even the right way to think about it. Early issues of Your Computer advertised a contest:

If you can’t find it amidst the messy text, the ad is promising the one who sends “the highest score” by 31 July 1982 will win a “64K Memotech” (a memory expansion pack). I have been unable to locate any results, but it may mean the high score is a little fuzzier than the average for this time period. (How did they keep people from cheating, anyway? You get 1 point for each room visited so there’s not a lot of “impossible” scores as long as you pick something reasonable.)

Gold still exists as an interesting specimen of trying to make an adventure with limited flexibility of action. It’s also somewhat astounding how awkward it still is to control; the specify-objects-by-their-first-letter system is somehow worse when it fails than a parser. “I didn’t understand that” — fair, I was trying to take an spiderweb but it was just an item of decoration — “I don’t see any sapphires here” — what? The first seems like intransigence but not fatal, while the second is a straight error, and made me feel uncomfortable in my actions, like I wasn’t getting a real treasure, but a fake virtual one that sets a variable flag.

Posted June 10, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Medieval Space Warrior (1981)   Leave a comment

Another Roger M. Wilcox game to knock off the pile, this one supposedly with loose inspiration from Arthur C. Clarke.

Cover by Richard Powers.

So, in preparation, I dutifully read a synopsis and the first few chapters. One billion years in the future, so far ahead in time that exploring the universe is in the past, one city on Earth — that of Diaspar — remains, and everything is run by a Central Computer, with new generations created and controlled by the computer, except for the unique “Alvin” who has the urge to go outside the city. The environment is philosophical and religious and heavy, so I was a bit boggled when I started the game and this happened:

>EAST

You are in the middle ages on a plain. Visible items:

Evil wizard. Sealed-off castle.

Obvious exits: West

>PULL STONE

That was the keystone! The castle crumbles.
That was the Wizard’s favorite castle! He strikes you down with a magical thunder bolt!

Erm, what? That was a little sillier than I expected.

The actual solution here eluded me a bit; I tried HELP which notified me “I know the noun MAINTENANCE” which will be important later but is no use for this puzzle. Based just on pure intuition I went back to the starting “dirt hill” and started to DIG where I found a gold nugget. Giving the nugget to the wizard:

The wizard says “Thanks,” picks up the gold nugget, stretches his arms up and out to make his body look like a Y, scintillates brilliant yellow, and flies off into the distance. Unfortunately, his glasses fell off on the way up.

The game becomes a little less silly past this point, but that was some opening. Oh, and taking the keystone still collapses the castle (leaving you with an iron rod), but the wizard doesn’t see so you are able to enter the rubble, dig to reveal a forge, use the forge to sharpen the iron rod into a spear, grab a nearby log to tote along, find a teleporter to jump up to a spaceship…

All of a sudden, you feel yourself transformed into coherent light. You streak through Earth’s atmosphere as though the 200 kilometers didn’t exist, and rematerialize inside a cylindrical room.

…with an alien who starts shooting at you, and use the rod as a spear to kill the alien.

OK, only a little less silly. What follows is a tightly structured linear set of rooms that reminded me of Tanker Truck. I won’t go into the puzzles blow by blow, but you

  • shoot a second alien with the gun from the first alien
  • sing a song on a sheet (“re mi do do sol”) in order to open a portal (“sing re. sing do. etc.”); according to the author it’s the Close Encounters of the Third Kind tune
  • shoot the log with the gun to turn it into ash, which you can use to cover a “circuit protector”, and then when you try to shoot the protector, rather than the beam bouncing off it will destroy the protector
  • climb a statue marked “The Master” and find a red gem, which you can turn and “hear a grrrrsphydink from below” opening a secret storage area
  • find an alien helmet too small to fit your head, but it has purple lenses that you can pop out and put into the wizard’s glasses; the glasses help you see in a dark room later

You are in the Master’s first chamber. Visible items:

You see the glowing face of the Master.

I will have to say the puzzles were relatively smooth to solve; along the way there’s a viewscreen which compactly explains why you’re here.

An alien fleet is approaching Earth. It will arrive in 71 centons.

I never quite understood what the Master business was about — it’s the one element borrowed from City and the Stars, but only tangentially so (*) — but at least it added some nice atmosphere in the last part of the spaceship.

You are in the Master’s second chamber. Visible items:

Closed portal marked “The Master”.

At the last room there were computers which I got horribly stuck on, and had to use my one outside hint of the game.

I had forgotten about the hint inside the game about MAINTENANCE being a noun. As an aside, while adventure games have sometimes been explicit about verbs, this is the first time I’ve seen a noun be a hint, and I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. MAINTENANCE is in fact a key word:

Okay, “maintenance”
A mechanical voice intones, “PERMANENCY DEACTIVATED.”

After the maintenance mode is active, the computers can be pushed over, which I guess is how future tech works?

The computers topple over like dominos! The ship disappears at the last computer bank fails.

The game lets you know since the flagship has been destroyed (I guess that’s where we were the whole time) the fleet turns around and Earth is saved. We can then (assuming we wisely donned a space suit before destroying the ship) make it home.

Why was a person from the past needed in the first place? Best not to think about it too hard, I suppose. I almost suspect the title Medieval Space Warrior came first because it sounded cool and it was built around that.

Still, this was pretty brisk like Tanker Train, and I’m hopeful the author has shaken out the fussier puzzles out of his system. I theorize part of the reason commercial games often had absurd puzzles in this era is the feeling that if progress is “too smooth” then the game is insufficiently dense, with “not enough game” to it. $20 was not an atypical price (that’s what each Scott Adams game cost); with inflation that would be close to $60 in 2021 money. With the amount of content possible in a TRS-80 game, an “easy” game would be over in less than an hour (like Local Call for Death) — is that worth $60 of your time? Mind you, its relative smoothness might be why Local Call for a Death is superior to much of the work of the period, but I could see sheer economics would make authors reluctant. With Roger M. Wilcox’s private games, economics wasn’t a concern, but he was still emulating the games he saw, and he mentions in a comment two moments from the game are direct homages

* Touching a panel activates it, but pressing the panel causes a short-circuit. This comes DIRECTLY from Scott Adams’ _Strange Odyssey_, one of the 3 Scott Adams adventures that had a strong impact on me.

* “You hear a grrrrsphydink from below” is an homage to — perhaps even a direct quote from — _Death Dreadnought_ by Biff and Spudd Mutt. As a teenager, that game had a certain allure because the ads for it said it was “Rated R for gory descriptions”. Ooh, edgy!

(*) In the book, long before the main events start, the Master came back to Earth with his followers, and Alvin eventually finds the Master’s old spaceship as part of the plot. It’s not a flagship for an alien invasion or anything like that.

Posted June 6, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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