Seek (1982)   7 comments

In the category of “latent genres you never even realize existed”, I bring you: Nightmare Park.

Nightmare Park, by Bob Chappell, first appeared as a type-in in the August 1980 issue of Personal Computer World. You are an ASCII character on path trying to escape a park.

As you step along the path, you encounter mini-games that can kill you. Some of them are games of skill.

In this game you dodge left and right.

Some of them are just a random chance to kill.

In this game you are supposed to just stand still and hope the death rays don’t hit you.

The whole package is compact and weirdly compelling.

The Youtube video I have linked above by 9Pix9 has quite a number of comments of people who remember the game well:

This is the first computer game I ever played.

One of the first games I ever played on the school Commodore PET.

My school had two Commodore PETS and every lunch kids would gather round to play this game.

I remember this game. It was one of the first programs that I ever hacked. I added a section called “Themadoll’s ghost” to it at Derby College. I think it’s what convinced me to change my career from Mech Eng. to Computers

A quote from Adam Dawes made a C64 port (which I used for my own screenshots, as I was unable to procure the PET version):

It undoubtedly played a part in shaping my life and career, and it’ll always hold very special memories for me.

As further evidence of the game’s influence, there were enough variations that there’s a whole category at the Complete BBC Micro Games Archive of various clones.

It became a genre in itself, and I honestly can’t think of anything quite comparable. This is a game where you might just die by bad luck, yet the slot machine forms a part of the experience. The closest modern analogue I can come up with is something like the Mario Party games, but those are multiplayer.

I bring all this up because one of the versions of Nightmare Park, made for Acorn Atom, was by Steven Mark Probyn.

And that is all the biographical information we have on him, other than that the next year he wrote Seek for the BBC Micro and had it published through Micro Power.

From an ad for Killer Gorilla. Seek is in small print to the left, selling for £5.95. It wasn’t advertised too hard and no pictures of the tape case currently exist.

If that publisher sounds familiar, it is likely either you a 1980s-era Acorn diehard or you read my write-up not long ago of their game Adventure, not to be confused with any other Adventure, especially with the princess who keeps running away when you’re trying to rescue her and where the game punishes you for typing STEAL COIN rather than GET COIN even though at the world-level both describe exactly the same action.

“Search the surrounding countryside for hidden treasures and items of value,” we’ve been there before. The only unusual thing up to here is that every item in the game counts as a treasure, so you want to put absolutely everything (including a rope and a lamp) in the starting room to win the game.

At the very start I thought I might finally get an absolutely-plain game, one with almost nothing interesting to observe other than than feeling a bit sloppy (see: no space after the period) but once I got going things felt very, very, odd. Yes, “smell of adventure”, yes, castle with a river, yes, nearby cave.

I thought it a little odd the goblin doesn’t get mentioned in the room description above, but it wasn’t until a bit later I really caught onto what was going on.

You see:

a.) the obstacles are in all cases between rooms; you only get blocked or have death happening trying to travel in a direction

b.) while some other verbs are recognized, your best bet with every single item in the game is to USE it; for example, early on you can find a CUDGEL which works against that goblin, and an axe that works against the dwarves

c.) (which is truly the weird thing) except for item placement in rooms or inventory, the game is entirely stateless; if you kill a goblin at an exit, it will still be there, if you kill dwarves with an axe and walk in that direction (“You trample over bodies”) when you return you have to do it all over again, multiple dwarven massacres one right after the other

This applies also to more ordinary actions, like unlocking doors with keys — doors never stay unlocked, and if you bridge a river with a plank, it will always be removed after crossing.

Parts a-c.) had bizarre narrative effects, mainly serving to make the entire thing seem like a meta-exercise, like I was playing a board game with cards rather than participating in a story.

There was quite a bit of instant death, the most creative being a treasure you see in the distance where you fall and die if you go for it (there is no treasure). However, some of the instant death directions are actually puzzles to solve, and it is hard to tell when something is solvable and when it isn’t; you just need to cart your current pile of objects over and start testing with USE.

For example, trying to go east here kills you via wolf; for a while I assumed (before I caught the general structure of the game) that this meant the exit was permanently closed off. Once I started applying USE in places, I was able to apply a spear:

This is strange as narrative; the elves are always in the room, consistently warning you about wolves you can’t see, and somehow, when picking USE on the right item, you are able to attack a wolf that you still can’t see and chase off other wolves. This obstacles-in-the-connections paradigm essentially dropped any sense of world modeling, but the game was able to wrap a story in anyway. While you can’t just dive in the river by the castle (death) you can work your way around an alternate way and find some guards by a drawbridge. Trying to USE a weapon just states “NOTHING HAPPENS.” Since they are gambling, USE MONEY works:

I admit this took me a while to find; even though I had realized by this point that “every item counts for points, nothing is destroyed”, once I found “money” I immediately and instinctively wanted to hoard it back in the starting area, rather than use it for a puzzle. I was afraid I’d lose it (like throwing a treasure to the troll in Crowther/Woods Adventure) but the money doesn’t go anywhere; if you want to pitch a narrative on, you can just assume there’s so much money it doesn’t matter if you spend some of it on the guards.

