Ferret (1982)   30 comments

For today’s selection we have a colossally large game which has been worked on at a steady clip for 40 years, yet it appears almost nobody has heard of it or played it. While Ferret is a 1982 game, it has only been finishable by the general public as of August of this year.

Data General Nova 2, from a Bonhams auction.

Digital Equipment Corporation, of PDP-10 fame (PDP being the Zork mainframe of choice) had some engineers who were frustrated with management and split off to form their own corporation in 1968, Data General.

Data General is mostly known for Nova series of computers (which then helped inspired Xerox with their Alto, which then went on to help inspire Apple with their Lisa). While like any respectable mini-computer it was intended for business, and like any respectable mini-computer it was used for games, or at least one game. (See, for comparison, the ICL corporation and their game Quest.)

ferret. v.i. rummage, search, (around, for, about); search out (secrets).

Data General, while being founded in the US, had a UK Systems Division. In 1982 a small group of people from the Division (whose names we do not know) made a game called Ferret in the language PL/I. PL/I can be best described as an attempt to “fix” FORTRAN and make it appropriate for both scientific coders and business coders, essentially mashing together the FORTRAN and COBOL crowds. Example: original FORTRAN uses matrices in columns, like vectors, whereas for business applications you generally want rows, one row being one entry in a database. PL/I allows “array cross-sections” which essentially let you have it both ways; you can make SUM(B,(*,3)) or SUM(B,(3,*)) to refer quickly to either a row or column. (Source.)

To ZORK players:

Yet again you have the opportunity to experience sleepless nights spent trying to solve parts of a puzzle, because this game is very much like ZORK (only better). You can ignore the rest of this [information] as the game is based on the ZORK philosophy (there are some exceptions and some extras that you will find as you play the game).

Being on a mini-computer meant that the game was essentially only playable by a small number of people in the 1980s, and once the mini-computers were shut down the game stopped being accessible entirely. Just like Quest, there was some interest in porting the game, but unlike that game, it did not go through a whole set of mini-steps: it went directly to a PL/I interpreter for DOS in 2009, runnable under Windows console.

09/09/2009 8.10 Initial release under DOS.
12/10/2009 8.11 Fixes for erroneous messages relating to the lid in the Dark Room.
01/03/2011 9.00 Major extensions to rooms, puzzles, verbs etc.
15/08/2022 10.00 Final functional release with end game.

Oddly, the main package on the official website is for Windows 95. However, it uses an install procedure which triggers modern virus/trojan detectors, and I’m not even sure it is really a false positive (the game copies things into directories which were fair game in Windows 95 but considered highly protected by at least Windows 7). As of the current version of Ferret, the authors have put their own version with install elements removed, so you don’t need to worry about virus detectors; just download that version from the website if you’re having trouble. (EXTRA TIP: If you run FERRET.EXE directly the game exits immediately if you die after the final message; if you run FERRET.BAT instead it will kick you to a command prompt as intended and you can type FERRET to restart.)

Now, I did say the authors were anonymous. Despite the quite recent update, and their endorsement of the ifwiki history page about the game, they are listed as only Ferret Authors. Usually when I have an anonymous game it is because of source code being detached from context, or having REM statements scrubbed, or having the whole package under a “company name”. Here, the authors quite intentionally decided not to be named.

The description of the first room gives a clue to your circumstances: “You appear to be lying in an exceedingly small dark room and you feel as if you have been sleeping for ages. You are very drowsy, your body appears to be quite heavy and feels partially numbed. There don’t appear to be any exits from this room”. You have been automatically resuscitated and find yourself in a post-apocalyptic world where your mission is to explore your new environment and try to discover if there are any other survivors.

I’m still unclear as to the objective. I can say with near-certainty that the game is very, very, long, potentially in Warp territory. From the HELP command of the game, it has:

390 verbs,
3449 objects and there are currently
1785 rooms defined (NB. not all of these are accessible).

Since I managed to do well with Warp during IFComp (2022 still ongoing!) I figured perhaps I could do the same here.

Dark Room
You appear to be lying in an exceedingly small dark room and you feel as if you have been sleeping for ages. You are very drowsy, your body appears to be quite heavy and feels partially numbed. There don’t appear to be any exits from this room.
-> stand
As you attempt to stand up, the lid of your room bounces up due to the impact of your head.
-> kick roof
Owwww!
-> feel lid
Touching that has no effect.
-> feel floor
Touching that has no effect.
-> feel wall
Hmmm…. It’s got a rather nice feel to it.
-> yell
Aaaaaarrrrgghhhhhhhhhh!
-> jump
Jumping like that all over the place only gives you sore feet.
-> i
You aren’t carrying anything.
-> hit lid
With what?
-> kick lid
Owwww!

The opening here actually stumped me for a good long while, and I needed to break out my verb list right away and start checking. Fortunately the parser is good, at least so far (while the game kind-of dates to 2022, this is a direct port of original PL/I source as opposed to the result of remakes, so I expect it to be fairly close).

