Archive for the ‘Interactive Fiction’ Category

Wizard’s Revenge (1981)   3 comments

First catalog, we went around and found every last utility or piece of software that we could put out there, unashamedly.

Paul Cubbage, director of the Atari Product Exchange from April 1981 to January 1984

This post won’t make sense without reading the one on Max’s Adventure; Atari was interested in the game and so it was later packaged and sold as Wizard’s Revenge under the APX label.

All the other APX text adventures (including the ones we haven’t looked at yet) first appeared in the summer 1981 catalog, this one made its first appearance in winter 1981.

As mentioned in the article by Max Manowski last time, he was contacted by Atari — while still scrounging for material, rather than just waiting for things to be sent in — in order to publish his game originally dropped at a Byte store in Seattle. He described the first game as “incomplete” so added a few things (which I’ll get to) but also removed the special font for the screens (which, as he explains in this interview, was using third-party software, so it would have been dodgy trying to sell it).

The default Atari font. Notice the “50% alive” stat — Max’s Adventure didn’t give you any warning if you were about to die in combat, but this game does.

The royalty cut was 10%; Max made about $500, so we’re not talking a huge seller (Chris Crawford’s Eastern Front, on the other hand, sold $1.8 million worth, again with royalties of only 10%). I haven’t seen much comment on if its fair or not; the director of APX, Paul Cubbage, did say people complained:

…and I’d say ‘Go to a flea market and sell [your software] off the back of your station wagon. The royalty is the royalty. I know it’s not much.’

(Compare with modern cuts on digital platforms: Steam gives 70% and Epic gives 88%. Of course, there’s no packaging involved, but the APX packaging was super-minimalist; an identical manual cover for each game with a hole where the title goes.)

If you’ve been following my backlog through 1981, this rainbow image should look familiar.

It should be said, though, that the concept as a whole was almost nixed by Atari entirely; prior to Cubbage there was Dale Yocum, who created the idea in the first place. As Chris Crawford notes:

…[he] was trying to explain to the management that there are a lot people out there that like to write programs and if we can publish these programs for them, it’s a win-win. He put together a business plan for it and said ‘Look, we only need a little bit of money and this thing can be self-sufficient and it might make some money.’ They grudgingly agreed to let him do it because the Atari platform desperately needed a larger software base, a void not being filled by the other publishers of the day.

Then Yocum was pushed by management out of his brainchild (I think that means Cubbage was then in charge?), so he quit a year later. The point here is that having random indie users send things for publications was slightly bizarre to Atari, even though other companies like Adventure International and On-Line Systems were doing much the same; in Atari’s case, they would take not just games, but software for tasks like renumbering the lines of BASIC programs and tracking a newspaper route. Since Cubbage himself admitted “I know it’s not much” the 10% was likely akin to pulling teeth from management’s mouth.

We still have a game to worry about, don’t we? The map is _roughly_ the same but there are definite changes; the bird by the water is out, and the water just becomes an (impassible?) obstacle. There might be some other solution, though, because the object count has been amped up. You can find some things just out in the open; just like the original, sometimes you have to search, but there’s definitely some variety that wasn’t in the last game. I’ve found a flute, a rag, and a bouncing ball, for instance.

However, the monsters are much tougher to battle and I haven’t had a success with just using PUNCH MONSTER, so if I run across one, my best bet has been to reset.

I did eventually find a sword and (now knowing about USE SWORD) was able to put it to use, killing monsters with a minimum of damage received.

I also found at one “fixed search” encounter, where searching at the place just north of the starting location unleashes a ticking time bomb which reduces your health. The advantage of keeping track of health is the game doesn’t have to always punish with an instant death, just regular damage.

However, I’m still rather stuck due to bugs. One run I managed to get a key, get to the room that would previously teleport to the eastern side of the map … and then crash. Using a different copy of the game, I hit multiple lock-ups while trying to do ordinary actions like SEARCH. I’m not sure if all the copies are corrupt somehow, but given I’ve already written about the game once, I’m fine leaving it here.

