Kabul Spy: You Are in for Some Real Trouble Now   10 comments

So the source of most of my issues last time was either an emulator issue or an issue with the files I was using. Specifically, I was using this version of Kabul Spy from the “Woz-a-Day” collection. WOZ is one of the file formats for Apple II disks; it is a bit less lossy than DSK files that were previously standard:

Capturing highly accurate bit data is of no use if you don’t have a container to hold the data. The WOZ format was designed to be able to contain every possible Apple ][ disk structure and layout. It can be so accurate that even copy protected software can’t tell that it isn’t an original disk.

A “flux visualization” of the first disk side of Kabul Spy, showing the internals bit by bit.

However, Applewin (my emulator) is a bit fussy when it comes to disk changes while using WOZ, and two of the places I was stuck on were purely related to that. The guard bribe was supposed to work as originally intended. Also, you aren’t supposed to get tossed into jail upon crossing the river; rather, the game is supposed to prompt you to flip to side 1 of the disk, then back to side 2. I believe this is loading a “second section” of the game (and if you make a u-turn you have to go through the procedure again to re-load the “first section”).

I only found this out by switching to the old DSK version. It doesn’t preserve the original title screen (so using the WOZ is generally better) but the disk-flipping bug doesn’t seem to occur. (Given the guard payment bug, it is also faintly possible the copy protection on the WOZ is busted and there’s some silent method of sending the player into a softlock once they reach a certain point of the game.)

Getting back into the game, the bit where I got beaten up at the railroad and tossed in the jail at least started as intended.

You can then GIVE (amount) — the same syntax as the boy in Quetta — in order to deliver a bribe, upon which the guard will let you free. The whole point of the scene is to find out what the old man is drawing in the dirt: this is where you need to break in to find the professor.

Incidentally, this needs a little pre-knowledge preparation for the scene. The people that beat you up take everything but your money, but you can find your way back to the train station and if you’ve dropped your items off you can pick them up safely. So in a narrative sense, you have to drop everything off but your money, where it safely sits around (including the pistol and cyanide pill) for you to return.

After the bribery scene, it’s time to buy a train ticket. If you go straight to the border (which I theorized might be a viable route last time) the game is softlocked; there’s a “log” provided by the river which seems to indicate it could be used to cross without losing items, but no: the log is entirely a red herring.

So you need to to Quetta first. I incidentally had missed something upon arriving:

The bed is described as lumpy, so I had tried various permutations of EXAMINE BED and LOOK UNDER BED.

I was still suspicious and did my “standard verb list” check, and found LIFT to be be promising. This turned out to work, and yielded a newspaper. It let me know some language terms (these are all Arabic):


These turn out to be essential shortly.

I then had the scene with the directions (which I already went through) to get to a bar apparently blocked by a force-field. This is a truly bizarro puzzle. There’s a sign that mentions the bar’s name is “The Devil’s Den” and instead of just typing WEST or GO BAR, you’re supposed to enter by typing GO HELL. I discovered this via the game’s built in HINT feature, which quite explicitly says GO TO HELL.

It is unclear what typing this really represents as an in-game action. After all, we’re not saying a password; we’re just conveying the information to the parser in a slightly different way, kind of like how TAKE and STEAL got differentiated in the Program Power game Adventure. (At least in that game, the parser acts sort of as a snarky narrator, and we’re really interacting with it; here, the parser remains characterless, so what is really happening in the narrative?)

Moving on, once in the bar you need to utilize the words from the newspaper to communicate and find your contact Hisrin.

Hisrin then tells you to go outside and watch the sunset while he does his confession before setting off.

Going back in the bar will summon Hisrin (this is “drama time”, not based on the number of turns or anything) who will then take you to the same place that the log/river was at earlier, except this time there is no log. He drags a raft out from hiding and you can ride with him across the river.

This gets your matches wet, which will become important later. What becomes immediately important is Hisrin gets killed.

This turns out to be a softlock, not a story branch. You can’t let this scene happen. How to get through? Well, if you go back to where you’re looking at the sky, the room mentions you can go west. This leads to a church with a priest (we don’t see Hisrin, but this is presumably where the confession happened).

If you look back on the scene with the thieves, they talk about how FATHER WILL BE PLEASED. They don’t mean father, as in parental figure, but The Father, as in the priest. Remember how the back of the box told us we might need to be ruthless?

Before making the river crossing: SHOOT PRIEST.

This deters the thieves, and Hisrin leads you to Afghanistan without getting killed:

Despite requiring foreknowledge of the future — reading the narrative only forward in time, our protagonist pre-emptively shot a priest just because he looked suspicious — this was my favorite moment of the game so far, and it seemed as if the gritty premise that the box for the game promised might actually be starting to kick in.

Unfortunately, the scene right after did not hold with that, but as I’m still exploring the general area so I’ll wait for my next update to explain.

