Time Zone: The Precipice   16 comments

I think my play experience in the last 3 hours (new total, 10.75) is most aptly illustrated by a moment where I found a new area.

The 2082 AD Asia section seems more elaborate than the others because it is broken into distinct sections. You start at a “Civic Center” and can hop on a subway, where you get to — by prompted voice command — choose between North, East, South, and West side stations. When I was first mapping, I went East, and then went South. By going South, the subway returned me to the Civic Center, so I assumed the South Station was simply the one you start at, and moved on.

I was wrong. If you are at a “branch” of the subway, then no matter what direction you specify, you will go back to the Civic Center. I guess it was too much to code having the subway go back be something that happens automatically, rather than require the player say something which isn’t even interpreted correctly.

This meant there was an entire South Side I hadn’t mapped. Exciting! And…

…I found nothing. Absolutely nothing.

There was an enormous amount of poking at things and trying to get something new to happen, and failing. The one puzzle I managed to solve — and I did earnestly solve it, not just luck out — was back in Past Asia at a samurai that was attacking. I had a boomerang that I couldn’t THROW so I had put it out of thought in that area, but then it occurred to me the game was probably looking for KILL (when the aborigines first get introduced you are warned they might kill you with their boomerang) and it worked, yielding me a sword.

Way back when I dug up a piece of jade (this is the temple where they used kung-fu if I tried to steal an emerald, allegedly 50 BCish) I also found I could dig a second time to get a second piece of jade. I have found nobody else other than the rice seller who wants jade, though.

Things I tried included

  • Combing over Future Los Angeles with the key again — the one that doesn’t fit in the door that it is sitting at — looking for something, anything, that might budge. I guess it’s a red herring, but it’s more mystifying than even usual (more on those in a second).
  • Getting something stolen by the thief, taking the rope, getting the police dog, and going over every square in Future London again looking for the dog to react.
  • Picking areas at random and testing map areas in case I missed anything else, like the South Side of Future Tokyo.
  • Taking every item I could over to Cleopatra to see if I could get some kind of reaction.

The game is big enough I know there are still things I can test. The sheer size of Time Zone is one part of what makes it resistant to is the “grinding” type puzzle solve. The point-and-click equivalent is where you visit every location and try to “use” every item on every visible object. This potentially is a good thing, if it weren’t for knowing that very likely some of the puzzle solves will be very arbitrary.

A second part that makes it resistant is the “dual realities” problem I’m facing. I still haven’t been able to light the torch without using the sticks that were necessary in the stone age to get a stone hammer. So I can choose between either a hammer or a lit torch. I am 96% certain the Stone Age section is not a red herring and there really is an alternate way to give light, especially because MATCHES is a recognized noun through the game.

(Oh, you know how verbs don’t get recognized across disks? Because the objects can move across time zones, the nouns are more universal, so it’s easier to play guess-the-noun to theorize if something really exists.)

A third part is the sheer number of red herrings in general. While I can’t absolutely confirm anything in particular is a red herring, I had heard before playing there were entire time zones that could be skipped, and I’m assuming some apparent puzzles really shouldn’t be bothered with. For example, the 50BC Alaska Polar Bear does not let you react, at all, and there are very few rooms: does this mean the entire location shouldn’t be bothered with? (On the other hand, cold-weather clothes are needed elsewhere, and it feels like if any placed had some you could steal, it’d be 50BC Alaska.)

I wish there was a way to narrow things down for certain. I have an intuition of what I can just pass by but I could easily be mistaken. For example, one of the South America areas has an avalanche you can hide from in a cave, followed by a gorge that can’t be crossed.

The presence of the avalanche makes me thinks that this is a real puzzle solvable by some item or another (not the rope, I tried it in the screenshot above). But what if the game is mean enough to put puzzle sequences leading to dead ends? What if this happened maybe not even by design, but because they were exhausted from working on the game and needed to get it out the door?

The upshot of all this is I am very close to starting to consult hints. I have not yet, nor do I want to yet, but I’m going to declare that I’ll do two more passes, and if nothing breaks free, I’ll start to declare open season. (If nothing else, I know some of you have been itching to drop hints in the comments. Just a little longer!)

Posted February 8, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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16 responses to “Time Zone: The Precipice

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  1. Jason, I don’t know how old you are (I assume about my age, which is not-yet-50) but as someone who lived through this era and owned Time Zone, you’ve listed as the reasons why the LucasArts games were such a breath of fresh air. I remember having a very similar internal monologue about putting the game into an unwinnable state, chasing dead ends, focusing on red herrings, etc. And none of that, it turns out, is fun. Granted this was an era where this art form was being invented, but Roberta really wasn’t doing anything new– she was just making it BIGGER whilst following the same trod-upon road that everyone else was doing. I remember reading that Ron Gilbert interview for the first time where he basically says the Sierra method is simply terrible game design, and it felt so good to read those words, as if my childhood frustrations had all been vindicated by this master of the art form.

    I don’t blame you if you decide to go for hints, but I’m really enjoying this journey play out as it is and I’m in no rush to see you resolve it (for whatever that’s worth!)