Here’s an example of the game locking up. I assume SEARCH was intended to spawn an encounter or item, and one or the other caused the problem.

Posted May 17, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Max’s Adventure (1981)   4 comments

The March 1981 issue of the Oregon Atari Computer Enthusiasts newsletter includes a review by Brian Dunn, age 11, of a game he calls Adventure by a mysterious “Max of Cle Ulum”. (In reality, the game has no name given, so I’m going with CASA’s title of Max’s Adventure.) As Dunn then explains:

According to folklore, this talented individual wrote this disc-based program, and gave it to a computer store in Seattle, saying only they were to give it to anyone they like.

In the next issue, the author himself, Max Manowski, writes in.

Source. The bit on the right is interesting, we’ll get to that.

We haven’t seen this kind of moment captured before; there’s certainly been random freeware, but not the exact circumstances the game was given away. In this case, Max writes “I have been made an offer to sell this program” and indeed, it later gets published by Atari through their Atari Program Exchange as Wizard’s Revenge. We’ll be getting to that one separately (and give a little history of the APX program I’ve learned in the process) but for now let’s just focus on this offering meant to be given by a store in Seattle to “anyone they like”.

The plot, as straightforwardly explained above, is that you made a wizard angry and now you have to escape.

The game seems ordinary from outward appearances, but as Max Manowski explains in an interview, he had read an article about a node-based system for writing adventures and based his on the idea. (He probably means GROW.) In other words, nearly every action is pegged to a particular location. This has obvious weaknesses; the game doesn’t understand many commands, and when it does, it’s a bit of a surprise. There’s also inconsistent handling. For example, GO SOUTH in many of the rooms with no exit south just triggers a “I don’t understand the command message”, although in some places (presumably where the author didn’t get worn out yet) there’s custom messages:

The confusion even extends to getting items:

The action that works here is LIGHT TORCH. This lets you see a variant version of the room with a passage to the north that’s too narrow to go through.

I figured, perhaps, this was a game of pure wandering, but got stuck by a passage blocked by water (with a chirping bird hanging out nearby) and a locked door.

The map up to where I originally got stuck.

I found out after some investigation that I was supposed to SEARCH in various rooms. It didn’t really matter which rooms; you’d have a random shot at getting various objects, and sometimes a wandering monster. Often you get a blank response, which is why I didn’t originally understand what was going on.

This isn’t even unlucky; the chance at finding something is something like 1 in 10.

Having discovered PUNCH works in fights against random monsters, I managed to get to a SWORD, but I was never able to use it.

I discovered later — from reading Max’s own hints — that USE SWORD works. SWING and STAB and various other words do nothing.

I eventually found both a worm and a wandering monster at the same time. Fortunately, I survived punching the monster, and took the worm over to feed the bird, who carried me over the water.

“After a while the passage turns to the left” is kind of impressive — it’s signaling that while you start walking east, the passage turns to the north, so that to go back you need to go south. (You can see this on the map I pasted earlier.) I can’t think of any games pre-1980 that did this. I think it’s part of the “every command is custom” aspect that led the author to doing this.

It turns out either a worm or a key works; the game tries hard to provide alternate routes to going places. Past the water/locked door is a shiny room where LOOK causes the room to shift and the player to get teleported to another area. I just kind of wandered until reaching the exit and finishing the game; there’s no further puzzles past this point, but there’s a lot of instant deaths.

A death sequence from earlier in the game.

I guess if you’re not going to have much in the way of puzzles, and do want a little “challenge”, instant death traps are the way to go.

Part of Garry Francis’s map, including the exit. From the CASA Solution Archive. Green has a higher chance of finding treasure with SEARCH, red has a higher chance of finding a monster, but there isn’t any way of working that out in game.

There wouldn’t be much more to say about the game …

Here’s the ending screen for the satisfaction of it, though.

