Archive for the ‘Interactive Fiction’ Category

Madness and the Minotaur: Frustration   8 comments

I’m going to say this is my second-to-last post on Madness and the Minotaur. Next will come fire or glory. Which is more likely?

As this will be relevant later, here’s Nergal, Mesopotamian god of plagues, war, and death. Picture by Neta Dror, from the collection at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

95% chance fire. I still haven’t gotten the first spell yet, that is, the first thing the game needs you to do.

I did, at least, managed to put the jigsaw puzzle of the map mostly together. I realized, from last time, that I didn’t need to “teleport” to the maze level from the 8 by 3 block I mapped out if I shifted things over a bit, and had the “slide down a row” effect happen on the edges.

It didn’t quite make an 8 by 8 map like it was supposed to, but I took the guess I had part of the map wrong (due to randomness or just confusion) and indeed, once I fixed my small error, I came up with a complete 8 by 8. Behold.

In other words, I was mapping the fourth level all along, so the two parts connected! I was also able to make it to a “great forest” that connected directly to a pit:

I’m passing on discussing the other 8 by 3 chunks of the maze, which are all similar to the first one I mapped with a few random teleport exits; I’m not sure if it’s worth deciding the exact logic since the main thing required is to visit enough rooms to find all the items.

I already had the Great Forest mapped: it’s the place where the treasures go, and is directly over the starting room! So this is where you can loop from the fourth floor back to the first floor relatively reliably, assuming you can make it through all the squares without being stopped.

It’s that “assume” that is a giant conditional there. I lucked out on my traversal, but sometimes when testing out the maze I have my passage stopped by a room of “strong magic” and I’ve been completely stuck.

I was originally wondering what kind of system the game has for preventing impossible scenarios. Now I’m thinking that, more often than not, the game presents impossible scenarios. Let’s consider my current dilemma, which I know from Manual #2: finding a mushroom and food, and getting back to the first level to find a room “crackling with energy” which should have the first spell.

The food seems to always be on the first level, and the mushroom on the third. Here is one attempt at getting the mushroom:

The enchanted aura is technically helpful — it is supposed to heal you — but it also teleports.

I keep getting stymied for one reason or another; there are two “direct routes” passages from floor 1 to 3 (where you can go straight down twice) but often (on my random reroll of the map) they are both blocked, and any longer route usually has either magic or some monster (like a hydra) that prevents getting through.

The two I circled are mostly straight paths to the mushroom area. The one to the right is one-way, so it requires getting back up a different way.

I have managed to get both food and mushroom, but then found I couldn’t get back to the first level; for example, one time I took the route starting from the Large Empty Hall circled above (where I can’t go back the same way) and found myself completely blocked in.

I may still be missing some exits, but given this is all happening on the very first puzzle, what’s to stop the same issue with happening for any of the others? And what should I be doing after, anyway? Remember, puzzle solutions are randomly generated. I can ASK ORACLE on the spare chance the oracle appears…

I have no idea what the “Nergal” is. The only definition I’ve seen is the god shown on the top of this post. Is it a statue of Nergal, maybe? I can’t imagine we are toting around a literal god. It might just be a made-up name for an undescribed magic gizmo, of course.

…but that’s only one of multiple puzzles, and importantly, there doesn’t seem to be any logic to the connections. I took a bunch of new game starts and made a beeline for the gazing pool in the northwest, which indicates what is required to “solve” getting the spellbook.

skull and flute
mushroom, goblet, belrog
powerring and nergal
pendant and crom

It may be it is possible to deductively reduce some puzzles based on other puzzles, like Clue; it may be possible to leverage saved games to be near and oracle and somehow get different clues at each ASK ORACLE; it may be there is no good method to figuring things out at all. The main issue is I’m expecting an adventure game to have some sort of consistent inner physics, either real or magical, and this breaks that to such an extent I’m just not finding the experience that enjoyable.

But maybe things will improve if I can just solve one thing. (Technically … I did! There’s a shield on the wall on the first level that is “too high” to reach. One time I was able to take it anyway, and I realized after some elimination that it was from carrying the dagger. The dagger doesn’t always work for that, though. In one universe, you could imagine reaching up with the point of the dagger just high enough to reach the wall, but in another, you can’t do that for no apparent reason, nothing described by the game itself, anyway.)

Another failed attempt to escape with the mushroom.

Posted July 18, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Madness and the Minotaur: The Third Dimension   3 comments

I’ve got a little better grip on the overall map, although I’m not done sorting it out yet.

I used this isometric drawing tool.

Blue parts represent “normal” rooms, grey rooms are the Maze where every room looks alike.

I made a guess (after the four maps from my last two posts) that the structure matched the image above, but when I got into one of the 3 by 8 layers by entering from a “small library” on the first floor I found myself confused and worried there was teleporting between floors or my concept was wrong altogether.

The passage marked “random” is what I’m referring to — it always seems to go to somewhere in the maze, but after some testing one of the consistent rooms was a room with a scepter, so that was the starting point I used. On one of the other random starts I found a goblet that I knew later was on the same floor, so I think that the teleporting on this exit really does only happen within the first floor, not between floors.

The map strongly resembled a 3 by 8 block without any barriers, and where every exit went up or down. I found out from testing that going up or down four times looped back to the room I started in, so I think the maze just wraps around.

However, it wasn’t quite a 3 by 8 block, and it certainly didn’t just loop east-west; going west repeatedly did not go back to the scepter. I puzzled for quite a while and found the author had just done a slight perturbation.

The green room is the scepter room, the exit to the northwest goes to a maze room on the bottom floor, and the west and east do wrap around.

One slight twist was all it took for me to be puzzled for over an hour. What I find interesting about this setup (other than it not matching any other maze we’ve looked at for All the Adventures) is how, from the author perspective, this seems like a minor change. I expect the author misestimated the level of difficulty. In practice, the small “offset shift” made it easy to become confused and made the maze quite difficult, a little like navigating a moebius strip.

Having said all that, I’m still not totally sure I have the floor mapped right, because of one slight detail: when entering the small library immediately before entering the maze, the game does a long pause; the sort of long pause that indicates something is being fiddled with from behind the scenes. Is the maze slightly tweaked before entering? Is the pause just from randomizing the south exit? Is there some other obscure technical reason for the pause? I still find it possible that everything I think I know is still wrong.

One last detail: it is easy to get confused reading the description since it recurs so often. Do you see that there’s no north exit? Remember that room descriptions just repeat if you can’t go a particular way, so it is possible to visually miss the lack of north, try to go north, add an entirely wrong space on the map, and go on a completely impossible tangent.

Posted July 14, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Madness and the Minotaur: The Two Manuals   7 comments

As I alluded to in my last post, there are two manuals to this game, one for the original TRS-80 Color Computer version and one made a year later for the Dragon computers (for the European market, similar hardware to the Color Computer).

From World of Dragon.