That’s a lot of orange. There are a few that might be just jokes and some that the game is counting as nouns instead of verbs (SWING: “What would you like to do with that?”) this is still one of the most lit-up lists we’ve had in the entire Project.

SHOW, interestingly enough, states “Show exits mode is enabled.” AUDIT turns on making a transcript of play, and MAKE does the same thing but just with your inputs; the points is to make a “macro file” that can be used to play through a particular section by essentially cutting-and-pasting commands. (This is similar to macros in Warp, but a little more user-convenient.)

Then there’s TEST, and I’ve never seen anything like it before. It has the player run every verb on a single object. A sampling of TEST being applied to the “lid” at the start:

CARRY LID
That doesn’t appear to be possible.
RUN LID
What are you, a computer operator?
GET UP LID
Such notions indicate that you have the brain of a newt.
KNOCK ON LID
Nothing much happens.
IN LID
That disney make much sense to me.
OUT LID
That doesn’t make much sense to me.
UNLOA LID
I don’t think you can load that, let alone unload it.

I guess the verb list isn’t supposed to be that much a mystery. The missing “D” for “UNLOAD” is because the game uses only the first five characters of each word. The Infocom standard at this time was six so this isn’t that unusual.

Moving on with the game itself:

Dark Room
You appear to be lying in an exceedingly small dark room and you feel as if you have been sleeping for ages. You are very drowsy, your body appears to be quite heavy and feels partially numbed. There don’t appear to be any exits from this room.
-> PUSH LID
There is an ominous creaking sound followed by a clunk. Light encircles your body temporarily blinding you.
Twilight Room
Your eyes appear to have adjusted to the light. Beyond your shell-like cover you can see a number of machines, dotted with switches and readouts.
-> LIFT LID
There is a loud piercing creaking sound, the world appears to spin and you tumble unceremoniously to the floor. The container you were in clangs shut.
Resuscitation Chamber
This room contains a number of box-like machines. There is a door to the west. To the left of a display are three illuminated buttons, one red, one orange, one green. In the centre of the room, atop a metal plinth is a large chest. The lid of the chest is closed. Fixed to the side of the chest is a brass plaque.
Exits: –E- ——– —
There is a large box here
-> score
Phase 1 (Awakening)
Mode: Normal
You have scored 5 (out of 1670) points in 54 moves.
Rooms visited: 4. Rank achieved: Dumbo.

Yes, I turned on the show exits mode. I know what I’m like.

Reading the plaque:

There’s a Facebook group for the game with no members as of this writing except for the Ferret authors (and myself). It has been on all the various sites (here’s an announcement post on intfiction, here’s an entry at CASA) but the only glimmer of interest I’ve found otherwise is a post by past Parsercomp entrant Jonathan asking about what people knew about the game, where the only response was the Ferret authors explaining they originally thought of potentially charging money for the game, but that “the money-making boat sailed.” The Ferret authors also explained that the “Adrian” who supposedly finished “Phase 1” by “5-2-2016” (according to the main web page) was familiar with the game from back in the Data General days.

While I’ve gotten a bit farther, I’ll start writing about the post-apocalypse in depth next time.

-> PUSH RED
The door slides into the west wall with a hiss of escaping air.
-> W
You have entered a very odorous room. Your head is starting to spin.
Your head has unscrewed from your body and is bouncing around on the floor.
You’ve bought the big one.

(Part 2 on Ferret is now posted.)

(Part 3 on Ferret is also now posted.)

(At 10 parts now and counting. You are best off using this link which will read everything in chronological order.)

Posted October 6, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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30 responses to “Ferret (1982)

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  1. Oh this is *fascinating*. Definitely going to have to download this and give it a crack alongside you and other like-minded adventurers here. Thanks tremendously for simplifying the installation-and-getting-started process!

    Also I can’t help but think that, for a game that’s been functionally unplayable and inaccessible for what sounds like almost 40 years, the opening conceit is astoundingly fitting (and almost prophetic).

  2. The rather literal description of your head spinning completely off is rather amusing.

    • The game is big on vivid deaths so far.

      The camera-like object is now pointing directly at you. Now visible on its face
      is a badge upon which is written:

      Ferret security systems (laser division)

      and a dial which is set to Multi-zap mega-death. Just as you take in these
      details the laser energizes and burns out both of your eyes. The laser however
      is not content with just blinding you, and continues burning into your skull,
      vaporizing your brain.

      The sphere shatters into a zillion pieces, liberating a strange misty vapour
      which starts doing funny things to your nervous system. You appear to be in a
      zero survivability situation as your brain finds the off button.

      You’ve curled up your toes.

    • Eeeeeeeeeeee-aaaaaaaaaaaargh!
      You feel as though you are floating. In fact you are falling headlong over
      a cliff. As you see the rocks below approaching at an ever faster rate your
      totally uneventful life flashes before your eyes in a nanosecond. Splat!
      I’m afraid you’ve kicked the bucket.