… except the fairly unique feature that you can rewrite the game from within the game.

This is part of the node-based thing — remember in GROW how I came across a loose node that needed a room description? There’s nothing that sloppy here, but the commands for adding rooms were left in the software. From the ACE article:

The adventure by Max has a built in Editor with it’s own pseudo-language that allows the user to create or modify the adventure. To access the editor, the user types a “\” followed by a command such as: NEW, LIST, PRINT, CHANGE, or EXTEND. With these five commands, the user can write his own!







I’ll return to write about Wizard’s Revenge (the APX version of the game) next time.

Posted May 16, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The GROW System and ZOSC (1979-1980)   3 comments

To counter the sterile and passive nature of many CAI [Computer Assisted Instruction] presentations, GROW incorporates several basic motivational techniques and allows for creative flexibility. This includes having the student participate in an active role, having ‘knowledge’ be mutable and controversial, and having evaluations be carried out by other individuals rather than by machines. With GROW, the computer need not play the role of teacher but can instead be viewed only as a tool for learning and for reference.

Silicon Gulch Gazette, Volume 5 Number 1, 1981

The GROW system isn’t in any of the typical game catalogs, and its intended use isn’t even just adventures —

— specifically, for an educational computer network known as CHAOS II (“a multi-user, multi-tasking 8080-based system developed at Clairemont High School in San Diego, California”), it was made as a node-based system for creating lessons. Here’s a sample from the Creative Computing article above:


If one were making the lesson above, you might start with the initial node of


and typing EXTEND and adding the keywords YES and NO. At the moment the only node that exists is the “difficult lesson” one.

The user can then type NO and find themselves at an empty node. From the article:

…if the node has never before been entered, then the user must instead provide an initial description for the node, which GROW records permanently…

In other words, the user fills the node with whatever the intended response is for NO, which in this case is


and then the user can add various numbers as keywords, like 1, -1, and 15. (I’m unclear from the documentation I have if there’s a “default” that the software goes to if someone tries a command that isn’t part of the system — saying I DON’T UNDERSTAND would be terribly awkward if the user types an actual number.)

Through this method of filling in nodes, the user can develop a lesson while being “inside” the topology of the lesson. The most similar game we’ve seen to this so far is The Public Caves, where people can add their own named rooms to an already existing geography and then add graffiti to the rooms.

While this makes for somewhat limited parser capabilities, it’s possible to imagine creating an adventure in much the same way; make a starting room description, then come up with possible actions, and if an action is tried that hasn’t been anticipated yet, have the user develop a response for what happens.

This is exactly what the GROW system tries to do. There’s BASIC source code in the article for an “Extensible Adventure” system.

There’s also ports, as noted in the blurb above, for Apple II and North Star Horizon computers. I’ve never found the North Star software anywhere on the internet, but there is an Apple II disk up on the Internet Archive. It has a demo for the general system, and includes an adventure game called ZOSC.

To be clear in what follows, the parser is entirely keyword based. That means movements and actions are focused on looking for particular words and phrases. Typing HELP gave me


and hinted that there are objects that can be taken and used, but I was unable to take an inventory.

Unfortunately, the idea of a grid breaks down quite quickly. You can go NORTH and end up near a Sears but then to get near the Sears you type SEARS.

I worked out, after some pain, that LEAVE sometimes backtracks from an area, but otherwise navigation seemed to be location-based, and not in a clear way where I knew where I was going. (And LEAVE doesn’t always work — entering the garden center area of Sears, for instance, I found the magic command was GO BACK.)

At the Sears above I was able to get by using the command PET LION.


Going up I was able to by a banana squisher.


After, I immediately got stuck again. This time getting out involved just typing DOWN.

Going down I found some tunnels where compass directions magically started working again, and seemed to be a maze.

I’m honestly unclear if there’s any sort of goal — I wandered around a bit more and at least some of the descriptions are fun.