I’ve already squeezed most of the juice out of the original manual except for a few tidbits:

  • The sprite (which I’ve met on the first floor) moves items randomly, but can’t do this in the “first floor room with music”. I have yet to find a first floor room with music.
  • JUMP can be reduced in effectiveness if you are carrying too much.
  • The lamp runs out of oil and is refillable.
  • The spell CROM can help if passages are blocked (and it is possible for an earthquake to block you in entirely).

However, the second manual includes different information! It reads as if the porters (Dragon Data Ltd.) decided the game was too ridiculously hard as-is and added some more pointers.

  • Spells are learned in rooms that “crackle with enchantment”. You learn the “first spell” by taking the food and the mushroom to the enchantment room on the first floor.
  • Actions, even important ones, can sometimes only randomly work, although important actions should only need repeating a few times.
  • Some passages will send you to random rooms “depending on circumstances”.
  • Monsters are killed by typing KILL MONSTER while holding the right objects (the object information comes from the Oracle).

There’s also a complete verb list; in addition to the standard ones there’s


The vast majority of gameplay centers around movement and getting items, so it’s good to know the exceptions like PLAY or TIE that might come up.

Having said all that, other than mapping part of the third and fourth floors, I still haven’t made much progress. Here’s what I have of the third floor:

Assuming everything is lined up the same as the previous maps, I’m missing the first row. Exits from the fifth row going south all led to a Maze (I think, all to the same Maze, but I’m not certain, so I haven’t mucked with that part of the map yet). I managed to make a full circle to a Lair of the Minotaur…

…but otherwise didn’t run across much. Going of a different direction rather than entering the lair led me to a room where magic kept pushing me out.

Usually when I’ve been told “a magic spell has pushed you back” I’ve been able to enter a room with enough persistence; trying to re-enter enough times and the magic doesn’t trigger. However, in this case, I tried many, many, times with no luck — I suspect a spell may be absolutely necessary to enter here (but possibly only on this random iteration of the map!)

It is also possible for magic to “greatly” push you, in which case you get teleported and not just pushed back, and usually lose an item while you’re at it.

Down from the minotaur lair I made it to a level that was just Maze, so I decided now was a good time to try mapping it (especially since I suspected I was dropped into a “regular” section and not randomly dropped somewhere).

The “long passage” to the right indicates things are likely a bit off, and the layout is made doubly weird by the southwest corner, where I realized when going south I wasn’t walking in a new location but rather teleported to an old one (I could confirm by dropping objects in those places and looping back around). More than that, the teleporting happens to at least two different rooms! The “depending on circumstances” from the manual about passages going to different places is coming to bite me here, since the circumstances as to why it goes to destination X vs. Y are very unclear; even if it turns out the choice is made by some object I’m holding, is that choice of object itself random, or is there some clear system of navigation I can use here?

Here the property wasn’t too painful, but on a later attempt to loop back to the minotaur lair I found one exit that had given me progress before suddenly teleported me instead.

That is, going east from the Dark Chamber normally is the path to the lair, but I got zapped to the maze instead for no apparent reason.

I decided before trying to finish my play session I needed to try getting the first spell, that is, getting the food and mushroom as suggested in the manual and finding the spell room on the first floor. I failed even at this.

You see, I first made reloaded my save game where I made it down to the maze with a mushroom. I had found that you could JUMP PIT in the northwest corner to escape, and after some more convoluted pathing ran back up to the first floor. I didn’t have the food yet, but it had already generated on the first floor so I’d figure it’d be an easy matter of grabbing it and finally getting a puzzle solved. No dice.

I had lingered too long mapping: now nearly every passage I tried was blocked! The earthquakes that had been happening as I was playing, in real time, slowly were closing the map off, and it was impossible to continue. The earthquakes mean that the game is completely real-time, not just semi real-time; that is, it isn’t just speed in individual rooms that matters (like outrunning the fog) but over the entire game. Typing fast is going to be required.

I took another run, this time grabbing the food quickly and making a beeline for the third floor (which seems to always be where the mushroom is) but then I couldn’t get out! This was a variant where I couldn’t enter the lair (for reasons I already explained) and another passage going up that seemed to be a straight shot to the first floor had a “strong magic” that kept pushing me out. I eventually could get to the first floor but not while also holding the mushroom (as the magic knocked it out of my hands).

Even using an explicit hint from the manual as to what to do first, I haven’t yet been able to accomplish the task! I’m still going to avoid looking at the walkthrough (I need to try mapping the stranger parts of the maze first) but I predict it will almost be inevitable at some point.

Posted July 13, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Madness and the Minotaur: Mapmaking   4 comments

Madness and the Minotaur features a fixed map, and one where specific locations matter and can have special effects, so unlike the pure-random-generation of, say, 6 Keys of Tangrin, getting a thorough map is a first step.

Each map of the four levels is supposedly 8 by 8, but for the first two at least I’ve only seen the top 8 by 5 section.

This is the sort of fill-all-the-empty-space + divide into discrete sections logic I’m used to from RPGs. For example, here’s the third sewer level from The Bard’s Tale:

Notice how the right side of the map starting from column 15 forms its own sort of mini-section. This trick can also be combined with verticality so that a “hidden area” is found by either noting an empty space exists and utilizing some sort of travel-through-walls spell, or entering from above or below. We saw this in adventure game form with Deathmaze 5000 where a small missing chunk in the upper right is a clue it can be entered from the lower level.

I’ve marked the relevant spot in orange.

Going back to the Madness and the Minotaur map, there’s a small missing portion of the upper right which is suspicious for similar reasons (and when I get to discussing level 2, the same portion is missing).

The actual mapping process is slightly odd in that not only are exits from room descriptions randomly generated, they are randomly regenerated each turn. That means if you look at a room, and then look at it again, while the same exits will be there, they will be described in an entirely different way. I learned to start ignoring the exit portion of the text due to this.

Another oddity is that room descriptions are repeated when you go a direction that isn’t possible. This is an extremely rare mechanic that we’ve only seen so far in Haunted House and Escape from Colditz. The former was widespread enough that it could easily be the source of the mechanic in both cases, which is wild given how generally terrible the game was (it was squeezed on two sides of a 4K cassette).

However, room descriptions can’t be entirely ignored, because as I mentioned earlier, specific locations matter. For example, there’s a hint-gazing pool in the upper right corner of the map.

The hint is randomized, the fact there’s a pool you can gaze into is not.

Also, some exits aren’t just found by typing NORTH/SOUTH/EAST/WEST/UP/DOWN but by typing JUMP followed by whatever it is you plan to jump over or through; a pit or a hole or potentially other things.

To get from the “Dark Servant Chamber” to the location to the west you need to JUMP HOLE; to get back you to need JUMP PIT. I missed this entirely on my first passthrough but the manual was nudging at JUMP being important so I started to try it everywhere. The “Maze of Tunnels” incidentally does not go back the other direction if you go north, suggesting it is a classic deranged-direction maze, so I’m saving it for later. It may be there isn’t even a maze in that spot and going south teleports the player to a different floor.

