Quest (1980-1983)   11 comments

Despite this blog’s visit with mainframes in Britain being solely through the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge (Acheton, Quondam, Hamil, etc.) they were hardly the only game in town. Britain’s big commercial mainframe company (and competitor to IBM) was ICL, itself a merger of multiple other companies, including one that dates all the way back to 1902.

Keypunch from the British Tabulating Machine Company, estimated to be from around 1915. The tabulating machine — originally designed to count the 1890 US Census — was also behind the founding of IBM.

ICL as a company proper was founded in 1968, and while it focused on larger machines at first it did start branching into desktop systems by the late 70s; today’s game was originally written for the their mainframe System 10, with a version by Doug Urquhart and Keith Sheppard developed from 1980 to 1981. Later Jerry McCarthy joined the team before a “final” version was released in 1983. As Doug writes:

Quest is, as they say, functionally rich. We packed over two hundred places into our small part of Cyberspace and peopled them with dragons, elves, insurance salesmen and some of our colleagues. One particularly hated manager was placed, name anagrammatized to avoid legal action, in a rubber goods shop down a sleazy alley near the railway line. He’s still there, if you care to look.

For a long time, the book I just referenced (An ICL Anthology: Anecdotes and Recollections from the People of ICL) is the only evidence we’ve had of the game even existing, even though it claims versions for “System 10, System 25, DRS 20, CPM, DOS and now Windows.” The problem is none of those had ever surfaced!

The game is also utterly obscure enough to not show up on any of my main references (CASA Solution Archive, Interactive Fiction Archive, Mobygames). I had come across it in the past, somehow, but it was in my “wishful thinking” list until a Dave Howorth from the UK (and former ICL employee) pinged me asking if I had heard of this game. I had, and was ready to give the bad news it was buried who-knows-where, when I was surprised to find, snuck two years ago on if-archive:

# Quest.zip

Quest, a text adventure written between 1980 and 1983 at ICL by Doug Urquhart, Keith Sheppard and Jerry McCarthy. Originally written to run on the ICL System 10 mainframe and later ported to System 25, DRS 20, CPM, MS-DOS and Windows. This is a Visual Basic 3 port that requires a version of Windows capable of running 16-bit Windows programs.

You may wonder “why isn’t it on the Interactive Fiction Database then?” Yes, the IFDB indexes nearly everything on if-archive, but it isn’t automatic, and there’s still the occasional “stealth” upload, as this one was.

I was thus able to deliver good news instead, although the version of Windows needed turned out to be all the way back to Windows 98. Instead of going through making a virtual machine I used a version of DOSBOX pre-set for Windows 98.

All the text for every room description is centered and also delivered all as one paragraph. The last point has major gameplay ramifications; there’s been a standard since Adventure to always separate out items that can be manipulated by at least a line break, but here you just have to parse them as the regular text.

I’m not 100% clear if the original game was like this, but I suspect the mash-the-paragraph-together formatting would be odd to add in the Windowsification phase so is authentic. I’m going to convert the text into ASCII rather than forcing you to parse screenshots. The opening screen above reads:

You are in a small log cabin in the mountains. There is a door to the north and a trapdoor in the floor. Looking upwards into the cobwebbed gloom, you perceive an air-conditioning duct. Lying in one corner there is a short black rod with a gold star on one end. Hanging crookedly above the fireplace is a picture of Whistler’s mother, with the following inscription underneath: ‘If death strikes and all is lost – I shall put you straight’.

(Notice how there’s an item that you can pick up jammed in the middle of the paragraph.)

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, aka Whistler’s Mother, from 1871. Her name was Anna.

I haven’t gotten deep enough in to give a full lay of the land, but I can say the general structure seems to have entirely distinct “adventures” based on which direction you travel. If you go down to the underground you find the land of the Arborens.

The small but perfect specimen of a pedigree elvic fox hound has followed you. You are now in the land of the Arborons or tree folk. All around you in the dim light, unblinking pairs of pink eyes can be seen peeping at you through the tree roots. Arboron burrows lead off to the west and south. Lying in one comer there is a small box of .45 calibre ammunition.

I suspect this section may have been written first, given the instructions for the game state: “The object of the quest is to collect as much treasure as you can, and convey it back to the start, without suffering too much harm at the hands of the denizens of the caves.” There are plenty of non-caves to be found, though. If you go outside you can grab a parachute and jump your way into an open range with lots of directions you can go, including this strange machine room:

All your molecules are being disassembled. It is not a particularly pleasant process. You are standing on a dull metal floor, in the middle of a brightly lit room. All around you are banks of machinery whose thin film of dust betrays long disuse. The air is warm, with a hint of ozone, and a low humming noise is coming from the one console which is still functioning, The console comprises a row of eight numbered buttons and a large lever. The button labelled number 6 is illuminated. There is an airlock door to the north. A lambent pool of shimmering light is dancing on the floor, before the console.

If you go up you can find a steel tunnel…

Fighting against a current of air, toffee papers, and other less mentionable objects, you eventually stagger out high up in a mountain range. Looking down (a long, long, long way down) you can just see the log cabin wherein all this business started. To the west is an stainless steel tunnel mouth. In the far distance to the east, a barely discernible object is barely discernible.

…and a blue police box (this is a Brit-game, remember)…

You are now inside the police telephone box; much to your surprise, you discover that there is much more room inside than you would have expected by looking at the outside. In the centre is a control panel; a large button marked “press” is clearly visible thereon. There, standing wagging a cute little metal tail, with its cute little metal head to one side is a BASIC variable (ANSI standard only).

…and get teleported to a jungle land where you get chased by a dinosaur.

The great dinosaur, twice the size of an elephant and ten times as fierce looking has followed you. The passage opens out here, and in some strange strong light, the source of which is not obvious, the walls and ceiling shine with the brilliance of cut glass. They are not made of glass however, they are made of great clusters of sapphires and emeralds, many of them as large as walnuts, and each twinkling out that promise of untold riches that has driven men to war, crime or madness, since history began.

Even if all of the puzzles turn out to be the absurd unsolvable variety, I’ll at least have fun exploring the sheer chaos that seems to be the setting mash-up the game promises. And based on that last room description, at least one of the authors seemed to be all-in to making the writing look good, and being originally on a mainframe means they didn’t need to worry about word count!

Posted June 25, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

Tagged with

11 responses to “Quest (1980-1983)

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I like the Doctor Who-related K9 joke. :)

    Very interested to read more on this one.

  2. I’m surprised this was converted to Visual Basic; I tried to convert a text adventure I’d written to that language some years ago, and had to give up, finding it totally unsuitable.

    • It certainly wouldn’t be my first choice! Weirdest thing is how taking an item causes no change in screen, you have to do INVENTORY to confirm you actually picked something up.

    • I find it strange too. Indeed, Jason states that there is no inventory reflection on screen, and it appears it doesn’t sport graphics. The interface seems horrible to me, and actually it appears that they needed a label and an input and threw that on the form without care.
      I can understand that they preferred a true windows app instead of make users open the MS-DOS executable that they claim was available. The choice made is weird, however.

      • Fortunately since I’m just showing the text y’all won’t have to deal with it!

        I would love to find the CP/M or MS-DOS ports mentioned but neither are on any archive. DOS in particular is really well-collected so it really must not have gotten wide distribution.

  3. From memory, isn’t that the same as the original Colossal Cave?

  4. No I meant the use of the INVEntory command. There doesn’t seem to be any way to reply to a reply?

  5. No trace about DOS emulated version.

Leave a Reply to Jade Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: