Archive for the ‘Interactive Fiction’ Category

Cain’s Jawbone: Deceptions   Leave a comment

I am unfortunately still not able to declare victory in any kind of holistic organizing, but there are two mysteries worked out, one minor worked out by myself, one major worked out by Voltgloss in the last comment section.

The original printing’s introduction, from James Ryan’s feed. Note that it is quite clear the six months happen in a “recent year”, which isn’t the same wording as in my recent paperback; I briefly had a theory about the years being spread out which is squashed by this comment.

The minor mystery involved my staring at page 28, which has a paradox in the text that was puzzling me. I’ll quote it in its entirety:

I found myself by that one of the windows which overlooked the stone broach spire—a rarity in Kent—of Pluckley church, and the light would strike my book from over my right shoulder. I drew a volume from my pocket; blind-tooled on the green in a double circle was a single star above what was perhaps a sea. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person, and I wondered if such a reason for marriage would ever have occurred to me. I had never married, and scarcely felt like beginning now. It was the tenth edition, of 1917. No, Sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself. Not a woman had entered as yet. I was in for a ticklish business, and I knew it. Forging ahead, I supposed they would call it, since the woman was not yet dead. You might not hear of her again.

The person was married yet never married? I thought, briefly, that perhaps this was a conversation between two people with the quote marks removed, but notice the first section refers to getting out a book. “I drew a volume from my pocket; blind-tooled on the green in a double circle was a single star above what was perhaps a sea.” To remove any suspense, here’s the book:

This is from a 1910 printing, but the play has a 1917 10th edition which I think we can safely assume is the same, because immediately after the book reference, the play gets quoted. Let me put boldface around the quotes:

I found myself by that one of the windows which overlooked the stone broach spire—a rarity in Kent—of Pluckley church, and the light would strike my book from over my right shoulder. I drew a volume from my pocket; blind-tooled on the green in a double circle was a single star above what was perhaps a sea. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person, and I wondered if such a reason for marriage would ever have occurred to me. I had never married, and scarcely felt like beginning now. It was the tenth edition, of 1917. No, Sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself. Not a woman had entered as yet. I was in for a ticklish business, and I knew it. Forging ahead, I supposed they would call it, since the woman was not yet dead. You might not hear of her again.

Now the parsing makes sense: he’s quote a character in the book talking about being married, before switching to musing about never being married. This isn’t even the only page with the same play; Peter de Wachter noted that on page 9 (which I quoted in a previous page) it included the quote directly in the middle. My guess is, as far as the author’s logical framing goes, the earlier reference was intended as a secondary hint to keep an eye out for the play’s occurrence later, and by knowing it shows up, it becomes possible to make sense of the actual narrative. In other words, just like a cryptic clue in a crossword, there seems to be double reference to make it more possible to understand what’s going on!

This double reference also shows up in the discovery Voltgloss made, regarding page 82:

Bartholomew pawed my ankles even, but I am not superstitious, to ladder danger, desiring sweet biscuits. They were so bad for him. He was the third dog I had had in London. I was afraid, I realised, that I did not notice him enough. It was the first dog I noticed, and at the very beginning. You might have thought it strange for me to say these things, but you never knew Henry.

I was assuming all the occurrences of Henry was of a person, but this clip makes it clear on second glance that at at least one of the “Henry”s is a dog. (Probably not all of them.) This suddenly makes the earlier scene with Henry’s casual treatment of corpses make sense:

They said that it made the heart grow fonder. What had I actually seen? I had seen Henry—surely I had heard him called so—bending innocently over an innocent corpse of his own making.

Speaking of secondary references, there’s another reference elsewhere to Thomas Hardy’s poem Ah, Are You Digging on my Grave? which is narrated by a dog:

O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
Have not disturbed your rest?

Thomas Hardy is explicitly mentioned as an author elsewhere in the text, I’m assuming again because it would be otherwise difficult in the 1930s to realize the poem connects to the author. Page 12:

What, I wondered, would he have said about an abstracted will? He might answer to the same name as the man who sang: “Ah, are you digging on my grave?” But a softer fellow I had rarely seen. On velvet, yes, on velvet I would have trusted him ; but not on cinders, by no means on cinders. Yet the keen eyes bent like small topaz searchlights over the writing. I would get, I felt, what I wanted from this man.

This incidentally is also a name clue, as it is hinting … Thomas? … for whoever “he” is right here. I still need to finish managing all the “name clues” which I’ll get to next time. (I promised at least four posts, and the next post will be #4. I’m guessing now at least five?)

Posted May 27, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Gamebook, Interactive Fiction, Poetry, Puzzles

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Jack and the Beanstalk (1982)   1 comment

This is a direct continuation of my recent post on Victory Software games, so you should read that post first before this one.

(And yes, I’m still doing Cain’s Jawbone, but this is a very short and simple game as opposed to an impossible hard one.)

From Launchbox.

I mentioned last time an Adventure Pack consisting of Computer Adventure, Big Bad Wolf, and Moon Base Alpha. My working theory is that when Big Bad Wolf got published by Commodore in a collection, the author Bruce Robinson did a switch. This is entirely a guess, and on Bruce Robinson’s own page where he discusses the company (“At its peak, Victory Software employed 8 people at the main office”) he doesn’t talk about this at all, other than to say Commodore “licensed” both Big Bad Wolf and the action game Treasures of the Bat Cave, and neither show in later ads for Victory. (It is, to be admitted, one of those minute things that only a tiny group of people care about, although Gareth Pitchford did some investigation.)

Putting all that aside, it should also be noted that there were at least two C64 versions. While the VIC-20 file no longer exists, checking the source code indicates the 1982 C64 version is almost certainly a direct copy of the BASIC from the VIC-20.

A 1983 C64 version beefs up the text.

There are a few other changes I’ll discuss later.

Honestly, there’s kind of a charm in not trying to add much more? At least with this game the puzzles were genuinely solvable even with vanishingly small space to work with. Just like Big Bad Wolf the game is restricted to five rooms.

The goal is to make and climb a beanstalk, then steal a egg-laying hen from a giant. The bean part is pretty straightforward; you go in the TOWN and there’s a SHOVEL and BEAN just sitting there to scoop up, you don’t even have to negotiate for low prices. You can then plant the bean in your yard and water it (using the pitcher from the house), getting the titular beanstalk, which can then be climbed directly into the giant’s castle.