I unfortunately don’t have much more to report. I’ve been keeping occasional track of where items appear and noticed there were some slight patterns — the lamp seems to tend to the northwest of the first level, for instance, and it is necessary to reach the second level. A shield (which is described as “too high to reach”) always seems to also be on the first level. I’ve only found one treasure lying around that is worth anything (there are some “fake treasures” — the way to tell is to take SCORE before and after and see if it goes up when you pick the thing up).

The spellbook mentioned above also tends to the first floor, but I don’t know if it is 100% of the time.

The second floor requires the lamp, and has the same 8 by 5 general layout, although one small “outcrop” you can see on the left side likely has (at the code level) the player get teleported to a new place when they JUMP over a PIT.

The green incidentally indicates an enchantment in the air, which (according to the Dragon manual version of the game) is where you can find spells. Still haven’t managed to pick one up, yet.

“Up” incidentally is all exits on the “northeast” corner and “down” is all exits on the “southwest”. The exits are generally “lined up” so you can lay the two floors on top of each other and tell where an exit goes, although there’s enough fiddly aspects with exits that teleport I can’t swear everything is accurate.

I essentially haven’t solved anything yet. I did run across the Oracle (who is supposed to give hints as to weakness of monsters and the like) but when I try to type ASK ORACLE the Oracle has disappeared by the time I hit enter. I don’t know if I’m just not typing fast enough or if there’s a puzzle I need to solve first?

Oh, and that reminds me: yes, there are real-time elements. If you’re in a fog room you have a fair amount of time to leave before the fog gets you, but don’t linger like I did in my last play report. Sometimes there’s an “earthquake” if you just leave the game running, which I assume moves stuff around but I haven’t worked out the full nature. With enemies in the room, they can start hitting you if you hang around, although so far they’ve been relatively slow to the trigger and I’ve been able to run away — which makes the Oracle’s speed all the more surprising.

Yes, I met the minotaur. Can’t do anything about him yet, though.

I’ve seen a few other curious things but I’ve been hit by such an information firehose from the game I’m not able to contextualize them yet, so I’ll save talking about them in a future post. Suffice it to say this won’t be over quickly.

Here’s one more “locations have special things” spot. Without these elements I might consider the game to be purely strategy-puzzle, where you have to match the right sequence of items to defeat various enemies and make deductions like a game of Clue. This would make it similar to Volcanic Dungeon recently visited at The CRPG Addict. The fact there’s these observational moments of, well, adventuring, are what push Madness and the Minotaur over the genre edge.

Posted July 10, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Madness and the Minotaur (1981)   8 comments

King Minos, one of the sons of Zeus and also the King of Crete, has erected a huge labyrinthine castle with the intention of using it as a prison. In the past, anyone confined to the Labyrinth could never escape and was either killed or went mad while trying to escape.

From Mobygames.

Spectral Associates was founded in Tacoma, Washington by Tom Rosenbaum after his brother, Roger, got him interested in the TRS-80 Color Computer. Madness and the Minotaur was one of their first products. According to John Gabbard, an early employee:

Tom loved to play adventure games but was disappointed in the computer adventure games that were out there because they had no re-play ability. Once you solved them, playing again was exactly the same. Tom also liked board games like Civilization, and decided that a computer game with the randomness and unpredictability of games like this would be something he would enjoy playing over and over.

As you might induce from the description, this is another in the genre I’m calling adventure-roguelike (see also: Mines, Lugi, Kaves of Karkhan) where randomness is applied to the adventure game format in order to change, rooms, objects, or both. It’s also one of the most infamous examples, both for being one of most well-known games in Color Computer circles, but also being ludicrously hard. There is a walkthrough which the author admits “I certainly can’t imagine figuring out all the secrets without having seen the code” but I’ll be trying my best without look at code; we’ll see how far I get?

Rumor has it that there are treasures hidden in the vicinity of the Labyrinth. Are these treasures worth risking life or sanity? If your answer to this question is negative or you are plagued with skepticism, it is suggested that you re-evaluate your priorities and establish some healthy materialism.

King Minos has taken many precautions to prevent you from escaping from the maze with his treasures. Word has it that one of the obstacles encountered inside the maze will be the Minotaur, a man with the head of a bull, who has an insatiable taste for human flesh. King Minos feeds fourteen fresh Athenians to the Minotaur a year. The Minotaur would like nothing better than a fifteenth for dessert.

At least on my first run, not very far. Here is my entire first attempt, not even checking the manual (except for the premise, listed above: grab the treasures, and presumably, fight the minotaur).








Dead in two moves, good start! Technically, two and a half, because I believe the last part involved a real-time element — if I had typed fast enough to run away I think I would have evaded the poison?

The map is consistent, with four floors, each laid out in an 8 by 8 pattern. From the manual I gather objects are laid out at random. (My second try at starting the game has an identical first room except there’s also a lamp.) There are multiple spell words but they have to be learned before they can be used and they aren’t mapped to their effects consistently.

The spells are named: VETAR, CROM, MITRA, AKHIROM, OKKAN, ISHTAR, BELROG, and NERGAL. The spells will provide you with the following strengths and magical abilities:

* Open blocked passages.
* Restore a lamp to you.
* Cure a scorpion bite.
* Find treasures.
* Kill the monsters.
* Dispel fog.
* Guarantee that a jump is successful.
* Protect you from evil spirits.

The manual also mention there’s an Oracle wandering around that you can talk to

To converse with the Oracle, you can [ASK ORACLE].

which allegedly helps with working out the effects of the various spells, but I also remember reading that sometimes the Oracle can lie.

The manual also mentions a Sprite which moves objects around at random; I’m gathering it is meant to make things harder but maybe it is also meant to help solve situations where an object is stuck? I get the feeling it may be possible to simply have an “impossible spawn” (akin to The 6 Keys of Tangrin) so may be best not to assume that every playthrough is winnable.

Speaking of 6 Keys, this also features continuously draining energy. (“If your physical condition is deteriorating, you may need to rest or have a snack. You’ll feel better after some rejuvenation. You can also build your physical strength by walking through an enchanted aura.”)

I’ve also heard that, uniquely among the adventure-roguelikes I’ve seen so far, this game randomizes the puzzles. I’m honestly not quite sure what that means, as I don’t want to spoil things yet.

Everything combined together means that of all the games on the 1981 list (with the exception of Hezarin which I took down early) this one has terrified me the most from afar. I’ve finally arrived.

Posted July 5, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The 1981 Games That Remain   7 comments

When I was nearing the home stretch of 1980, I made a post giving all the games still left to play. Here I’m doing the same for 1981.

