Cyborg (1981)   5 comments

When NASA II told you that becoming a cyborg was a painless experience, you believed them, didn’t you? — and you volunteered. The operation was painless. Until you woke up.

Finishing off our tour of 1981 is Michael Berlyn’s Cyborg, his follow-up to Oo-Topos from earlier that year.

Cyborg is also the last adventure game from Berlyn’s own Sentient Software. In 1982 they’d publish two action games (Congo and Gold Rush) but never found much success and sales; Berlyn ended up at Infocom shortly after where he worked on Suspended, Infidel, and Cutthroats before making many more games for other companies (he was rather notably the inventor of Bubsy during the early 90s mascot craze).

From Mobygames.

Berlyn’s game-writing career started immediately after he had published three novels (I didn’t know about his horror novel Blight when I was writing about him last, it was under a pen name). His book #3, rather relevant to the game here, is The Integrated Man (“In a future where minds are enslaved by computer chips, one man seeks revenge.”) Oo-topos didn’t really fulfill the promise of someone taking the sensibilities of novel-writing directly to games — it’s a hunt-the-treasure game at its core with gobs of mazes — but Cyborg is much more promising right off the start as it plays directly with the ideas of the novel.

Half of your body was gone, sent to the organ bank for people who needed transplants. The other half was merged with a mechanical construct of incredible complexity and sophistication. That would have been barely tolerable if NASA II had left it at that, but they also implanted an electronic brain in your skull.

The game quite intentionally tries to have the interface — and the typical problems of being misunderstood by a parser — part of the world-universe itself.

All room descriptions are given with the pronoun “we”. The command “inventory” doesn’t work

UNABLE TO COMPLY. VOCABULARY CHIP SCAN REVEALS WORD “INVENTORY” UNKNOWN.

and instead BODY SCAN will reveal the protagonist’s possessions. AREA SCAN or just SCAN is used to look at a room description, and MEDICAL SCAN gives the rather crucial CYBORG and BIO levels.

The gimmick of disabling what were then already-established commands like INVENTORY reminds me a little of Nick Montfort’s first game, Winchester’s Nightmare (1999), which disabled abbreviations for literary effect. It doesn’t feel as painful a removal in Cyborg simply because it does fit so smoothly into the narrative frame, even if BODY SCAN is longer to type than I.

The health levels start degrading as you move around so they represent this game’s equivalent of a “light timer” or “hunger timer”. I don’t know how tight the timers are; the game starts fairly open so I’ve not got a “mainline” save game I’m using yet anyway. You start in a 5 by 5 area that is “outdoors” but clearly not outdoors.

For the “clearly not outdoors” part, some room descriptions may help:

WE’RE IN AN ENDLESS FOREST. A SCAN SHOWS NO ABNORMALITIES, BUT THIS PLACE APPEARS TO BE A MIRROR IMAGE OF THE PLACE TO THE NORTH.

WE’RE ON AN EAST/WEST DIRT PATH THROUGH AN ENDLESS FOREST. DIRECTLY BEFORE US IS A DOORWAY MY LOGIC CIRCUITS SAY CAN’T EXIST, RISING FROM THE PATH LIKE A PORTAL INTO ANOTHER DIMENSION. THE WOODS SURROUND US.

WE’RE ON A NORTH/SOUTH PATH THROUGH THE TREES. THE FOREST IS ENDLESS AND YET DIRECTLY TO THE NORTH IS A DOORWAY. IT’S AS IF A MIRROR HAD BEEN PLACED IN OUR PATH- A MIRROR REFLECTING NOT WHAT LIES BEHIND US, BUT A HUGE, WOODEN-FLOORED ROOM.

I’m guessing where in an artificial spaceship environment of some sort? Despite the NASA II text I quoted earlier (which goes on and on a bit more) the game is vague on details on how we got where we are other than there was some sort of enigmatic malfunction. Quasi-amnesia, I suppose, which works well for a game, since it means the act of exploring is part of the plot. The vivid text helps too:

WE’RE ON AN EAST/WEST DIRT PATH THROUGH A FOREST OF TREES. THE PATH STRETCHES FROM HORIZON TO HORIZON, AS DOES THE ENDLESS FOREST. THE AIR IS STILL, THE SKY CLOUDLESS, AND THE FOREST SILENT.

(“From horizon to horizon” is both lovely and strange, and short phrases after — “the air is still”, “the sky cloudless”, “the forest silent” — are arranged almost poetically.)

So, good first impressions so far! What I can’t do yet is report if gameplay has improved over Oo-Topos, because I have yet to solve a puzzle. I managed to gather a MICRO-LASER, a SHOULDER HARNESS, and a MICROFICHE (with text too tiny to read) but have only so far been able to apply the laser to shoot at a snake who randomly appears and who I’m not sure I’m even supposed to be shooting:

In the forest area, in addition to the hungry lizard from the opening room, I’ve mainly worried about a tangled string attached to some trees I haven’t been able to pick up (that I’m sure is supposed to be used for some puzzle or another). The main sticking points are through the “dimensional doors” or whatnot with more spaceship-feeling areas. There’s a dark area (and no light source), two places that seem to do some sort of identity scan (and me with no card), a vending machine (and me with nothing to put in the slot). I’m still early in the game so I don’t know if these obstacles will be easy or hard, but at least the world feels vibrant enough that exploring isn’t a chore even if I’m not making real progress yet.

Posted December 5, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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5 responses to “Cyborg (1981)

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  1. Nice. I’ve always been curious about this one.

  2. “What NASA II told you that becoming a cyborg was a painless experience

    Should that be “when”?

  3. Ah, right, this one. An intriguing game and one I’m glad I played.

    Note: there is a bug in at least some (maybe all) Apple II versions of the game. It prevents you from picking up a particular something, which means you can’t solve one puzzle. But that puzzle is not essential; it’s not needed to beat the game – solving it simply provides some further information. I didn’t try other versions of the game myself, but I understand from the Data Driven Gamer’s playthrough that the Commodore 64 version at least makes that puzzle solvable.

    • I was trying to get the Mac version working but it seems that every single file on Mac sites is stored in an entirely different way needing a specific operating system to even unpack correctly.

      I’ll just stick with Apple for now.

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