Typing LOOK HEN finds some GOLDEN EGGS you can take (oddly, not the objective of the game) and LOOK GIANT yields a RIFLE. The giant fortunately is very tired through all this and only awakens if you try to grab then hen, which squawks, but even then the giant just boots you out of Castle-land and down to the surface before falling asleep again.

(In other words, merciful game design! It would have been easy to put a GAME OVER but it feels in character for the giant to not feel threatened enough to go that far.)

Back in the house there was a RUG. You can take that to reveal a trapdoor, but it is locked, and even though it’s your house, there’s no key.

You can look at the rifle to find bullets, and at the bullets to find gunpowder, and then stuff the gunpowder into the keyhole of the trapdoor.

This took a little effort to solve, but it’s mainly just a matter of making sure to LOOK at every item and keeping in mind the PUT verb works.

This reveals a basement with an AX. If you try to chop the beanstalk with it the game says


Before this I admit I was happy with the gold eggs I already stole and not sure why I needed the hen too, but hey, more money in the end I guess. Going back to the squawking hen, I put my thinking cap on and came up with what I confess is an admittedly clever solve. The rug that covered the trapdoor in Big Bad Wolf was solely there to cover the trapdoor; the same is true of rugs in other text adventures like Zork. Jack and the Beanstalk takes what normally is a throwaway item and makes it the solution to a puzzle all on its own:

By covering the hen with the rug, you can mute the sounds long enough to make an escape. The giant still follows, but with ax in hand you can have a happy ending:

Honestly decent! It’s about as good as can be done with the byte space available on the unexpanded VIC-20 (other text adventures tended to use expansions; Scott Adams games required 16K of memory).

The 1983 C64 version which uses more capacity adds around the edges of the basic game.

The rifle you don’t get from the giant, but rather have to purchase it in town. The hen isn’t right next to the giant and you have to travel through a top-down maze to get there.

Not much more to add; we’ve still got more Bruce Robinson games to go, but they’re kicked down a bit further down on my list. If nothing else, this well-illustrates the principle I’ve mentioned of unexpected re-purposing being a very strong puzzle type: taking what seems to be an informational sign and moving it, turning a location into an object that can be picked up when the player is strong enough, and for this game, taking what would normally be scene decoration whose only purpose is to hide one object and making it the essential element for solving the main puzzle in the game.

Posted May 26, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Cain’s Jawbone: To Reckon With Henry   8 comments

I’ve done a run through all the text, and before I get into some insights, I want to set some ground rules in case anyone wants to join in. You are absolutely welcome to. If for some reason you’ve made significant progress on an aspect before coming here — that is, you know “spoilers” and are not just playing along — I would prefer any comments be held off.

I have a copy of the text here with comment permission. I’m holding off on a spreadsheet until I have a better idea of what the layout should be (more on that in a moment).

To reckon with Henry! That was never easy. Just beyond the laurels, I turned sharply and there he was, bending over the body of his latest victim. There was blood all about. I called to him sharply and he seemed dazed.

— Page 21

I also want to caution is I’m about to make a guess here that might be gigantic spoiler — it deals with a fundamental aspect of the story. If you want to take your own shot at reading and theorizing first without being tainted you might want to veer away until later.

The modern box set, picture from Ash Digital.

For my readthrough I decided to go backwards, 100 to 1, for no particular reason. This led to a rather intense start, which feels like it might be a genuine ending:

I dimly guess why the old dead so wanted this. I had worked for him, Henry had worked for him. If I could get up, as, believe me, I cannot, I would have a thing to say to her. She lolls over at me gloating, her mouth blood-tinted on the puma freckle of her beauty. Why should I think of Henry at this particular juncture? I have it. Scotland Yard, of course. And little ‘twill matter to one. A sorry thing to be last noticed : the buttonhole has escaped from the buttonholer. He, the reckless old cock, slips down past Woolworth’s and she continues full-sail toward the Kursal, as flush—oh, you wicked woman—as May. The girl is smiling at me. That’s not so good. Here I shake off the bur o’ the world, man’s congregation shun. O beastly woman. You know not how ill’s all here, about my heart ; but I know. Henry, I feel it, is for the first and last time getting out of hand. Good-bye, Henry. He drops awa. . . . .

In terms of surface understanding, “I” the narrator here is “working for” someone and “Henry”, who shows up a great deal in the story (more than any other character, I think) also “works for” the same person. This is followed by some stream-of-consciousness which may or may not be wordplay, and then … some kind of death? “He drops away” being cut off sounds akin to a murder happening, but of who? “Goodbye, Henry” makes it sound like Henry itself, but their earlier “Why should I think of Henry” seems to disabuse that notion.

What really popped out was an immense number of references to Henry — searching yields 56 mentions — including this one, page 91, that I found baffling.

In my youth I had been worried that I bore the same name as Newbolt’s admiral and Shakespeare’s sergeant, and it had irked me when, in my student days, I had been known as the Smiler with the Knife. Afterwards I found it better in practice to capitalise my third letter. The Blue Rocket was still going down next day ; in fact, I knew too much to let it go up. It even seemed to be succeeding. The snowy-banded, dilettante, delicate-handed? At least I was the last. I would not say at last I was the least. I tried to interest him in my little Black Museum, and indeed elicited a frisson with the preserved eyeball of the well-known and respected Cadaver Charlie. The eye in which, just before its fellow was shot out by the Chicago sleuth, he had asked that suave detective if he, the detective, could see any green. It looked, though, as if Henry had been playing about with this exhibit. I would have to take steps.

First off, “Newbolt’s admiral and Shakespeare’s sergeant” are both references to Henry. So on this page, the narrator here seems to be admitting their name is Henry. But what is with capitalizing “my third letter”? This feels like it has to be wordplay, but I’m not sure what it indicates. Even more mysteriously, Henry then is referred to later as someone other than the narrator “It looked, though, as if Henry had been playing about with this exhibit.”

I also quoted another excerpt last time about the narrator being called “Hal”, and there’s this bit from page 94 which seems to hint at another name: “Naturally I looked up. And I tell you I found it awe-inspiring enough to actually see my own name through the window, printed there in great letters for the gaze of all and sundry. With a blush I concentrated again on Henry, and asked myself if his recent activities did or did not constitute the darbs.” And yes, there’s Henry again.