Some caveats:

a.) I’ve got a set of 1980 games I need to loop back to still, and these are not included. (In one case I definitely want to hit a 1980 game before a related 1981 one.)

b.) I’ve got a few games on my list published in 1982 but clearly were written in 1981 that I’m going to save for 1982. I’ve been going by writing rather than publishing due to circumstances like mainframe games that were never “published”, but the mainframe era mostly has wound down by 1982, and as a compromise (except in cases like Roger M. Wilcox games which weren’t really “published”) I will play the games while I’m “in” the years they were published but back-list them to a prior year if it turns out to be the most appropriate sorting (or list both dates as I’ve done in a few cases).

c.) I’m leaving off one 1981 game due to a few issues including compilation trouble, but it could pop up again. (It had some development in 1982 so I don’t feel bad in skipping it.)

d.) I’m not done with Alkemstone, and I have a very big update that I will be sharing later this summer.

e.) Any discoveries between now and the end of my playing through 1981 that happen to fall in 1981 I reserve the right to either add now or just save for a future loop down the line.

Jymm Pearson, including his switch over to Med Systems with The Institute.
Saigon: The Final Days, The Institute

Two Atari Program Exchange programs remain.
Chinese Puzzle, Sultan’s Palace

The grand conclusion to the TRS-80/Mac saga. Hopefully I’ll get the Mac version going smoothly here for the pretty pictures.
Forbidden City

The very last game of Highlands, now in color!
Mummy’s Curse

On-line Systems (later Sierra) with their only non-graphical adventure:
Softporn Adventure

Brian Howarth (previously of The Golden Baton and The Time Machine) sneaks one more in for 1981, although part two isn’t until 1982.
Arrow of Death Part 1

Part of a “make your own Scott Adams style adventure” adventure creation kit.
Burglar’s Adventure

Michael Berlyn’s followup to Oo-Topos.

Not the Infocom version.
Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

CLOAD had Frankenstein Adventure and Troll’s Treasure, but also these for 1981.
Elephant Graveyard Adventure, Medieval Adventure, Jerusalem Adventure

A pretty (in)famous Radio Shack offering, and another instance of the adventure-roguelike genre.
Madness and the Minotaur

December of the Softside Adventure of the Month.
Black Hole Adventure

Roger M. Wilcox has three more offerings for us before getting out of 1981.
King of the Jungle, Trash Island, Escape from Trash Island

There’s one last game to go in the Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures, and it will definitely feel like I’ve ended an era once I’m done.
Arctic Adventure

Posted July 3, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Around the World in Eighty Days (1981)   5 comments

We’ve so far hit 5 months of the Softside Adventure of the Month Series (June, July, August, September, October) and this is yet another Peter Kirsch installment. It’s useful to refer back to his first game Kidnapped as well, as this runs roughly the same gimmick: a set of linked mini-adventures where each part is almost entirely separate.

It is based, as noted in the ad copy, off the “classic novel” of Jules Verne, the one where the ever-punctual Phileas Fogg makes a bet he can circumnavigate the globe in a mere 80 days.

The game doesn’t have you play as Fogg. It has you play as someone bragging they can do better.

Note the “exclusive men’s club” line, that will be important later.

Off you go, with a “Days” counter in the upper right that goes bizarrely fast while in towns and slow while traveling. Just getting out of the initial club and heading north to a “haberdashery store” eats up one day, buying an overcoat and using it to help a “lady in distress” takes most of another day (it says “day 2” below, but moving one more room changes the time to “day 3”).

Not doing this results in the “lady in distress” going “stop, balloon thief!” when trying to leave in the vehicle we are about to use. I’m guessing this is weird the slightly unsettling “cover art” comes from — perhaps the artist played the game, but only the first few turns up to that point, and decided that’s what they wanted to draw.

Nevermind: we’ll call the time acceleration a sort of abstraction, just like sailing across the entire Pacific in a handful of commands while playing Sleazy Adventure. The time limit is the sort of thing that would normally irk me, but the game is generally easy enough (some parser issues aside) that I didn’t need to worry too much about restarting and optimizing. Each location presents one or two puzzles at most, and objects almost never need to be carried over (that overcoat from above, for instance, you can just leave in the puddle).

Moving on, there’s a hot air balloon conveniently ready for takeoff; we can jump in, drop some ballast, and fly our way to Spain.

Specficially, we land near a desert, which means we’re somewhere in the south, despite the game claiming we’re in Barcelona.

Barcelona and the Tabernas desert north of Almería.

There’s little there except for the “dead pelican” and our “wrecked balloon” where we landed, a magnifying glass, and a “starving man”. This puzzle had a slight bit of interest because the pelican first seemed like scenery to justify the balloon crash, but it was an integral part of the puzzle.

Although COOK PELICAN took a while; I tried many permutations of PUT GLASS and MAKE HEAT and so forth.

Here’s the entirety of our visit to Marseille, France:

Again, I should emphasize, just like with Kidnapped, that the tiny-map gimmick really does work well — there’s not a lot of fiddly backtracking and even the parser issues that I had didn’t last terribly long because there wasn’t anything else to waste time with. (That is, if I fail to do a command enough times on an open-map game, I’m more likely to think I’m just barking up the wrong tree and veer off early.)

With France, the initial dilemma is a “bunch of knife-wielding punks” that start chasing the player. The left side of the map above shows you can just keep going in an endless loop, but in reality there’s no drama — you can hang around and wait and the punks never get you, they just prevent you from entering a train station. The correct answer is to find a DETOUR SIGN that you can turn to face the wrong direction.

Punks take your bait
and tumble down the cliff

Is our protagonist Bugs Bunny? That would explain the cocky attitude at the start.

In the train station you find out the train is leaving in 14 hours, so like a normal well-adjusted cartoon rabbit, or possibly human being, you take a ladder to a nearby clock and move the hands so it appears 14 hours have passed, because clearly will notice it is daytime but not nighttime just by the sun.

(You can just WAIT if you want. This works! Changing the clock is an alternate solution that loses a little less time. You can still be well within 80 days even if you don’t solve the puzzle.)

Next comes a visit to Italy, where a piece of cheese needs to be dropped in front of a woman who is blocking your way and a mouse who has been scurrying around frightens her off.

Then it’s time to hop a steamship all the way to Bombay, India, where the train station for the next hop is right next the dock.

The situation above is another “optional puzzle” — you can just WAIT and make it through, simply losing five days. Alternately, you can take a shortcut heading north through the Taj Mahal:

There hasn’t been a good track record in the adventures we’ve seen of depictions of Asians, and this game isn’t going to be breaking the mold. Nothing like this happens in the book.

The spear can be combined with a rope to make a zip line of sorts from a high window of the Taj Mahal down to a place past the workmen in order to get in the train station.

The train is stopped and not running (for admittedly logical reasons, since nobody can get into the station) but you can feed coal into the furnace yourself and get it started. (You have to first open the furnace before you can GET COAL, otherwise you get a “you can’t get that” type of error, which had me befuddled for a while; again, the super-minimal map saved the road bump into become too onerous to get past.)

There’s a delay as each destination gets displayed, so it does convey a tactile sense of movement.

Next stop: somewhere. The train tracks end at a jungle. Not far in is an elephant pasture, and you can use a peanut (grabbed from a helpful peanut vendor on the train) to befriend and ride it.

The elephant stops further on in the jungle. Nearby there is a sacrifice being prepared.