This might make a good “normal” game but it really needs

a.) much clearer and more consistent navigation

b.) the ability to re-display the current location, since once the screen is filled with HUH?s and I DON’T UNDERSTANDs I start to lose track of what’s going on

c.) some sort of inventory command, maybe, although I’m not sure how important inventory is really

I also found the nodes to be essentially stateless, which is why I think (c.) might be unnecessary. For example, after getting past the stuffed lion, if you go back to the same location the lion jumps down again and you have to pet it again. That’s not terrible illogical in that spot in particular, but it does indicate the relative weakness of the GROW system in general as an adventure game maker.

I did eventually run into an undescribed node:


and the game prompted me to write a room description. I assume I could then (if I understood the commands a little better) create a link to prior rooms so I could leave, but as it was the game was in a softlock.

So I’m fine saying this was just intended as a demo and leave it at that. I do find the concept of essentially writing a game from the inside intriguing, so I wanted to cover GROW, but also,

a.) there’s a 1981 game coming up next that will pick up the node-based idea and make a real game.


b.) while only taking a minor part, GROW happens to form a link in a chain that will lead to one of the big milestones in adventure game history, but you’ll have to wait until 1982 to hear about that one.

Posted May 6, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Crime Adventure (1981)   4 comments

We’ve seen games by young teenagers; this is not one of those games, because when Neil Bradley wrote Crime Adventure for the TRS-80, he wasn’t quite a teenager yet. He was only 12.

Softside, October 1981.

The map is based on the Neil Bradley’s neighborhood in Portland and was published as the Softside Adventure of the Month for October, with no name attached.

There was additionally a shareware version of this game from 1987, this time with a credit but only to a Steven C. Neighorn, asking for $5 donations. Quoting from the blog I just linked:

Curious as to why his name didn’t seem to be attached, I got in touch with Mr. Bradley to get the story. The short version is that Mr. Neighorn (then age 15) and Mr. Bradley (age 12) entered into a partnership to market Bradley’s game to Softside magazine. I don’t intend to publicly air other peoples’ 30-year-old dirty laundry, but I will say that this partnership quickly turned sour. This version of the game was put out in 1987 and Bradley did not become aware of it until a year or two after its release. Crime Adventure was ported to several systems, and as far as I know, Neil Bradley’s name does not appear in any published version of the game.)

(I’ve seen it claimed on a couple sites that the 1981 game was also credited to Neighorn and not Bradley somewhere, but I haven’t been able to verify this — it’s not in the magazine or the source code.)

Original comic as posted to Tumblr by Anthony Clark.

The game starts with what I’d call a delayed-plot intro — you are described as being in an arcade…

…and only a turn later does the action happen.

You head over to the phone booth in question, and find a license plate which reads KID-NAP. Why did the license plate fall off the car? Why does it have such an on-the-nose name? Unfortunately, this has one of those plots that randomly bops around so much it’s not safe to ask too many questions.

The map has a great deal of empty space in a way that reminds me of other urban games I’ve played from this ear. There’s something about logically needing parking lots and streets and sidewalks and corners that adds a lot of fluff, even if it makes the game map match the real map better (of Portland, apparently).

When crossing the E/W street, if you try to go east or west you die because you get run over by traffic.

There are essentially four areas; the starting one with the arcade as shown above, and a shoe store selling golf shoes. Slightly to the west of this are three more stores:

The computer store has an Atari computer, which says it has a program running on it when you EXAMINE COMPUTER. I had an extremely difficult time with the parser here, as USE COMPUTER or TYPE COMPUTER or RUN PROGRAM or BOOT COMPUTER or innumerable other combinations didn’t work, until reaching READ COMPUTER. (It gives you a recipe for stew.)

To the southwest there’s an entirely optional house I’ll talk about in a moment…

…and the the southeast is the house of the Fenwicks, the kidnapped person being Mrs. Fenwick.