Holistically, I really got the sense of different people with different attitudes. Some people were stern and upper-class; some were not. 60 seemed to outline the pieces of a murder, and are very explicit about calling Henry “my peerless investigator” — like Henry is working for the narrator.

I had sufficient knowledge to realise that I had succeeded. I ordered Charles to spare no expense in confecting that Sundae known as Lover’s Delight for my companion. I believed in letting a man have a bit in. A couple of hours later the parson in the pulpit had, with his collaborator, done the trick. I looked down on what I had accomplished. Death closes all : but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done. That figurehead beard would plough the pseudo-scientific seas no more, at least. There had been other murders, of course, to-day, and with greater consequence. Francis Ferdinand’s, for instance. But never one that had left a man more dead. I gave the huddle farewell, and forbade Henry, my peerless investigator, to pursue the matter further. I climbed down from the short flight of folding steps upon which I had secured my inevitable heliographic record of success. No more by thee my steps shall be for ever and for ever.

So, here’s my grand theory: there is not only just one narrator. There are, perhaps, six narrators, one for each murder; since the pages all continuously use “I”, it gets disguised who is talking on a particular page. So the first task would be to figure out who the six people are, and sort the pages appropriately. (In fact, perhaps, the narrator is the murderer in all the cases?)

I still have yet to think much of the chronology. You might notice in the last excerpt a reference to Francis Ferdinand’s death (kickstarting WW1), which happened on June 28, 1914. I don’t think this implies the story is happening in 1914 — although it’d add an extra wrinkle if it was — but rather the specific day of June 28 matches with the page. Then, perhaps, each month of the six months of the story neatly encapsulates a narrator and a murder.

(There is, at least mercifully, a few pages where the connection is obvious. There are pairs of pages that all involve poems and breaks mid-poem, but the beginnings and ending of the poems are mixed up. The actual list is: 12->50, 23->87, 49->13, 86->24, 92->42, 41->93. So we have at least six pairs linked up.)

I probably next need to give the whole thing another read, with the notion of mind of separating pages into narrator-characters. This supposition may be entirely false. Certainly the multitude of Henrys is disturbing. The page where the character says he is Henry but also talks about one: maybe there’s more than one Henry, just with different last names? (I could of course also be solving the puzzle wrong.) Is Henry sometimes used not even for a person but an object? There are too many occurrences for him to just be illusory.

Posted May 25, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Gamebook, Interactive Fiction, Poetry, Puzzles

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Cain’s Jawbone (1934)   12 comments

It is unknown who actually was the first to put words crossing in a grid, but the earliest example we have is from a piece of 2nd century wall found at a Roman house in Cirencester.

The same words are spelled across as down.


Word squares became a popular pastime in 19th century England, and eventually, clues started to be made in order to generate them. For example, these clues from Guess Me (1872) make a 5 by 5 square:

1. To watch over
2. Below there
3. A fair lady's name
4. A memorial of the feast
5. A severe lawgiver

Other shapes, like a diamond or a triangle started to be used, but it wasn’t until Arthur Wynn’s Word-Cross for 1913 did “across” and “down” get turned into separate clues, with arbitrary shapes. This eventually kicked off a crossword craze that lasted all the way through the 1920s on both sides of the Atlantic.

Our protagonist for today’s story, Edward Powys Mathers, was on the British side. He originally distinguished himself as a translator and poet, but also was a prolific writer of puzzles under the pen name Torquemada (he of the Spanish Inquisition). There was, for example, the 1925 volume Cross-Words in Rhyme for Those of Riper Years.

We’ll try a sample from here in a moment.
As the title indicates, all clues are in rhyme, and already are much more elaborate than the “American” style crossword.

In 1926 started publishing crosswords with The Observer, and importantly, continued developing what is essentially his invention, that which is sometimes in the United States called the “cryptic crossword”. Unlike regular crosswords, the clues in a cryptic involve a double-indicator, one which is a “straightforward definition”, one which is generally wordplay, and the two are merged together in such a way it can be difficult to discern which is which.

I say “essentially” because it’s important to note that the puzzle type was being developed before “fairness rules” were established; Torquemada was followed by Ximenes (aka Derrick Somerset Macnutt) who quite clearly articulated that there should be a definition, a secondary wordplay, and absolutely no extra words, but that was not the case with all of Torquemada’s puzzles.

For example, try this clue, 3 letters:

The sluggard’s pet abomination
Got all mixed up when dealing with this one

Don’t try too hard; I honestly don’t understand the answer even after reading it. Still, let’s give a period postcard for some spoiler space.

The “got all mixed up” seems to be an anagram signal, but as opposed to the letters being there, you have to figure out what the pet is first:

NTA, Anagram of ant, of whom the sluggard must be heartily sick.

What does NTA stand for? I’ll assume that’s something that made sense in the 1920s, but given how mysterious some of the other clues are, maybe not?

All this is important for the work in question today, that of the Torquemada Puzzle Book published in 1934.

By this point, Torquemada was a well-established puzzle writer, and embedded in the volume of EXCLUSIVELY UNPUBLISHED MATERIAL there was a 100-page mystery novel by the name of Cain’s Jawbone. It is a story over the span of six months where there are six murderers and six victims. There is the slight catch that a.) the identities of the victims are unknown b.) the identities of the murderers are unknown and c.) all 100 pages are out of order. The goal of the puzzle is to reconstruct all three.

A 2019 republication of Cain’s Jawbone as a standalone novel — with an accompanying contest which is still active until the end of 2022 — recently went viral; well, recent-ish, by Internet time. (I can say I was cool enough to know about the book before it went famous. I did not predict it would be the source of Youtube videos with nearly half a million views.)

My skill at cryptic crosswords is only middling-to-fair, so I’ve up to now resisted an urge to take a crack at the puzzle, but I took a gander through the text recently and it’s pretty good even just read as experimental literature. Edward Powys Mathers had genuine literature chops.

The sound of the bell, as of a boding gnat, just came to me. The finger causing it was, I knew, the index of a most skilful hand, one I had commanded, one that would pluck me from embarrassment, and yet one I vaguely distrusted. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of responsibility…. One had to be in the key for such things.