This was in the book, approximately — it was regarding the practice of sati, where a widow sacrifices herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. There is an “unwilling” widow to be sacrificed, and the British talk in a very 19th-century-British-Empire way about it.

“These sacrifices do not occur in the larger portion of India,” replied Sir Francis; “but we have no power over these savage territories, and especially here in Bundelcund. The whole district north of the Vindhias is the theatre of incessant murders and pillage.”

A rescue happens in both the book and the game; for the game, we take our trusty elephant to a nearby lake, have it fill its trunk with water, then return to the fire:

After the rescue, we reach the game’s only nasty trick, at Ahmadabad. The elephant stop just west of a train station, where a sign says to “leave elephants here”. If you just go in the station, you get arrested; you need to go back, climb back on the elephant, RIDE ELEPHANT one more time, and then get off so the elephant is in the same “room” as the sign. I admit I originally thought the sign was just not to take elephants into the train station, which is logical enough.

Upon the train and passing through multiple stops, you arrive in Calcutta:

I admit I thought I was stuck, and thought the steamship departing already was a signal I took too many days before. However, just like the knife-wielding French, this is a “frozen in time” moment where you’re simply just supposed to JUMP.

The steamship then takes you (and the princess, who is still with you) to San Francisco, where no problems at all arise and perhaps the author was running out of puzzle ideas or disk space or just wanted the game to be over. Hopping on a train does result in one more odd puzzle:

You can GET TINKERBELL who sprinkles pixie dust on you and then FLY, and suddenly we’re in a crossover novel for some reason. Then there’s a handcar, where I hope you haven’t dropped the princess off yet (it just says you can’t go on with no clarification if you left her behind, but it’s clearly the kind operated by two people):

In New York there’s a steamship back to London and … victory? If you try to go back in the Reform Club, you are rebuffed:

Cromwell says, ‘Sorry, no admittance!’

I said at the very beginning the men’s-only club would be important. It is now. You have to DROP PRINCESS to be able to go in.

Cromwell: kind of a jerk. Not only the men-only thing, but him not giving the reason why we couldn’t walk in the Club and win at the end.

Issues I’ve mentioned aside, this ended up being one of the stronger of the Kirsch games. Many of the works from this era that fell down did so because they tried to be difficult yet the parser couldn’t handle it; here, the parser wasn’t any stronger, but the game itself stuck to simple enough structure both in map and puzzles that it was solvable.

I was also impressed by the optional “pass time to skip a puzzle” mechanic. I haven’t studied the source closely to work out if it happens more than once, but based on the finale message above, there’s a little wiggle room to sacrifice days in order to use that feature. It isn’t quite the very first instance of being able to skip puzzles (Acheton didn’t require you find every treasure, for instance) but it’s the first instance I’ve seen where the mechanism for doing so was very natural and intuitive.

Still not going to hang out in the post-game with those jerks at the Reform Club, though.

Posted July 2, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Sleazy Adventure (1981)   7 comments

To recap our misadventures with Atari and the APX catalog, the entire 1981 library consists of

Castle by Robert Zdybel
Alien Egg by Robert Zdybel
Wizard’s Gold by Unknown
Wizard’s Revenge by Max Manowski
Chinese Puzzle by Dennis Koble (haven’t played this yet)
Sultan’s Palace by Dennis Koble (haven’t played this yet)
Sleazy Adventure by Bob Smith (today’s selection!)

Wizard’s Revenge is the odd one out; it’s the only one that followed the APX tagline of “User-Written Software”, as it was originally given away as public domain (under no title at all), resulting in the author being contacted by Atari and the game being added to the catalog in December 1981.

However, all of the other games share the same internal Atari text adventure engine, written by Larry Kaplan, who also worked on the operating system for the Atari 400/800 itself (with David Crane and Alan Miller). All games share the issue of having “initial descriptions” of objects not necessarily match their real names, …

From Alien Egg. The correct action is TAKE SPACESUIT.

… a slightly erratic verb list (TAKE but not GET, TURNON and TURNOFF as single words), and a generic message of “THERE IS SOMETHING IN YOUR WAY” on exits that are blocked off for puzzle reasons (without much help as to what is causing the blocking).

According to Bob Smith, making a text adventure with the engine was something of a rite of passage for new programmers at Atari, and he produced Sleazy Adventure the first few months he was there (before eventually finishing the Atari 2600 game Video Pinball before striking it out on his own and helping form Imagic). The concept came from his younger days when built catamarans in San Francisco and “knew a lot of smugglers”; a group of “hippies” were building boats at the time, and “about half” were interested in smuggling.

You’re really into sailing. Not only do you spend all your spare time sanding and painting the hull of your thirty-foot sloop, but you’ve taken out three mortgages on your home (and an your mother-in-law’s as well) to pay far your dream boat. You suspect you might be going under when your bank starts foreclosing on your home and all your creditors are asking to be invited for a sail. A rich sailing buddy has recently purchased a sixty-foot cutter, currently moored in Thailand. Desperate to make a quick haul and also keen for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to sail a cutter, you volunteer to sail it home for her, thinking you can bring back a little contraband while you’re at it. She agrees that you’re just right for the job and pays your way to the Bangkok International Airport. From there on, you’re on your own. Before you attempt to find the ship, hoist the sails, and head out to sea, you need to explore the town to discover what’s worth taking along. The problem is, Bangkok is known for being a contraband capital. The more you try to take, the greater risks you face, customs officials being just one of them. You’re probably in deeper than you bargained for, but just think about all your creditors if you need a little motivation. Good luck!

Stated faster: you land in Thailand and need to sail a friend’s ship home, and you can (optionally) get some “treasures” to take home with you. It’s the Treasure Hunt genre (from Crowther/Woods Adventure, Zork I, Warp, etc.) but with customs agents involved.

Here’s a video of actual Thailand in 1981:

What follows does not resemble Thailand in 1981. It does not even resemble a random foreigner’s impression of Thailand in 1981. It’s more like a satirical mashup of every pop-cultural notion of Thailand except the protagonist is taking the same drugs that Hunter S. Thompson did in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This is appropriate as Mr. Thompson will be making a cameo.

“You wonder why you came” is decidedly odd for an adventure game of this era, and resembles the parts of Aldebaran III where you “play a character”; the game, after all, is putting thoughts inside attributed to “you” such that “you” are not really you.

Incidentally, the HINT command in this game is custom for each room, and if you type HINT here:

You can here because there are easy, but illegal, ways of obtaining wealth.

The above is the only depiction of the main portion of Bangkok (that is, the majority of the video above if you watched it). The “bad water” stereotype is still around; in 2014 in Phuket improper waste handling caused black water:

Tourists simply do not go to that end of the beach and long-tail boat club members have to stand watch on the beach and warn local children not to go in the water. Contact with the water, the boatmen said, results in itchy skin … Tourists staying in the hotel nearby walk to this point on the beach and then, when they hit the wall of smell, turn around and walk away.

There is nothing useful here to do except go down in a sewer.

