Kabul Spy: Magical Unrealism   16 comments

A third-party hint book for Kabul Spy. From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

I have finished the game; make sure to read my previous posts on the game before this one.

As the image at the top of the post implies, I definitely needed some hints, including for one puzzle which might be the most absurd I’ve ever come across, both in terms of solving and of narrative action.

Last time I left off on crossing a river with the help of Hisrin. Little did I know I had softlocked the game already even after the successful crossing.

Going to the east at the intersection above leads to some forest rooms, and then:

Yes, that’s Crowther/Woods Adventure dropped in the middle of Kabul Spy, for some reason. Not only can you get keys, food, water, and a lamp, but you can keep going and find the grate in a depression.

And this still keeps going except for the softlock. The LAMP is not like the lamp from adventure which is electric: you need fire to light it, and the matches are wet from passing over the river. Additionally:

a.) you can try leaving the matches behind and coming back for them later, but it doesn’t work

b.) you can try leaving the matches behind, and bring the lamp back over the river, but the lamp specifically gets lost if you do this

Weirdly, you can light a cigarette and it stays lit over the river, even though the matches get wet enough to no longer be lighting. So the key to the lamp is to light the cigarette, then make a beeline over to the lamp and get it lit with the cigarette before the cigarette goes out. (If you’ve thought to drop the cigarettes and match on the south side of the river, bring the lamp close, then swap back to the cigarettes and light them, alas: the matches get damp even if you haven’t brought them over the river. This almost seems like a bug except the game does mention it has rained recently, so I guess they get wet from being dropped. Still, the game went to absurd lengths to get the sequence it wanted.)

With the lamp lit, you can go in the Adventure cave, although only for a few rooms, up to XYZZY.

Saying XYZZY here warps you back to the surface.

We already saw a smidge of magic with the forcefield blocking the bar, but here the game leaps in fully-fledged. And look: magical realism is an actual genre that works. And yes, it sometimes has books where people with guns co-exist with magic.

At that time Macando was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

— From One Hundred Years of Solitude

However, this really didn’t work here atmospherically at all; not only are the elements haphazard and the writing not anywhere in the territory of pulling things off, but the possibility of fantasy makes puzzle solving multiple steps harder, as it is not immediately apparent if we’re supposed to do something “normal” with wire cutters or a sniper rifle or supposed to just unlock a door with a magic word. (You’ll see what I mean a bit later.)

Heading back to the west-or-east branch, I then went west and found a man selling photos.

The photos are marginally important (there’s a nearby Iranian encampment that will welcome you in if you have the photo).

This increases your score. Is there some other secret thing?

What’s more important is that if you look at the man he’s carrying a staff, and you can try to BUY STAFF. He’ll trade for 20 rubles, at which point you don’t need your money belt any more. The staff then lets you successfully climb around the nearby terrain, which is otherwise too steep.

The mountains have two nearby caves. One contains another magic word:

Another contains some diamonds and a sniper rifle, neither which I used (although I found out the rifle was possible to use in an alternate route).

Searching around more, I found a dying commander by a tank.

The tank is a great piece of atmosphere (and gives you the hint to ask about Tarsidan — where the Professor is being held — at a nearby bar), but you then take the keys from Adventure and use them to unlock the tank (!!) and get some oil and wire-cutters. The wire-cutters, incidentally, are another item that gets used on one of the paths that I didn’t take, I only needed the oil.

Exploring east from the tank led to this strange room, which will come back with a vengeance. For now I had to turn around:

Exploring to the north of the tank led to an old mine, where I found a door that reacted to the magic word SUIRIS from the cave.

Further in I found a trap door that was rusty and applied the oil, then climbed up and found myself in a cell block, immediately followed by a very hard road block when the game declared


I wasn’t quite totally lost to the hint book yet, but I did check it here: you’re supposed to simply GET BARS. Why would the game be ambiguous about telling you what’s blocking your way? What does getting the bars work in the first place?

Once inside I found the professor, who will start to follow you.

Then it was just a matter of going back the way I came and … I got stuck. I kept going in a loop around the mine with no way out. To be fair, I remember a “rumble” with part of the mine collapsing, and found if I tried to DIG in one location it says (rather than giving an error) that YOU’LL NEED A SHOVEL.