  3. How do you even find out about all these big obscure text adventures like this? Maybe not like this one specifically, since it was on IFwiki, but some of these are all but lost and seem to have basically only had non-descriptive entries online before you had anything to say. Things like Quest (1980-83) are more like what I’m talking about.

    • It varies!

      Quite often I find a reference while looking for something else. I think Explore (1979) was one of the most obvious recent examples: I was actually looking up a TRS-80 creation system called Explore, but one of the links that popped up seemed to imply there was actually a 1979 game called Explore, so I noted it down and dug deeper when time permitted.

      For GROW, I think I first caught the reference in that Adven-10 article in Dr Dobbs, and so started poking around from there until I chanced upon an Apple II version on the Internet Archive.

      For Spelunker, I was researching some other computer thing and chanced across what sounded like an adventure game on a cover of Byte.

      For Bilingual Adventure, I was simply browsing 1979 magazines on the off chance of running across something interesting, and I saw the ad mention something I hadn’t heard of before.

      For Adventure 448, I actually gave the full story explicitly there; I was curious and read a paragraph regarding the Zork telnet server and saw reference to a version of Adventure which didn’t sound familiar at all.

      For Journey (1979) there was a research paper that mentioned an adventure I didn’t recognize so I looked up further information.

      Some games are listed on specialty sites for particular platformers but nowhere else. City Adventure was only on Ira Goldklang’s; Gold was only at zx81stuff. I’ve gone through those and taken notes for cross reference later.

      I’ve also looked at Japanese-only sites and some other really odd places just in case an adventure game or two has popped up. I keep notes whenever something looks promising. It doesn’t always pan out. Yahoo! Auctions Japan is a good place for this too.

      Sometimes I just don’t remember. The reference to Ringen (1979) I knew I read a long time before actually playing it (wasn’t rushing to play something on a MUD), but I have no idea on what occasion I had to read through a Tolkien games list.

    • Interesting, I never figured that there would be as varied sources as things like research papers and what not. Guess the subject of early text adventures really is something well covered, if scattered around obscure sources.

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  7. Ooh, I wish I could give this game a try – unfortunately though I’m not running Windows so don’t know how I’d get the thing running. Same thing happened to Warp – there used to be a link here to a sever I could log into from my Mac’s terminal but that website’s link appears to be dead now so I can’t play any more. I’ll admit I’m far from an expert in this sort of thing though so maybe there is some way to play these that I’m not aware of.

    And 1785 locations? Even if some fraction of those are internal “pseudo-locations” needed for the game logic to work (I know a few games dating back to Advent did this) that’d still dwarf Acheton (probably the largest old-style text game I’ve won aside from one of the Colossal Cave extensions you won’t be playing for quite a while yet) several times. And did we ever get a conclusive room count for Warp to compare?

    • Could you run Dosbox? It should be possible to make a distribution that runs it (it would be convoluted since win95 is required, but it is technically doable)

    • Linux user here, have you tried WINE? I usually use it in situations like these, and I just checked that it worked. It did, but it works weirdly, like it actually runs in my terminal, which I’ve never seen happen before for games running through WINE. WINE emulates every version of Windows for people who’s computers don’t normally run Windows programs, like Mac and Linux users.
      Where you can get WINE: https://wiki.winehq.org/Main_Page

  8. Amazing!

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  10. There will be mac version?

  11. I’m usually a lurker but I read all your articles. I just had to pop in to say how excited I am about this one though, something about these old big mainframe games, plus the fact that it meant so much to the authors they finished it decades later. And it being in PL/I originally, and ported to the Windows version of it, so it can live “forever” is just icing on the cake.

  12. PUSH LID seems fair to me! “The lid bounces up” gave me the general idea.

    LIFT LID after that is confusing though… you’re lifting a different lid?

    • they’re synonyms — you can use either one twice and it works

    • Hello my fellow adventurer. I stumbled upon this lovely game, but there is seemingly a problem in the beginning. I try to go W in the room with the machines, but then the game closes itself. Should that happen?

      Alexander Henrich
    • I think the idea is that you’re pushing the same lid twice. The first time you don’t quite break free. The second time, you do.

  13. Hello my fellow adventurer. I stumbled upon this lovely game, but there is seemingly a problem in the beginning. I try to go W in the room with the machines, but then the game closes itself. Should that happen?

    Alexander Henrich
    • I’m guessing you pressed the red button before moving west? If so, you died, and the game closes when you die. Start it from the .bat file instead of the .exe (so you will be back at the prompt and can start again).

      • Okay, I was already thinking that I died, but I was not sure. Thank you two for the quick answer. You are the best.

    • Hi, that means you died and it shut the window. When I tested running ferret.bat rather than exe it kept that from happening; alternately you could just load the command window (type cmd) and run the program that way.

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