The flashlight lets you move forward into the “city cesspool” (see image at the top of the post), where you’ll be stuck. Now is a good time to mention the game’s deeply odd verb list, that you can get from the manual, and includes:


“HUMOR”? “CONTRACT”? STOW, HOIST and WRAP also seem like normal verbs, but I don’t think I’d yet seen one in a game.

Trying to leave indicates “SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY”; based on the text, that “something” would be the nurses. You need to get yourself unsick. The typhoid is still in your inventory…


…so the correct thing is to simply DROP TYPHOID. Cured! (“You improve 100 percent, and are able to walk again.”) Then you can escape, and the only reason for the whole sewer sequence was to pick up some poison. The world is “open”, so to speak…

…but for the purposes of the journey here, let’s suppose you go west into an ALLEY.

I’m just going to assume the protagonist is completely high from this point.

You fit right into the supposed atmosphere by immediately coming across a drunken sailor and stealing their wallet.

Assuming you want all the treasures. You can skip quite a bit of this, which I’ll get to at the end.

The wallet can be used to bribe a nearby “waif” to make it to a hovel with a mysterious package.

You also need one more thing from this area, a map in order to get past a forest to your boat, and this part isn’t optional.

I feel safe in declaring that this is the only time in adventure game history that the necessary command is HUMOR PERVERT.

Out from the “sleazy” area, you can visit a lumber mill and pick up a bundle of ebony (just a treasure on its own) and get lost in a forest.

This is where the map is necessary. You can then go east, visit a beggar, drop them a coin, and get a mantra; the mantra gets used immediately after with some monks.

This is the third and last treasure, which turns out to be a gold buddha. The package and the ebony are the other two.

Going south in the forest gets to the boat. (You can skip everything except the map and go straight to the boat if you want to skip the treasures.)

Remember, the author used to build boats, so the world model here is fancier than you’d expect from a bare-bones Atari 400 game. Directions now switch to port/starboard/forward/aft, and to get sailing, you need to raise two different sails in different places (JIB and MAINSAIL), you need to hoist a jib after finding a mooring line, and you need to use a compass to set sail.

Each direction command now represents traveling a giant chunk of map. It only takes 6 or so commands (jumping between entire continents in single bounds) to arrive at San Francisco.

Above is the result of my first traversal (I didn’t find the buddha the first time, otherwise the IRS would be there too). I forgot the “smuggle” part of smuggling so the ebony and package attracted some unwanted attention. (How did the agents know to show up? I’m assuming the giant spans of time where just going EAST hops you from the Indian Sea to the Pacific included a few stops for supplies that got elided in the gameplay.)

The key here is to clear out a secret shipping area (there’s a rat, the poison from the sewer gets rid of him) and use the WRAP and STOW commands I mentioned earlier to hide each of the three treasures.

Doing the trip again with everything properly hidden led to a better ending.

Remember, this was published by Atari in 1981, the richest videogame company in the world (Washington Post headline, November 8, 1981: Warner’s Atari Video Games Are a Rocketship to Riches). This was originally a “private” game which only got unearthed because the APX crew was desperate for product; the initial APX catalog allowed for a bizarre stab in the dark to go commercial.

(Thanks to Kevin Bunch who helped on finding a source.)

Posted June 29, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Dragons of Hong Kong (1981)   9 comments

Opening screen for the Apple II version of the game. (Confirmed with an anonymous correspondent and the Hong Konger Jeremy Salkeld: that’s “Hong Kong” in fancy lettering.)

It was five years ago I starting playing through Robert Lafore’s self-proclaimed “interactive fiction”. It’s finally time to wrap things up with his last game.

To recap, he didn’t use a traditional parser, but rather his own keyword-searching setup that pretended to understand full input and encouraged role-play as part of the story. With his system he wrote:

Local Call for Death (mystery which includes investigating a room, stunningly good for 1979)
Two Heads of the Coin (Sherlock Holmes knockoff mystery)
Six Micro Stories (odd experimental collection of “short stories”)
His Majesty’s Ship ‘Impetuous’ (the Age of Sail, starts with a “puzzle” where you need to solve a dilemma unprompted)

For Dragons of Hong Kong, in order to adequately explain the premise I need to start with inflation in the 1970s. Seriously.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

In the 1972-1974 period in the United States both food and energy prices rose (there was a Saudi Arabian-led oil embargo on countries thought to support Israel in the Yom Kippur War) and a second food price hike kicked off more inflation from the 1978-1980 range. (There’s some mess in the early 1970s involving Nixon wage-price controls but I’m skipping over that.) The end result was an average inflation of 6.85% over the decade, eye-popping compared to the prior two decades (2.38 and 2.56 percent respectively) and at some points the inflation reached double digits. (For excessive detail, see Blinder, The Anatomy of Double-Digit Inflation in the 1970s.)

Inflation was bad enough during the decade that in 1974 there was a WIN (Whip Inflation Now) campaign led by US President Ford complete with novelty merchandise.

Image public domain.

When Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in 1981, inflation was near 10 percent, and credit for bringing it down goes mostly to Paul Volcker (chairman of the Federal Reserve System, appointed by Carter) who cranked the federal funds rate all the way to an eye-popping 20%, a level it has never been at before or since.

1981 is, of course, the year of our game, when not only the United States but a good chunk of the world had been inflation-weary for an entire decade. This helps explain the bizarre premise–

Professor Goodman, twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Economics, has asked to meet you, (insert YOUR NAME HERE), in Big Al’s Bar to inform you of an important discovery.



So the whole premise is: there is a secret society that worships money — the Gregarine Order — based on Hong Kong. They have found a way to manipulate markets causing excessive inflation. They have their own currency, the dogecoin Liroon, and their goal is to eradicate all other world currencies and substitute their own. They are led by an eeeeevil economist with an eyepatch, Akbar D’evile.

The professor also gets you to promise to send his nine-year-old niece a notification should anything happen to him, because her birthday happens in three days.

Immediately after telling you all this, and you agree or disagree to help go to Hong Kong, he dies via a jade dagger thrown at his heart. The people at the bar think you committed murder and you have to run away.


You then manage to “borrow” a passport from a friend in order to get a trip to Hong Kong in an attempt to clear your name.

Or you can end the game early here, which is kind of boring. Through all this you don’t get many choices — i.e. you can try to type something other than “RUN” to react to being accused of murder, but then you’ll just get annihilated by the bar patrons, so it isn’t really a “choice”.

Close to boarding, you remember about your promise regarding the professor’s niece, and the game lets you choose if you want to stop to send a letter or just board the plane to avoid the risk of missing a flight.