I was now entirely stumped and flailed around a bit in an earlier section before deciding to check hints again. That oddly colored bridge I mentioned earlier?

“SOMEONE HAS DRAWN THE BRIDGE THAT CROSSES THE RAVINE HERE.” I admit I found the phrasing funny but was mostly puzzled by the fact CROSS BRIDGE and the like didn’t work. The game literally means what I presume is the author for the game drew in a bridge that wasn’t supposed to be there, and you’re supposed to ERASE BRIDGE.

The game had passed my limit: it was “cling to hints at every juncture” time. Fortunately I wasn’t too far from the end.

You need to say KOJA TARSIDAN here (where is TARSIDAN) which will lead you to a new area. Why Arabic again!? Arabic is only spoken by something like 1% of Afghanis.

(Aside: our character may not have spoken English at any point in the game; the very first scene has a sign which the player “TRANSLATES” and reads. All subsequent written material the protagonist is simply able to read, so I’m guessing they understand the local language, which makes sense if the CIA sent them in the first place. The fact even later signs clearly aren’t in English means the author kept his brain in this mindset. That still doesn’t explain the Arabic. Hrf.)

I ended up not having to make a frontal assault on the prison at all. (If you do that, you get to use the sniper rifle and wirecutters and map out a minefield. The last makes me glad I didn’t take the front route.)

If you go to the west you find a hole; to get across you need to THROW ROD which will wedge itself in the hole so you can walk across. (Sigh.) This leads to a dead end but there’s a shovel, which is what the game told me I needed earlier!

So, with hope maybe I wouldn’t need to cling to the hint book for dear life any more (ha) I went back through the mine scene, this time with shovel in hand, and was able to dig myself out and the professor. I then needed to ERASE BRIDGE again some reason, and get stuck on a large locked gate.

You’re suppose to RESET GATE to bust the gate open. Yes, I had RESET on my verb list, but I would not have had the patience to figure that out, and I still don’t know why.

Going inside leads to … a jet!

But you aren’t able to get away with it, as there’s a LOCK. I guess someone didn’t pay their parking tickets. (By the way, pretty much checking all the hints now.) You first need to get a nearby “device” hidden in grass. You walk over the grass and see something in the distance, and need to SMOKE GRASS. No, this isn’t a drug thing; it seems to be you set it on fire? I think? After doing that you see a DEVICE which you can then pick up, and put on the LOCK to open it.



Look, I really try my hardest not to “judge” in a numerical sense — all these games have had worthwhile aspects, and Kabul Spy really does have major ambitions. While it wasn’t the only adventure game trying to do contemporary warfare (see Saigon: The Last Days) it was based on a war that was currently ongoing the time it was written. It has, by my calculation, absolutely no words spoken in English (I mean, they’re in English in the game, but Hollywood Translation style). It has the very fascinating moment with shooting the priest. It has multiple branching possibilities, including fake-out softlock ones early and real ones at the end.

In a way, it is frustrating because I think with a good amount of editing pen this could have been … well, not a good game, but a middle-range quality game. The central through line is solid, it just needed to not ask the player to perform some absolutely absurd puzzles.

Just to stay positive, I’ll just let someone else close things out. This is from the August 1982 issue of Electronic Games, and shows despite the odd mixture, the fresh setting was appreciated at the time:

This game is further proof that computer gaming has moved into a new, more sophisticated period. As recently as a year ago, most software suppliers would’ve thought twice before bringing out an adventure game that wasn’t closely tied to science fiction or fantasy. Kabul Spy is undeniable proof that dragons and space marauders aren’t always necessary to create an involving, fascinating role-playing experience.

From Mobygames.

Posted April 27, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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16 responses to “Kabul Spy: Magical Unrealism

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  1. This has been a really interesting and entertaining read. The “erase bridge” puzzle is not the first of the meta parser puzzles… I don’t remember the game, but it was I think a Scott Adams text adventure where “there is a fork in the road” and you have to “get fork” which become an inventory object.

    As for the Crowther Adventure, again Kabul Spy wouldn’t be the first to incorporate elements (I distinctly remember other adventure games of the era using XYZZY). But to have lifted (and illustrated) whole chunks of the game is really…odd. Was it a tribute? Or just a blatant ripoff (which was common in the era- see all the unauthorized “star trek” games). Obviously the author had played Colossal cave and was inspired by it, but as a kid I probably wouldn’t have recognized it.