    • Another way games like this got solved back in the day: people hacked them. The barrier between programmer and end-user was much thinner in 1982 than it is today; virtually everyone intrigued enough to buy an Apple II was interested enough to at least dabble in programming and the other technical aspects of the machine. Similarly, solving a game by hacking it was considered as fair as any other way of doing it — especially given that so many of the games themselves were so manifestly not treating their players fairly.

      Roe R. Adams III — an adventure-game superfan, journalist, and finally a game designer in his own right — made his name by becoming the first to “solve” Time Zone, if memory serves within 72 hours of its release. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he did so by hacking it.

      • Hi Jimmy, I’ve got first hand experience with what you describe. My dad taught me how to use a hexadecimal editor to modify our stats in Ultima III. And recently I decided to blast through Tarturian by going through the coffee, which was very simple (even for an amateur like me).

        I assume my dad acquired the knowledge (and the hexadecimal editor) from our local Apple users group.

  2. What’s interesting to me, when you say you are close to capitulation and going for hints, is how these games must have been solved back in the day by real collective effort. It’s possible an adventure like this was NEVER finished by one person alone, and a mix of magazine tips, phone helplines, computer memory hacking and even word of mouth might have contributed to getting over the finish line.
    Nothing in the game has felt particularly unfair though, but perhaps that’s part of the reason why progress seems to be grinding to a halt. Maybe it’s just the unsolved puzzles that are unfair.
    As said above, I’m loving being on this adventure with you all the same.

    • With a wide exploration space like this having a group feels helpful — some people are going to, by chance, miss certain things that other people get. (I think my digging twice to get a second piece of jade counts under this.) This is not always true when you’ve got a linear game with particularly specific stumpers were nearly everyone will have the same experience.

      And yes, the puzzles currently have survivor bias. I’m waiting for deeper in before I declare general unfairness.

      • There are most definitely unfair puzzles.

        In at least two instances you have to do something totally out of left field which would affect a specific element on a specific screen in the game. But that same element exists in other screens as well, and is unaffected by that action in those screens.

        For (non spoiler) example, it’s as if on one specific screen with grass you can type “get grass”, but only on the screen where the game wants you to “get grass”. On all 1,000 other screens with grass, it doesn’t understand the command

      • I’m still suspecting there’s a location in London where there is some specific command in the dog that will work but only in that location. Having the full setup with the thief is just too weird and elaborate to be a red herring. The problem is I don’t know what the command is.

    • While it’s possible there could have been Apple user groups dedicated to cracking adventure games together, that’s not what I experienced playing these games during this era.

      User groups were more about copying games in the back room. The way forward on many of these games in the early 80s was to call the company for hints. Many of these were tiny operations, and sometimes you’d get the programmer on the phone (you might actually be calling their house).

      • There were online groups (we have contemporary attestation to groups at both Compuserve and The Source).

        Those were kind of pricy at the time but so was the game.

      • My dad has a subscription to The Source. In addition to the membership fee you had to pay handsomely in those days for long distance charges. None of that made these kinds of networks readily accessible in the way we would think of the internet today (or prior to that a local BBS). My point in saying this is that I don’t doubt such chatter existed but it would have been limited to an extremely elite group (having an Apple already put you in an elite group) and could not have been mainstream.

      • Sure. If you want to read more about The Source one, Jimmy Maher talks about it.

        Welcome to the Vault of Ages. Here we are coordinating the greatest group effort in adventure solving — the complete mapping of On-Line’s Time Zone.

        I am the curator of the vault. You are the 85th intrepid time traveler to seek the knowledge of the vault. Herein we are gathering, verifying, and correlating information about each time zone. Feel free to visit here anytime, but remember that for the vault to fill, we need your contributions of information. Anytime you have new information about mapping, puzzle solutions, traps overcome, items found, s-mail this info to me. After verification, your contributed jigsaw puzzle piece will be added to the vault file, and your name will be entered upon the rolls as a master solver. Now step this way and I will introduce you to the Master Catalog.

        Eventually with more than 1800 members, the Vault of Ages is a fascinating example of early crowd-sourcing, an ancestor of everything from Wikipedia to a thousand Lost message boards, and as such of perhaps more ultimate significance than Time Zone itself.

      • Very interesting indeed. I’ll check out the linked article.

        I’m not sure we’re disagreeing here. I don’t know how many copies of Time Zone were sold, but I’m sure the 1,500 people who made it to the Vault of Ages represents an elite group of super hobbyists, not representative of the rank and file Apple users of the time. Then again, to plunk down that much money for a game in 1982 might be self-selecting for people who have that kind of expendable cash for hobbies.

        My memory of The Source was that my father could download games we didn’t have on 5.25″ floppy disks, and at that time it was pure magic.

  3. So on a scale of 1 to Quondam, how worried are you that you missed an exit somewhere?

    (I don’t know the game and don’t know if you have.)

  4. It’s the Seinfield of its field… just a graphical adventure about nothing!

  5. Just to let everyone know, I have made rather good progress (break open one thing and more things fall out kind of situation), but it probably won’t be until at least tomorrow until my next post — kind of busy.

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