Posted April 26, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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10 responses to “Kabul Spy: You Are in for Some Real Trouble Now

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  1. It let me know some language terms

    Incidentally, Arabic is not a particularly common secular language in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and is not particularly closely related to the languages actually spoken there (Urdu, Pashto, and Dari mostly; both nations have a lot of minority languages but Pashto is big on the border and Urdu and Dari are nationally recognized in Pakistan and Afghanistan respectively). Learning a few phrases of Arabic to talk to a western Pakistani Muslim (giving the benefit of the doubt that the bartender is Muslim, despite the fact that every other person in this scene is apparently nominally Christian) would be only marginally more effective as learning a few phrases of Hebrew to talk to a New York Jew.

    • It also raises the question of how you can understand what Hisrin says to you, if his command of English (and your command of whatever language he speaks) is so poor that the only way to say hello to him is with your Arabic phrasebook.

      Maybe it’s a code phrase?
      [And to be fair, if you said “Shalom” to me I’d know what you meant]

      • Yeah, I’ve assumed we’d been speaking not-in-English the whole game and the Arabic thing was meant as a way to identify ourselves

      • now that I think about it, the protagonist must not have been speaking English at all at any point so far in the story.

        The very first bit where you buy a ticket it casually says what the sign translates to, and later written material the player can just read. And of course the CIA wouldn’t send an officer in who didn’t understand the local languages. It is understandable they wouldn’t also know Arabic and a weird coincidence the newspaper ended up under the bed unless it was an intentional code (the boy meets you right outside where you arrive so they know you’re coming). So I think this is just “movie translation” where literally everything is non-English and it is being translated for our benefit.

    • Yes, I was deeply confused for a moment when I first came across the Arabic thing. I guess it at least makes sense our hero had no training in Arabic for this and had to pick it up in a newspaper (which got planted, maybe?)

      Otoh in reality this seems like the Roberta Williams in Time Zone level of research

      Catholicism is rare in Pakistan but at least not totally unheard of

  2. Get ready to visit some awfully familiar locations (if you haven’t already).

  3. Wow, this game really is a good representation about the logically haphazard design of 80s adventure game design. I feel like anyone with halfway competent programming skills could sell a game to a publisher in those days. Often these game were made entirely by one or two people as a hobby which would asking for the amateurish graphics and puzzle design (which is kind of the story of Sierra too, which is likely the style that many amateur programmers copied).

    • I’m far enough in now to say this holds still holds true later

      lots of cool ideas, didn’t know how to get them to gel together, some definitely belonged in a different game

      • What you’re describing is really probably a nascent industry figuring itself out. After all, for all the crap I give Sierra for being a huge company that produced amateurish content, (many of their Hi-Res adventures were indiscernable from commercial homebrews of the day, unlike other companies like Sirius that pushed the form), they were really helping to invent and evolve the adventure game at a time when most people didn’t even know what they were. Consider that The Dark Crystal (1983) is essential the exact same game as Mission Asteroid (1980). Same parser, same poor static graphics, same game logic, whereas in 1983 Sirius published Gruds in Space with cartoony animated graphics and sound effects. I suppose you could argue that in 1984 they released King’s Quest, which certainly evolved the genre and eventually led to masterpieces like Monkey Island. But that was initially released for the PC jr., not the Apple, and I think it’s reasonable to assert that KQ still used the same wonky moon logic, wonky parser and random, undeserved deaths that were part of all Sierra adventures from the beginning.

      • keep in mind I’ve already done Tim Wilson’s second game (Blade of Blackpoole) which was more consistent than this. To some extent it isn’t just “knowing what is possible” but having people get experienced enough at the craft of adventure writing to begin with. Berlyn also started pretty weak (Oo-topos) but he got better

        even Queen of Phobos (which seemed to come out of nowhere) had Berker on it who had two prior games to his credit

        re: Williams up to ’82, Mystery House is definitely weak but understandable, Mission Asteroid was almost a marketing decision, and I still think Wizard and the Princess was genuinely fine. Part of the purpose of zooming in all these games it to get fine detail on what it really means for games to have moon logic / softlocks / etc. For example, Princess had a “purchase the correct item” softlock, but the item gets used _immediately_ after purchase; it really is only a problem for people who haven’t bothered with saving at all. Whereas Ulysses and the Golden Fleece (not by her but her clearly being mimicked) pulls the smfe trick but with an entire shopping list, and you really won’t know which one you should have left out until near the end of the game.

        “Moon logic” I try to restrict to “where even post-hoc reasoning doesn’t make much sense” (giving sugar to a dragon in Katakombs); there’s plenty of other puzzle sins, but you can track their evolution more carefully. Time Zone, for instance, I don’t think had any actual moon logic. It had some messy parser/world-universe bits (like the trunk/car being treated separately) and relied on outside knowledge for one puzzle (although it was technically optional) but I did manage to solve it rationally. Plenty of other puzzle sins, and I can’t imagine ever recommending it in general, but more specifically related to her an ambition of making a game that spans the universe.

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