The impression is a tactile mix of a well-characterized narrator, social commentary, and what likely are some gnarly puzzles mixed in. A good cryptic crossword clue often has surface meaning indistinguishable from normal text. This clearly isn’t … normal text … but yet somehow fits directly into what I’d expect from experimental modernists in the 1930s.

No doubt — especially given the book cover indicates such — there is hidden wordplay that is part of the puzzle. But there’s also still a story here, and a narrative logic, and if I’m going to take a crack at solving Cain’s Jawbone the first thing I want to try to do is sequence by raw intuition.

I’ll be tackling more specifics next time, but I do want to linger a bit more on the narrator character. The narrator himself (herself?) may be one of the murderers.

In one way, of course, I was glad they were married. I had always been rather a stickler for purity in family life. That scandalous rumour of a Maltese landing on our island and seducing an ancestress of mine—or was it an ancestor?—from the path of duty, I never had and never would believe. If I had had a real education, instead of just listening to him, I could have told—it was bad that day—how I detested being called Hal. It was she that did it. But he was pleased in a way, and said to her, out of a book, the original ground of the transaction appears to have been sentimental : “He was my friend,” says the murderous doctor ; “he was dear to me.” Some Tom, not the one I killed in the matter of Jasmine, had done that, I gathered. He was enthusiastic and provided a chop for me, and said it was good he had visited England to-day for the first time.

Is “the one I killed in the matter of Jasmine” referring to “the murderous doctor” or is it referring to the narrator?

From what I’ve sampled so far, I also get the sense that chronology does not flow exactly (the setup material for book even indicates that the narrator’s mind will sometimes flit about “in the modern way”) and it’s certainly possible not everything said is reliable, not even accounting for some text probably being there for literal wordplay rather than indicating real events in the world universe.

I don’t expect to get a solution — nobody seems to be, except for one person — but I would like to get some insight on the puzzle design in general, and especially just what the frame is. Is there a specific way each name gets encoded? Is there a strong indicator across every page that allows checking the page sequence? I was going to commit to writing four posts, and like my writeup on Alkemstone, I’m hoping to at least get a fair notion of the central puzzle, even if I don’t know enough 1930s British references to make much headway. If nothing else, John Finnemore (the solver I just linked to) said “it’s a well-designed puzzle so when you start to make some headway, you know it” meaning despite the obtuseness, it’s probably at the very least a tighter design than Alkemstone.

Posted May 24, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Gamebook, Interactive Fiction, Poetry, Puzzles

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Big Bad Wolf / Moon Base Alpha / Computer Adventure (1982)   17 comments

Bruce Robinson, our 1982 author for today, started off a little earlier in 1980 working on games for the Ohio Scientific Computer, published by Aardvark. Remember them, the ones with a parser that only understands the first two letters of each word? (Fair if you don’t, especially if you haven’t read that far back; try my writeup on Deathship for a brief intro.) Yes, they’re back, kind of, even though none of Robinson’s games for Ohio Scientific were adventures…


The original tasteless working name was “DEAD BABIES”. A hotel fire is burning out of control as people mill around the roof. Your job is to catch them in a net and bounce them into a waiting ambulance.

…it is clear Mr. Robinson had some influence from the Aardvark adventure line, so we’ll need to refer back to those games shortly.

Bruce Robinson was the proprietor and for the most part sole writer for Victory Software, which kicked off with a line of software for Commodore computers: the VIC-20 and C64. Later, they also converted their titles for the ill-fated Coleco Adam.

Not long ago I wrote about two fairly small games on the Softside Magazette, essentially too small to be published standalone. Another workaround to this problem circa 1982 was to sell multiple games together as a sort of “pack”, as was done with “Adventure Pack I” which contains all of today’s games.

Via LaunchBox.

I’m listing the games separately because they were also repackaged; for example, Big Bad Wolf made its way into a collection sold by Commodore…

…and Victory Software itself did its own re-packaging, combining Moon Base Alpha and Computer Adventure with Jack and the Beanstalk and calling it Adventure Pack I, not to be confused with the other Adventure Pack I they released. (I’m not fully clear which came first. I’ll tackle Jack and the Beanstalk standalone on a different day.)

The games were clearly written first with VIC-20 in mind, a system we have yet to encounter here. Commodore was being managed by Jack Tramiel, forever going for the lower price, and the VIC-20 in particular had an astonishingly tiny 5 KB of memory (compare to a standard TRS-80 Scott Adams game at 16). Even the Aardvark games with 8 KB did not have to deal with such tiny spaces.

The games here were written in BASIC, which reduces the memory capacity even more to astronomically tight.

Consequentially, both the games themselves and the parser are quite minimal. The minimality to responses especially make the games near-unplayable, although Big Bad Wolf verges close to being a “good” game. They’re also quite necessarily tiny on room count, where Big Bad Wolf has a grand total of 5 rooms, Moon Base Alpha has 5, and Computer Adventure has 12. I’ll tackle them in reverse order.

Before I show my first screenshot, I should mention VIC-20 is known for its extra-wide text font (see the BASIC shot earlier) but for my play I used emulator tomfoolery in order to squish the aspect ratio into something normal-looking. These are hard enough to play without me adding illegible text to the mix. (I also think it might be possible on a 1982 period TV to use knobs to cause some horizontal squishing anyway, although I don’t have any hand to test this theory on.)

Computer Adventure’s premise is you need to go buy a computer, TV, and adventure game in order to play an adventure game.

Remember when you first started thinking about getting a computer? How you scraped up enough money to buy it, figured out how to hook it up, and then actually got a program running on it?

There are no compass directions; you GO LOCATION to go there, and even though the places supposedly have a connected geography, you can ignore the geography and GO to any location in the game at any time. Yes, this feels weirdly and accidentally modern. The C64 version “fixes” this feature so you can’t just do locations across the map. (Crowther/Woods Adventure let you go to locations by just typing their names, but only a limited set of them.)

The GO LOCATION “feature” is co-paired with a parser that, like Aardvark, only understands the first two letters of each word, will often just re-display a location rather than explaining why a command failed, and sticks to non-committal messages like NOT YET with no clear reason why something isn’t possible.