This is a gotcha-choice — similar the kind used in a lot of a Fighting Fantasy books at the time — if you choose wrong, you’ll lose in a future chapter. You have to send the letter. I’ll explain why later, but I do want to note the first time through I ended up choosing wrong just because the parser misinterpreted what I typed. Here’s the relevant source code:

5486 GOTO5490

If your string contains any of the keywords mentioned (“BUY”, “MAIL”, etc) the game assumes you meant to send the letter, otherwise it skips on to “THE FLIGHT IS DELAYED BRIEFLY. YOU WOULD HAVE HAD PLENTY OF TIME TO WRITE, BUT IT IS TOO LATE NOW.” I typed SEND LETTER which, you’ll notice, is not caught by any of the source code lines above. I went ahead and rolled with it, but I just wanted to emphasize how risky the keyword approach is even when being quite thorough (it also seems extremely easy to have the command interpreted wrong the other way, with DON’T SEND MAIL having the word “MAIL” get snagged).

On the plane to Hong Kong you find yourself next to a young lady from Wyoming named Daisy Rae, on a missionary trip.

I should mention the game assumes male and hetero. You actually can choose to be female at the start but the game says “ALAS, THIS STORY HAS A RATHER MALE PERSPECTIVE. WE SUGGEST YOU ADOPT A MALE OUTLOOK AND A MAN’S NAME.” I think assigned roles and sexualities can work — the entire otome genre, for instance, assumes female main characters romancing male ones — but I found pretending there was an open choice followed by a forced reversal grating.


This is followed by a choice between hotel room (Peninsula Hotel, expensive, Singapore Hotel, medium, YMCA, cheap); picking the Peninsula will lead to a game over later. This is followed by a meeting with a second potential romantic interest.

This is Francine Tang, a secretary for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. You eat food and talk and as she leaves there’s another note of suspicion.


Still no choices (other than the sending a birthday message one), just conversational roleplaying. You wander Hong Kong a bit (…hoping to find a secret society by luck, I suppose) and get your fortune told.

The middle paragraph differs if you’ve sent the birthday message. The last paragraph is supposed to be a clue for what to do during an event happening shortly.

Finally, you get to make a choice — you can call either Daisy or Francine the next day to spend time with them, and this also opens the opportunity for romantic choice (although, as you’ll see, it isn’t forced). Before plowing ahead with the plot — is this the first time this has happened in a computer game? That is, there is a choice of romantic partners, like many a visual novel? We can dip all the way back to 1930 with Consider the Consequences for this kind of choice in a printed book, but in electronic form?

Above is part of the trip with Francine. With Daisy Rae she confesses that the whole “missionary thing” is a way to get setup and she wants to get rich in Hong Kong


As the scene ends, news of a typhoon rolls in. The protagonist, that is, you, decide to be less than cautious. (There is no choice here or even free-for text roleplaying, it just happens.)

Wandering the docks, you are approached by a man with a newspaper.



Finally things pick up! …. and you get the choice to chase the assassin (who flees by boat) or make it to safety. If you take the action route, you find yourself dead.

I realize part of the setup with the fortune teller was to make the choice to chase a little more like solving a puzzle, but I have doubts any players would have made their plot choice on the basis of that.

So, a brief failed assassination, and back to romance. (Assuming you didn’t pick the expensive hotel to stay in — otherwise that’s when it’s game over, as you get deported back to the United States and convicted for the murder of the professor.)

I’m cutting out some moments, so this isn’t hurried or ridiculous, just it shares the issue with many Game Romances of feeling like a Setup rather than something natural and organic.

If you remember my writeup on Impetuous, there was a “third option” in an early moment in the game that was a puzzle of sorts. The game suggests “seduce” and “just friends” are the two only choices, but there’s a third one, where you instead proclaim your love.


What makes this doubly interesting (if not great gameplay-wise) is that the reactions to Daisy and Francine are entirely different. Daisy only responds positively to “seduce” (if you try for “love” she responds “GOD WHAT A BORE MEN ARE.”); Francine, on the other hand, responds the best to “love”.


After this scene, the next day our lovestruck/rejected protaganist decides that Akbar D’evile (the evil economist) must be at a special club for the rich.

I’m not sure where this leap of logic came from?

You find out that the US Undersecretary is visiting the club, and the Undersecretary happens to look a lot like you. So you (assuming you want to move this plot along and not just abort) decide to do some impersonation, and make it inside, where you are faced with a choice. Hope you remembered the description of D’evile from the start of the story!

This is after me typing my response, completing the sentence.

D’evile finds out your knowledge of world events is a bit lacking and becomes suspicious, and asks you “the password”. The first time through the game I had no idea the password, so quickly became mincemeat.

For the early-fatal-choice, at least the game was good enough to have the fortune teller warn us partway through the plot something was wrong. If you sent the message to the niece, you get a helpful response back in one of the earlier chapters:


With INFINITE INFLATION, your imposter disguise holds, and you get an invite to the Gregarine HQ. Our goal now (which was in one of the screenshots earlier) is to get the MASTER TRANSACTION FILE. However, the file is in a vault that needs to be broken into at night, and you need a confederate.

The endgame here is a result of who your romantic interest is, and what choice you made with them. Both Daisy and Francine were spies for the Gregarines the entire time! If you pick SEDUCE with Daisy, James Bond style, Daisy will decide to turn against the Gregarine. If you pick something other than SEDUCE with Francine, the same thing happens.



Assuming you handled the romance appropriately, you’ll be able to follow through with the vault plan, steal the master transaction file, have an opportunity to murder D’Evile (don’t do it, you’ll just get arrested), and escape to victory.

With the “friendship with Francine” ending, you get the sequence above, and find out Francine joined a Buddhist temple. If you went full romance with either character:

8590 C$=” HAIR.


Another picture from the Apple II version of the game.

Well. I wish I could say the series ended on a strong note, but Impetuous was definitely the better game. Structurally, that game had an early puzzle — which made it explicit it was a puzzle, and one interesting to figure out — then branched based on choice of first officer in such a way that the same events occurred, but you had to choose differently based on the nature of the first officer. The “unimportant” roleplaying choices throughout (like remembering to say “sir” to a superior) felt nontrivial. This all led to a final naval climax where prior choices came into play.

The “choice of spies” for Dragons was meant to be analogous to the first officers, but structurally, the end result was a “puzzle” where you choose how seductive you want to be. The plot otherwise lagged terribly, with an assassination attempt over as soon as it began, and a main character who essentially just wanders Hong Kong with no direction for the majority of the action before getting the bright idea where to find D’Evile. The roleplaying was relatively weak — for example, Impetuous has a moment of freeform swearing right at the start of a battle, whereas this game has you make your choice of swear at character creation.

This felt to me like an evolutionary game, but where no games followed to continue the ideas. I can see the author trying new structures — let’s have the two characters like the previous games, but space out their interactions, and try to put some essential information the player must remember to keep them on their toes — and while they didn’t work, there was so little at this time to refer to, the concepts needed to be tried out first. I still hold that, especially given more modern advanced AI, there are paths to new forms of gameplay lurking here, and the innovations died (or at least, didn’t get picked up again until roughly 10 years ago) not just because of cultural inertia but because they were too early for the technology to handle them in a smooth way.