    I didn’t realize this was a Sirius game when I made my earlier comment, but the invitation it the “Grud” company mascot gave it away before you provide the pic of the disk.(though I must admit for a second I thought this could be another weird copyright infringement).

    As for the strange room “which will come back with a vengeance”, it sounds like you’re taking about the Russian tank interior, but you must be referring to the bridge? (I don’t think you return back to the tank and it didn’t seem particularly strange, so it’s got to be the bridge).

    Keep bringing on the graphical Apple adventures! I absolutely love your playthroughs.

    • The “fork in the road” is from a non-Adams game, “Madventure”.
      Not to say he didn’t do similar puzzles – “Ghost Town” has an infamous puzzle where you get a “Go Board” as a treasure, and you must type PASS GO to get another treasure, $200.

    • next Apple graphical game isn’t _too_ far away on my list, it’s a really fascinating one

      nearly certain you haven’t heard of it before

  2. “followed by a very hard road block when the game declared
    I wasn’t quite totally lost to the hint book yet, but I did check it here: you’re supposed to simply GET BARS. Why would the game be ambiguous about telling you what’s blocking your way? What does getting the bars work in the first place?”

    This game seems to really like its puns. In the image I see the text is “something is BARRING your way’, which I think is the answer to your questions.
    We see it again and again with many of the things you have found frustrating – GO TO HELL, SOMEBODY HAS DRAWN THE BRIDGE, SMOKE GRASS et cetera. I guess it didn’t work so well. :)

    • Perhaps RESET GATE is also a pun but more obscure, referencing logic circuit design? It is quite far-fetched but comparing to the other odd things in the game I am thinking that it is a possible explanation.

      It also seems that you can REMOVE BARS which maybe is a bit more semantically logical than the GET verb.

  3. The former submarine commander seems to be a reference to the “U137” incident in October 1981.

  4. Does the game actually state that the words (KOMAK, KOJA, SALAM ALAIKUM etcare Arabic? I conveniently asked a Dari-speaker (Dari and Pashto are the two major languages in Afghanistan and they are both more related to Farsi/Persian than Arabic) who says that the words/phrases are all reasonably correct in Dari as well as Pashto. Maybe due to ancient common roots of Farsi and Arabic or more modern exchange of words?

    • I think all one needs to do is to read the “foreign script” gibberish on the signs to get a sense of the linguistic rigor put into the game:)

      • I’m not going to judge on the signs _too_ much just because I don’t think the real text as a whole would fit. I’ve seen some games with English signs that also smoosh things together into something English-like-but-not-really. The one English message (in the cave) is only barely legible, I had to copy the magic word down twice to make sure I wasn’t messing up a letter.

        The script on the first sign does resemble the Nastaʿlīq script (like with Urdu) a bit, so there might have been a genuine visual reference somewhere.

  5. I suppose the inclusion of the opening of Colossal Cave can charitably be said to be a hint on how to accumulate a lot of the “bonus points”, i.e. collecting treasures for no real reason, but the tonal shift once you cross the river is jarring, to say the least.

    • I have seen the magic + realistic historical mix work before in an adventure game (see Shades of Grey from the early 90s)

      this needed a lot more care to make it work

  6. Well, that was disappointing. I would have raged at the game indeed.

    Wargaming Scribe moment : Given there is space to sit a small squad inside, that tank is an IFV. Or maybe just magical realist again !

  7. The “DRAW BRIDGE” puzzle is exactly the kind of thing I really like – or I would, if it was in a Nord & Bert/Ad Verbum style game, where it’s clear from the outset that meta wordplay is the order of the day. In something with aspirations towards telling a realistic thriller story, it sticks out like a sore thumb and would probably have made me quit there and then.

    • With the right setup it could be a brilliant puzzle! It was not the right setup.

      (there’s a 1995 game, Toonesia, which has a puzzle in the same vein, and it works, but it is set in a cartoon universe, so you’re expecting that kind of logic)

    • Yes, it’d definitely be quite clever in the right setting. This ain’t that.

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