The SUGAR BOWL at the start contains money you can find by opening it. Then you can go shopping; as might be expected for a VIC-20 enthusiast, Atari ($800) Apple ($1200) and IBM ($2300) are all out of budget, but you have enough money for a VIC & recorder ($375). You don’t have enough money to buy a TV after the VIC. You can try to steal you one but that lands you in jail:

You have to CALL AMBULANCE after this in order to get your leg in a cast so you can move again. All this is entirely optional (!?).

The right thing to do instead is to go into a friend’s house, take their broken TV, and find out you are unable to REPAIR it. You can go home and CALL REPAIR which will inform you of a secret repair area, then spend $50 there to have a working TV set. (There is absolutely no indication any of these phone calls should work.) For the game, you can get a magazine with AN AD FOR VICTORY SOFTWARE; you can ORDER GAME which will then show up in your mailbox.

With the three parts in place, you can fiddle with commands in a way I’m unclear the order on (PLUG works somewhere, as does ATTACH, and if you don’t have the right order the game just says NOT YET) before finally finding the commands LOAD PROGRAM and RUN PROGRAM.

Doing this gets you the award of …

…getting into a loop, and playing the very game you just played! Bruce Robinson clearly had energy and ideas, but tried to implement them in an environment that didn’t support even half of what he wanted. While I haven’t tried the Adam version, even the C64 version isn’t much more elaborate, and mainly is helpful in giving a full list of possible verbs rather than making the player guess.

For the next game, Moon Base Alpha (complete map above) you need to stop a comet from hitting the eponymous moon base.

You get constantly reminded of how close the comet is. The first step is to head to the SILO with a CHISEL, DETONATOR, MISSILE, and GANTRY. The game then runs into the Aardvark visualization issue; I normally think of missiles as rather large, but you can just pick this one up and put it in the gantry (!?). Then you need to PUT DETONATOR on the MISSILE, and the only catch now is you need to push the button in order to launch it. The computer in the main control room (see screenshot) has a button but it is out of battery. There’s fortunately a battery in the basement, but unfortunately…

…the game informs you the battery is impossible to get. In Computer Adventure (and the early Aardvark games) you’d have to sit and wonder what the issue is, but here the game spares the space to let you know about CORROSIVE ACID if you look at the battery. So you need to get some medical gloves.

The gloves, unfortunately, have an issue of their own, as illustrated above: they’re contaminated from some sort of prior contact, and you quickly get sick and die if you pick them up. The key is to first take the CHISEL from back where the missile is, bust open the LOCK in the control room with it, grab some FORCEPS hiding behind the door, use the FORCEPS to pick up the gloves, then put the gloves in the autoclave for sterilization before trying to put them on.

A $50,000 autoclave from Fisher Scientific.

Then with the gloves you can get the battery over to the computer (which apparently works well enough even with the acid) and charge it up to be able to launch the missile.

This was certainly an improvement over Computer Adventure; dropping room count to super-tiny levels gave enough space to give actual feedback on what was going on and the game never asked for jumps of faith like CALL REPAIR. The game is even good enough to let you know the gloves are SCUMMY before picking them up rather than just letting you die and figure out the hard way there might be something wrong (…I figured out the hard way, but I pick up items like a hyperkinetic rabbit).

Before visiting Big Bad Wolf, I want to make a big lateral leap to an Infocom game, their only experiment in real-time parser gameplay.

From Mobygames.

This game is in three parts and the opening one is one of my all-time favorite adventure game puzzles.

Just here, a few miles from the border, night is falling, and the lights of the small villages flicker into existence. You’re drifting off into sleep when there is a knock on your compartment door, and a man, clutching his left arm, staggers inside. Drops of blood on his sleeve leave no doubt as to the cause.

“Don’t be frightened,” he begins, “I’m all right.” Before you can speak, he begins his story. He is, it seems, an American agent who has just learned of a sinister plot to assassinate a top-ranking American diplomat tomorrow morning in Ostnitz, the town your train is fast approaching. He hands you a document, which he says must be passed to his contact at the train station there. You look through it, but it’s all in Frobnian, and you know barely a handful of words – that’s why you always carry your combination tourist guide and phrase book with you on your trips here.

“You must deliver this. I do not know who the contact is – he was supposed to find me. I was to wear this white carnation.” He pulls out the rumpled flower and pins it onto your jacket. “He will bump into you and greet you with the words ‘Excuse me. I am sorry.’ to which you should reply ‘It is my fault.’ Then, hand him the document and earn our country’s thanks.”

The vast entirety of Part 1 of the game is figuring out how to make it to Ostnitz with the document. It is essentially one large puzzle, and while you are figuring of how to hide the document, compartments of the train start being checked one by one.

You watch as a man in a trench coat enters your car to the north. He opens the door to the first compartment, and begins to speak to the occupants, though you can’t make out a word.

This is a preparation puzzle. Rather than applying an object to overcome an obstacle, the obstacle is coming to you, and you need to have everything set up correctly in order to bring the document to safety.

Big Bad Wolf is the same sort of puzzle, but squished into the 3583 bytes of VIC-20 BASIC.

The wolf, akin to the comet, approaches a house wanting to gobble you up. (I’m unclear how you get move by move updates on the wolf’s distance, but it still works in context.) Again, the map is tiny, just five rooms.

You can also try to go in the WOODS but that kills you so I’m not counting it as a room.

You’ve got access to a gas stove, whiskey, and a candle in the kitchen; a chair in the den; an ax and shovel in the shed. The shovel can be used to dig up a lock in the yard, which can be used to lock the front door; this is one of the necessary steps to prevent the wolf from gobbling you.

The candle can be used to find a pot of oil in the cellar. Then you need to set up a trap in the
DEN, which has a FIREPLACE. The ax can chop the CHAIR into kindling, and the kindling, candle, and hot oil go together into the fireplace.

With the door locked at the trap in place, the game then lets the wolf approach without any intervention on your part.

Finding it cannot huff and puff and blow the house down, it tries the front door, then climbs up to go down the fireplace instead.

I admit I was still genuinely puzzled on some visualizing — chopping up the chair in particular was non-obvious as it doesn’t have a description as wood — but the whole process felt oddly satisfying. I think Moon Base Alpha may have come last of the three (it is the only one that supports LOOK on most everything) but that game felt like a succession of individual puzzles, whereas this felt like one organic one, and I was impressed how much gameplay Bruce Robinson managed.