Let’s let Lafore (who went on to be a prolific writer of programming textbooks) have the last word (via Softline, September-October 1983):

What sort of people like interactive fiction? Hard to say. Perhaps people who are technofreaks but who are also interested in traditional literary forms. Some people think it’s sacrilege, using computers for literature. Of course, they’re the same people who think it’s sacrilege to use computers for anything.

Strangely enough, schools seem to be the most interested in our interactive fiction games. Both universities and high schools are using interactive fiction in creative writing courses—they find it can help a beginning writer start putting lines on paper—or on the computer. Once the student has talked back to a bunch of fictional computer characters for a while, he’s ready to start writing his own stories.

As to the future, it’ll be nice when voice recognition and speech synthesis become common enough to be applied to interactive fiction. And now that the interactive laser disk is with us, I don’t think it’ll be too long before we have interactive movies. Imagine: Pretty soon you’ll be able to play Bogart’s role in Casablanca—or just inject yourself into the story and slip off with Ingrid Bergman … make Shane come back … convince Dorothy to stay in Oz. 1 don’t think anyone can imagine where it will all lead.

Posted June 25, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Earthquake San Francisco 1906: Finished!   11 comments

From Mobygames.

Mostly parser struggles up to the end, although there was one bit where the coding just had bizarre issues. As usual, you should read my previous entries about this game before getting to this one.

I made some small progress on my own via my first “off the keyboard” solve in a while — I was standing in line at a store waiting when I decided to run through game scenarios in my head, and it intuitively occured to me if the game wasn’t letting me use the ladder to get across the crack (even though that’s reasonable based on the depicted size) maybe I could pole vault over. Back on the computer, I tried VAULT and got a response WITH WHAT?, which meant I was on the right track. I needed a pole, but I was out of options for finding one, and meandered uselessly across the map for long enough I set a timer (15 minutes) and resolved to check hints if I couldn’t make progress in that time. (I’d already done this twice earlier in the game, and both times I had a breakthrough.) With no luck anywhere, I finally found out I was supposed to sit on a cushion.

Hmm, OK. Except SIT and SIT ON CUSHION and any other plausible variant fails to be recognized. I finally hit upon


and had to stop playing for a while, because I was infuriated. Usually I can laugh goofball parser antics off, but somehow this one made me feel much less worse than normal, especially since the end result was causing an “EVIL LOOKING MANDARIN” to bring a plate of food. Eating the food leaves a FORTUNE


The only gate I could think of was the iron gate that I struggled earlier to unlock, so I poked and prodded and searched and got absolutely nothing, and because my patience was ruined by the earlier puzzle, checked to find I had to PULL IRON GATE which somehow yields an IRON ROD.

VAULT works with the iron rod, leading to a pagoda with a locked glass door. Given I’d used most of what I was carrying (except the paddle and diamond) I tried out the diamond:

Then I got stuck again (the graphic suggests I’m supposed to reach through the hole and unlock from the other side) until I realized the game is obsessive about the verb CLIMB, which works to go directly to another locked door. Some frustrating wandering later (and using the philosophy that almost every room has something, and the garden next to the restaurant hadn’t been used yet) I came across a helpful person who gave me a brass key for no apparent reason.

The word here shows up in older dictionaries without much fuss (see Fowler’s 1926) as an analogue to “Irishman”, “Englishman”, etc., but still had some slur use early, and by 1945 H.L. Mencken points out it is definitely considered a slur in the Chinese community (see Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing). It’s possible someone circa 1981 might overlook the problem but remember “EVIL LOOKING MANDARIN” just happened too.

Passing through yet another locked door, I finally found myself on a street with a dead body.

This scene will come up again later.

Heading east my progress was blocked off yet again, so I dutifully toted my inventory over — including Fruity the small dog, meaning the wet pants are canon — and Fruity was helpful one more time.

You have to leave for a while and come back to find a hole dug. Fruity takes off, I choose to assume to safety.

The hole dug by Fruity led me to a hotel room and yet more frustration.

Despite the game never having any prior, the safe is a red herring. I wasted so many verb attempts trying to get something to happen.

Trying to go any of the directions led to HUH? I just shrugged and looked up the next step: PRY BOARDS. They’re in the picture but I don’t know how to make “BOARDS” show up in the text description, which makes it the first and only time in the entire game where this happens.

This led me to a soldier who wanted me to drop my stuff so he could steal it.

Good atmosphere, but too bad the game keeps alternating good moments and frustrating ones.

This would have been fine had the soldier only appeared once, but he camps if you bring along any items whatsoever. It turns out — again I just looked up hints — you can OPEN DOOR in one of the locations just past the soldier, which will lead you back to the hotel room. Then, subsequent OPEN DOOR commands will let you skip the soldier area. I assume the intent was a door that was locked on the other side that you then unlocked, but if you try to refer to that door from in the hotel room before reaching it from the other side, the game just goes “HUH?” like it doesn’t exist.

Finally I reached a dock for escape from San Francisco, only to get stopped again.

The key here is the dead woman I left behind earlier — you can dump your wet pants and UNDRESS her to get her dress, which is apparently sufficient to disguise as a woman. If that makes you feel uneasy, just wait for the next scene:

After a few turns, a hole appears…

…and the boat sinks and everyone dies, except you manage to swim to a piece of floating wood.

Some use of the paddle later and you make it to Oakland, and can hop on a wagon.

A quick reminder because it sure was easy to forget when playing: our goal was to reach the Portman Hotel in Oakland to pay some kidnappers and get your wife back. You need to pay attention when the wagon is passing by the aforementioned hotel and CLIMB DOWN, because if you stay on any longer the wagon tumbles down a hill and everyone dies.

I was disappointed at the end — I was expecting to have a double-cross, and maybe a shoot-out using my handgun, but no — you just PAY the dodgy-looking gentleman (assuming you remembered to bring your cash from the start of the game all the way to the end) and you get a win screen.

The immediate words that come to mind here are “wasted potential”. There’s a fair number of intense scenes: you get buried under a building and the screen turns black, you have to shoot a soldier who thinks you’re a looter (or is just shooting without caring), you have to deal with a soldier who is himself a looter, and the boat to safety turns out to be a deathtrap. However, the overlay of parser frustration ruined many of the parts, and the tone was just off — it’s simply difficult to convey the gravity of mass death in the format of sharply truncated text and slightly askew Apple II graphics.

Will Moczarski (who wrote about the game here and here) expressed that “the story of Earthquake clashes with its setting” which I believe is referring to the actual acts done by the player compared to the seriousness of the disaster. Additionally, having the criminal genre mixed with the disaster genre is a time-honored tradition, but that’s not quite what’s happening here, and in the end, the plot hook and conclusion seem incongruent with the rest of what’s going on.

We’ve still got some Jymm Pearson to go — he had a busy 1981! — as his next venture is Saigon: The Final Days (set in the Vietnam War) and his first game where his wife Robyn Pearson is listed as co-creator. For the curious, I’m now at the three-quarters mark in my sequence with about 25 games left to go before wrapping up 1981 entirely.

Posted June 18, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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