(Or you win at gambling. The game doesn’t describe much. Very odd for the BBC Micro, and I suspect maybe it is a port from Atom somehow? But no Atom version exists. There was an Electron port by someone entirely different years later who rudely scrubbed the original author of Steven Mark Probyn and put their own name, D. W. Gore.)

Inside the Castle, it is possible to get chomped by zombies (use a torch), killed by a basilisk (use a mirror) or fall into a pit (use a pole, to pole vault I guess?)

Past the basilisk you can find a sword, which you immediately need because right after that is the King’s Chamber where the King is ready to fight. Of course everything is static and determined by moving in a direction, so the way the logic actually goes is: if you try to go south, you get stabbed and die; if you USE SWORD first, you kill the king and then can go south immediately afterward. You can sit and stare at the king for as long as you want, or even USE SWORD repeatedly because it doesn’t keep track if the king is really alive or dead, just if you can go south.

The last, trickiest part involved a tomb. The way to get in was to USE a CHARTER that was right at the start of the game. I don’t know what action using a charter even constitutes here; waving it in the air to prove I have the right to go in?

The tomb, however, is one way, and when I took the screenshot here I turned out to be trapped. I needed to be carrying a ring (another “looks like a treasure” item) which magically allows escape when used while inside the tomb.

Once I got the hang of the system it was essentially fun; I don’t think this would hold up for more games that well, though, especially with the weird circumstances like the king. Having an adventure in a nearly static world loses quite a bit of the point of adventuring, but I did find myself thinking it slightly unusual ways (“was this deathtrap really a deathtrap? am I allowed to use the cudgel twice? am I allowed to use poison even though I can only hear rats but can’t see them?”)

Also, while that intro regarding Nightmare Park was originally meant to just be an aside, it does seem a little relevant here. Nightmare Park, other than the player’s location, is essentially stateless: you move along a board hoping that the next mini-game won’t kill you. The death comes not in standing in place but moving to the next step. Seek feels like it was written along a similar line, and I do get a sense that one influenced the other.

Pole + pit also took a while to find, and it’s strange that you only get warned about the pit after using the pole, since using the pole would presumably need knowledge that the pit was there.

Posted November 23, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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7 responses to “Seek (1982)

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  1. Though it would become a genre in itself, my theory is that text games appeared just because graphics were not available or easily available.

    • It doesn’t really have to be in text. I’ve never seen a graphical version before though.

      I do think it would appear really bizarre to a modern player to have “pick 1 of 3, if you pick wrong you die and game over”. It works here because the game is supposed to be about 10 minutes and it is like a slot machine. If you die you just try again.

      But even with modern roguelite mechanics (Hades getting out of the river every time he dies) having a death element that is *pure* chance doesn’t seem congruent to modern play.

  2. “It became a genre in itself, and I honestly can’t think of anything quite comparable. This is a game where you might just die by bad luck, yet the slot machine forms a part of the experience. The closest modern analogue I can come up with is something like the Mario Party games, but those are multiplayer.”
    Roguelites and to a lesser extent, roguelikes definitely fall into this category. That luck is part of the game, where you might be doing pretty well, but just end up with bad luck some time or another and find yourself against the superkillmurder dude who shoots 600 missiles a second/turn without the super bomb. Or just plain bad luck through attrition.

    Actually, that metaphor seems appropriate, considering that this game sounds like the biggest killer of dwarves until Dwarf Fortress hit the internet.

    • Theoretically in a roguelike death should be the player’s fault (even if it is a failure or preparation); e.g. you have a random chance of tumbling down stairs while holding a basilisk corpse with gloves in Nethack and having it touch you and turn you into stone, but it is your fault for trying to do that in the first place. In practice there’s sometimes the superkillmurder dude.

      (I think the exception is original Rogue, from the same year as Nightmare Park — that one definitely gets no-win situations.)

      But yeah, I think if anything carries forward this kind of idea, it is roguelikes. Still can’t imagine one of those having a “stand still and wait for the animation to happen and see if you die” room. (The death rays are weirdly tense and necessary for Nightmare Park, I wouldn’t take them out. I still can’t quite explain it.)

      With Seek you could technically be a “dwarf pacifist” but I didn’t discover the alternate route until pretty late. I waded through (I think) five mountains of dwarf corpses for my playthrough.

  3. The minigames look exactly like the minigames in Undertale.

    • It is unlikely that Toby Fox (born in 1991) would have encountered this game, but especially with the “dodging” you are absolutely right. It does seem to be the natural result of an ASCII-adjacent aesthetic.

  4. Pingback: Fun House (Ramella, 1982) | Renga in Blue

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