I think if he had been programming on a mainframe, he’d make a big, expansive Adventure clone just like everyone else, but a treasure hunt in 5 rooms really doesn’t make much sense, so it forced some innovation. It’s too bad the resulting parser is so dodgy, but at least I’m not dreading playing his other games (also for VIC-20) that will come later in my 1982 sequence.

That’s going to have to wait, because for the remainder of at least this week I’m going to try something very, very different, something that surely belongs in the annals of interactive fiction yet is much older than anything I’ve ever played.

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

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Xanadu Adventure: Finished!   5 comments

I was planning on calling this post “The Hard Part” but it really wasn’t? I’m not exactly disappointed but I feel like I might have missed something, despite getting a hearty “congratulations” and the hand of a princess. (Also, be sure you’ve read my prior posts on this game for this one to make sense.)

Anthony Hope has an entertaining play-through video on Youtube here that lasts nearly 2-and-a-half hours.

First off: the amount of available torch light (that’s Brit-torch, so “flashlight”) was not at all a problem. A good chunk of the area is well-lit/outdoors and there’s even some leeway there. I’ll call the batteries the shop sells at the start to be essentially useless, I never needed to touch them, and you can even travel through darkness to an extent (just you can’t interact with objects in darkness, but you can still move around).

Second, the game really is forgiving in terms of transport-options. You get one magic word (GREZON) that gives you a one-shot teleport back to the treasure room, MINH works on two parts of the map, and if all else fails you can just walk (again, darkness is ok!)

I had nearly already solved all the puzzles last time. One that I missed was going up a bell tower to where a vampire bat resided, but there’s some garlic hanging around that lets you easily grab a treasure there.

I also missed going down a well to an oyster, where a “bivalve opening tool” served me well to pop it open and get a pearl. (I also, according to Anthony’s Hope walkthrough I checked after I finished, missed my only 5 points here by failing to eat the oyster. Not my first choice of gourmet, I’m fine leaving those points behind.)

I mentioned, offhand, defeating a cockroach with ITHURD; this does appear to be “correct”, or at least the way the walkthrough does it.

Where my playthrough different from the walkthrough is with the Troll. There are two ways through and there seems to be randomization here. One is to toss it the colorful postcards you can buy from the shop.

However, on my “final run” the troll wasn’t taking the cards and kept throwing the cards back, so I tried my lunch instead and it took that. (No hunger timer I could find, so it didn’t matter!)

The only other tricky part happened upon finding the last treasure. A voice announced the cave was closing and I needed to book it back to the shop at the start of the game. If you take too long you get squished.

One other thing that helped is the only threat that mattered, the second dragon, I met out in the middle of the forest, so I was able to run away from it and ignore it entirely. I was otherwise utterly unable to kill it with my sword.

Assuming you are efficient (and you don’t need to be that efficient) you have time to teleport back to the pagoda, deposit all your treasures, and book it for the shop and your reward.

I really was expecting something off-the-wall hard akin to Atom Adventure since Anthony described this game as an expanded version of that one. I never had any of the same effects, where the torch and inventory issues were so pronounced they essentially produced a whole new set of puzzles that needed to be solved on top of the regular ones. I did have to think somewhat about my movements, but I never felt pressured enough I had to reload every time I went a wrong direction.

The funny thing is, of course, that isn’t really a bad thing! This is essentially the most playable of Paul Shave’s games. It mimics Adventure a little too much for me to call it top-tier, but I did enjoy seeing how randomization fiddled with gameplay possibilities, and I’m guessing there are some emergent stories that I’ve missed based on, say, possibly having a sword break at an inconvenient moment. (Weirdly, in my final run I didn’t meet any dwarves — I wonder if that has something to do with me trapping the dragon in the forest.) I’d say the adventure-roguelike aspect (which I’ve chronicled a number of failures of) actually works here; just the right elements are randomized in just the right amounts so the game at least felt a little dangerous, but not unmanageable.

So, my sincere apologies for all those hoping for five more posts of struggling and pain on my part. If you’re nostalgic you can always re-read my series on Madness and the Minotaur, which does have a sequel in 1982 that uses the same engine, so eventually the suffering will come.

Posted May 21, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Xanadu Adventure: The Easy Part   2 comments

My map in progress; incomplete, but probably not terribly so.

As I mentioned last time, difficulty for Xanadu likely points in a very different direction than Quondam. According to the ad copy for the game there are “over 100 rooms” and I have 95 or so of them mapped, so it feels like I might already have most of the layout of the game. There have been some puzzles along the way but they have all had a very cribbed-from Adventure feel that made them easy to solve. For example:

You’re at the South end of the vaulted chamber. There are no openings in the walls, but there is a six foot diameter hole in the ceiling through which the light shines.

It was not shocking to find a beanstalk was needed.

Backing up a little, one of the things I did in Madness in the Minotaur that I now believe was a mistake was to keep iterating on new random layouts for too long before settling on a “final map”. This time I saved my game immediately on my first attempt and kept going to that save, with all the objects already in their places (there’s still at least a little randomization done mid-game, which I’ll get to). This meant I could treat item locations as normal and immutable on making a map. I may still find something in the layout is impossible to reckon with later, but for now I feel like I’ve had a lucky draw, especially given the dragon from last time. Remember I died in two steps? This time I bought a sword and tried my luck, and managed to slay it.

MINH, when used in a nearby “Magic Room”, teleports treasures to the aboveground, and if no treasures are at hand, teleports yourself to the aboveground. It also works to teleport back again. It is, in other words, good for optimizing steps, although I haven’t got to that phase yet.

Nearby the dragon corpse was a small chasm, but help was nearby (at least in my iteration):

I think the ladder doesn’t have many places it can go, because you get stopped trying to take it down passages going the “wrong way” (it’s described as too big to carry), I assume with the intent to avoid breaking some puzzle later?

The chasm area incidentally had some keys which unlocked the grate I found at the start, so there’s yet another passage to the surface.

Shades of The Hermit’s Secret (except in that game nothing needed to be optimized).

There’s a shockingly tame maze; nothing much to say about it other than I found a “growbag” (needed for that beanstalk earlier) and a “dulcimer” (needed shortly for a different puzzle).

Just past the beanstalk, exactly like Crowther/Woods, there is a door that needs oil. Going even farther, there’s a troll demanding a treasure, although we finally have one deviation, since I haven’t found the FEE/FIE/FOE/FUM eggs and I’m not sure how to toss a treasure to the troll without losing it. I can still preview the rest of the map, though.

Past the bridge is a castle, with an interesting “trap room” with two phials were one of them says “poison” and the other one says “transporter”.

As far as I can tell, if you drink the poison or not is random, so if you get it wrong you just need to restore a save and try again.

There’s also a giant (…again similar to Adventure, although you never meet the giant in that game…) which can be lulled to sleep.

The magic word you get here can be one instead that teleports you back to safety aboveground. I have one puzzle I haven’t solved yet via “normal” means — a giant cockroach with skin too tough to break through — by using ITHURD instead. I don’t know if that’s “wrong” or just one possible approach.

So far, so standard. If I didn’t know better I think I’d wandered into the most standard Adventure clone we’ve seen yet, but unless various commenters of the past are playing a very long con, things are about to get very sticky as I try to liberate all the treasures I’ve seen. I suspect there’s a lot of under-the-surface difficulties that don’t manifest until I’ve started sending up cargo.

Let me give an example of what might come up. There’s a very short side room trip that’s needed to fill a bottle with water for beanstalk-watering.

Oh yes, there’s a dwarf that fixes broken swords. I have yet to break a sword. The several times I encountered a second dragon (randomly, after the first one with the paper) I straight-up died, with no chance to break anything.

Technically, going in the Chamber With Pool and filling-up takes three precious turns of torch light. Original Adventure let you fill a bottle outdoors, but it’s not possible here because the stream is dried up. But what if there was a puzzle to refill the dry stream, not for any holistic benefit, but just to save the three moves it takes to get water underground? That’s the kind of evil contortion I’m keeping my eyes out for.

Posted May 17, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Xanadu Adventure (1982)   12 comments

Paul Shave (see previously: Atom Adventure, Pirate Island) went for broke with his last adventure, moving from the Atom to the more capable BBC Micro. Back in 2014 he was contacted by Anthony Hope (one of our regular commenters); Paul helped Anthony beat Xanadu Adventure, and as Paul himself stated in this interview:

I’m pretty sure he [Anthony] was the first.

In other words, at the time of release, it was too difficult for anyone to beat. Will it dethrone Quondam as the most difficult adventure ever?

From Every Game Going.

Having built up that hype, I should add the caveat that “difficulty” is not really a linear spectrum and has lots of elements mashed inside. Judging by Atom Adventure (which Anthony Hope claims is sort of a mini-version of Xanadu) the difficult aspects go in a rather different direction.

Quondam involved paying attention to extreme object micro-interactions, and was tightly packed with nearly every action requiring some sort of puzzle to be solved.

Xanadu’s difficulty is in randomization and optimized timing. Regarding the latter, most games — even the evil Phoenix mainframe ones — gave a lamp with a relatively generous lifespan that doesn’t require watching every step. The Paul Shave games all have, on the other hand, given exactly the amount of light needed, and not a step more; this gets to the level of being cautious what entrance to take into a cave as one entrance uses up a precious extra move of light and will eventually cause failure.

The randomization I’ve seen places some objects at random, so despite the absolute optimization condition above, you still have to deal with improvising a path (and Atom Adventure, at least, occasionally gave a literally impossible layout).

Absolutely tight limits and randomization make for an incredibly high-pressure experience. The closest comparison I can think of is Madness and the Minotaur (which I played last year) but while Madness and the Minotaur arguably had even more randomization, it at least tried to provide ample opportunity to “refresh” decaying health and light sources, going as far as randomly spawning a new refresh after one gets used up. I don’t expect any such niceties here.

As is usual for authors still under the shadow of Crowther/Woods, the objective is to gather treasures. As is slightly unusual, the instructions state you need to DEPOSIT the treasures rather than DROP them to get points. The instructions don’t give how many treasures there are or even a maximum possible score.

Before embarking further, I should also note this odd portion from the instructions:

There are lots of dwarves and dragons about. To kill them, you need weapons (you can kill them without, but it’s very unlikely). A sword has a weapon count of 10, an axe’s count is 5. To kill a dragon outright, you need a weapon count of 20; for a dwarf it’s 15, but if you throw an axe at a dwarf you always kill it. Your chances of killing monsters are proportional to your weapon count.

It sounds like all the weapons being carried contribute to your weapon “count” (as opposed to just using your best one), so if you have a sword, an axe, and a ??? you can outright kill dragons, but only have a probability of doing it with a sword. This feels weird and uneasy and I suspect there’s a trick hidden here somewhere.

The “1 or 2 Adventurers” question is interesting, but I’m going to ignore that feature for the moment.

You start in an “adventurer shop”, and no, you can’t just buy two swords right away for some dragon hunting action; the shop runs out. I’m unclear what’s optimal here but I’m the “messing about” portion of my gameplay so far so I’m trying everything out, including the postcards.

Speaking of postcards, I did my usual process for ultra-hard games and created a verb list right away. MAIL is not on my usual-test list but I thought it might work on the postcards.


A few to keep in mind as I move forward: MEND is quite out-of-the-ordinary (only previously seen in Hezarin) as well as SCARE (which I’ve seen maybe twice?) I also wouldn’t immediately think to SING anywhere, and USE being in play means I’ll need to test it in lots of places. Some of the typical magic-item manipulations like WAVE and RUB are out of play, but there’s always magic words.

After shopping, you go out to find a locked grate, Adventure style, and no keys; your first treasure, a ruby ring; and an empty bottle.

There’s a mostly unmappable forest (I tried, you can see my attempt above, but items started getting moved around and some exits shift at random); the only purpose of going in is to finding a pagoda.

Thankfully for maze-mapping, the “diagonal” directions of NE/NW/SE/SW are not allowed.

In addition to the outside being a treasure deposit area, you can go IN and then DOWN into darkness for what I assume is a random experience. I only got two moves in before getting wrecked by a dragon.

I’m assuming the dragon’s placement is random, and I’d get something less aggressive on a second playthrough. I’ll have to keep throwing dead bodies at the cave and return with a report.

Posted May 16, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Space Gorn (1982)   1 comment

We just saw a one-move game in the May 1982 edition of Softdisk. While we’re going through light adventures let’s knock one more down, appearing in the very next month.

The actual title of the last game we played was The Room, the filename is A.SHORT.ADVENTURE.

As you might tell from the title if you’re a Star Trek fan, yes, this is an original series reference (the Gorn have also shown up in Discovery….?) To get you in the mood, witness Captain Kirk’s hand-to-hand technique in this slow-moving battle from the episode Arena:

Truly unmatched in the history of martial arts using Styrofoam scenery.

Moving on to the actual game, the title screen gives it as “by Anthony Chiang” and “Chiang Mini-Adventure #1”. The mini part is serious: this is very short.

This is almost more text than the rest of the game.

I should put extra emphasis — unusually short. It’s easy with modern gaming to find endless parades of 15-minute confections on, some even highly acclaimed, but adventure games circa 1982 tended to longer. I assume (given the last game we just saw) the Softdisk format allowed for publishing tiny projects that would normally never survive to us today.



Here’s the entire map:

In one of the Aardvark opuses they’d have everything criss-crossed multiple times with abstruse object interactions that take hours to detangle. Here, you pick up a “LAZER KEY”, walk a few steps away, unlock a door, and find the SPACE GORN.


Just missing a few steps along the way: there’s a picture of William Shatner you need to tear down with a safe behind. You can OPEN PICTURE to find the safe combo inside (there’s a hint elsewhere to do this) and find a disintegrator gun. Fresh batteries for the gun are laying around in the open nearby. A quick hop back to the Gorn, and, victory?

Hmm, at least one catch. Given how little there is to work with … what if we had the Gorn shoot the gun instead? That doesn’t quite work, but the Death Dreadnaught technique works perfectly.

Again: this is, objectively compared to modern games, a minor bit of fluff. But compared to games from the time, intentionally tiny adventures (maybe not action games) are unusual; most self-respecting authors would pad things out with a few more deathtraps or obscure puzzles or at least a maze or two. I have the feeling there are many games like this that were made but — not having an appropriate commercial outlet — were never passed on. The closest comparison I can think of is the early Roger Wilcox work, and the only reason we have those is the author dug up his old tapes and tossed them on his own web page many years later.

And if for some reason the short works bother you, don’t worry; our next game is going to be both long and very heavy and I suspect might be the eventual winner of Most Difficult Adventure of 1982.

Posted May 15, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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The Room (1982)   18 comments

Softdisk Magazette we’ve previously experienced with the Daniel Tobias games, the surprisingly clever Planet of the Robots and the unfortunately bland Smurk. They took a hiatus from adventure games after their January 1982 issue until one arose again in May, of a very unusual nature indeed. So unusual, it is (as of this writing) not entered into any games-listing archive. It took major effort to find a copy, as May 1982 is strangely missing from the places I checked; I almost gave up until encountering Softdisk Supreme, a CD with nearly all the Apple II content they ever published (except for some Penguin/Polarware games that had to be removed for copyright reasons).

Having said all that, The Room is Paul Raymer’s only game credit, and only minimally counts as a game. Yet: it somehow accidentally wanders into being the first escape room game (beating the next-earliest candidate by a year), and the first single-command game.

I think most readers are familiar with the former, but let me explain the latter, which is something of a rare breed which only makes sense to talk of with text adventures. The game Aisle by Sam Barlow (of later Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Her Story fame) is the most prominent example:

Late Thursday night. You’ve had a hard day and the last thing you need is this: shopping. Luckily, the place is pretty empty and you’re progressing rapidly.

The game presents a perfectly ordinary scene in a grocery store, but what’s unusual is then it lets you type nearly any command you might think of. Try to wave at the woman in the same aisle? Lie down and sleep? Rip open bags of pasta and eat them on the spot?

The pasta is a seething mass of off-white food. You tear at the plastic bags until the curls and tubes and twists and shells cascade onto the floor and into your hands. Scooping up a collection of different shapes you cram the pasta into your mouth. It is dry, it is hard. That’s what your body is saying. But you learnt something a while back–that your body (your eyes, your hands, your heart) isn’t always right. No, you’ve learnt to listen to your mind. And your minds says: soft, warm, slightly salty pasta. Tangy sauce. What a feast!

They spoil your fun, they take you away–or so your body says. Your mind knows better; you’re still in Rome eating pasta, drinking wine–everything is fine.

The game is essentially stateless: it simply generates a new story based on your command at that juncture, with no continuation. (The stories don’t even all have a consistent background setting — the main character has multiple possible backgrounds and it picks one depending on the act.)

While I enjoyed Aisle greatly, I’m an even bigger fan of the spoof version, Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle (link to play online here).

The Town Square
You are standing in the middle of a pretty town square in the center of a nondescript New England town. Like most any other nondescript New England town, there’s not much to see or do here, but maybe you’ll find something amusing and enjoyable to do.

A shiny metal phone booth sits in the center of the square.

Ah, yes, the gnocchi flowed freely that week in Venice! She looked at you pleadingly as she bled slowly on the checkered tablecloth, gasping, “My love, do you forgive me?” As you opened your mouth to answer her, a low plooping sound descended and all became black.

Several weeks of hell in total darkness followed, culminating with your joining a bell choir and learning from a young boy how to cook Italian food with moss.

Elegance, Silence, Violence! You wind up sitting alone in a shopping cart somewhere, a lonely old man.

So it is with The Room (1982).

You have one command, and only one, and then the game either tells you about success or failure. Unfortunately, if you try an unsuccessful escape — and it recognizes some wacky ones, like SUPERMAN or DYNAMITE — it just says that whatever you picked “IS NOT THE WAY” as opposed to comedically depicting Superman running into a wall or something. The weird thing is the game could have done this without much extra effort — the author took the time to list a wide variety of escape attempts, and the parser is Eliza-style, meaning it just searches for the keywords, so even sentences work. Without that it’s just the one-off joke of what actually works to escape the room.

Since this is a one-command game, it seems appropriate for me not to spoil the answer here. Please make your best attempt to escape in the comments!


Posted May 14, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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