Inside the house there’s what I imagine is intended as a “clue” indicating what Mrs. Fenwick was up to at the phone booth…

…and a remarkably ineffectual Mr. Fenwick.

Fun with parser implementation! Also, you can’t talk with him he won’t let you take the putter if you try to get it. Because of the hunger. (Yes, the putter is an essential item to rescuing Mrs. Fenwick.)

While at the Fenwicks you can also steal $30 out of a dresser (ca-ching!) and visit an oddly placed golf hole in the back yard.

It doesn’t come with a golf ball, but there’s one just lying around next to the shoe store.

You can then take the money over to the shoe store to buy golf shoes, leaving you with a penny. You can then take the penny over to the house to the southwest and, be warned, slur ahoy:

There’s apparently some “reclaiming” of the word akin to “queer”, according to the journal Romani Studies.

As I said, the house is optional and in the end the hint is more or less meaningless; the presence of a golf ball, golf shoes, a putter, and a mysterious green means in all likelihood that’s where the plot is meant to go. I think this was an attempt to make another “clue” to have to game feel like it was a mystery.

But the putter! Mr. Fenwick is still hungry. Fortunately, the computer randomly had a convenient stew recipe, we know from the diary that’s what Mrs. Fenwick was about to cook, and apparently, the Mr. is paralyzed without his stew.

You can MAKE STEW as long as you’ve seen the recipe.

With putter in hand, shoes on feet, and golf ball on ground, we still can’t quite putt the ball yet; we need permission to play or something? What you can do is dig in the Fenwick backyard to get a coin, take the coin back to the start, play one of the arcade games (doesn’t matter which)…

…and the game card lets you now PUTT BALL and find a secret passage underground, because reasons.

There’s a fairly fancy lock that can be picked a hairpin that you can yoink from one of the stores; then you can find Mrs. Fenwick who is a “round room” but says she will follow and there is one more thing you need to do.

For some reason, you can take a couple steps away from where you free Mrs. Fenwick to end up back at the arcade; this *sort of* makes sense in whoever the kidnapper was (who we never meet, confront, or report to the police, since that’s not a command the parser understands) managed to magically spirit Mrs. Fenwick away to the golf course and — OK, logic just isn’t work on this game, let’s just look at the last screen, which you get once you walk Mrs. Fenwick back to reunite her with Mr.

To recap, that was a mystery where

a.) someone got kidnapped and we decided to take it upon ourselves to investigate

b.) our investigation mostly consisted of stealing stuff, getting told by a fortune teller that Mrs. Fenwick was underground

c.) gathering supplies to go golfing, for some reason, which requires feeding the totally useless Mr. Fenwick

d.) finding out that golfing leads to the secret of where Mrs. Fenwick is held, who we then walk all the way back to the Fenwick house

Why is a sinister golf course in the Fenwick back yard in the first place?

I think the ambition was to write a mystery game with clues where the clues help leading to the missing person, but the realism factor was so far lacking (items scattered everywhere to be grabbed) the game ended up being a random-puzzle-assortment collection instead. Without at least a little dialogue, especially with Mr. Fenwick, the world was a bit lifeless. Still: remember this the author’s first attempt at age 12, where he ended up being ripped off by someone three years older than him.

After finishing I read the playthrough at Gaming After 40. Dobson notes in the source code something I didn’t know: if you take too long to re-unite the couple, the game says “Mr. Fenwick has given up on his wife and left town.” Ouch. Mrs. Fenwick, I don’t want to presume too much, but you might want to re-consider your options.

Posted May 5, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Forbidden Planet: Finished!   6 comments

I’m not sure the ! mark is appropriate there, but neither is a period mark. Maybe an interrobang (‽).

Fairly shortly after I made my last post, I got by another puzzle, and then the game crashed with an “unhandled exception error”. I tried a different Mac emulator; I tried a different sequence of events; I tried downloading a fresh version of the game. At the moment, the Mac version of Forbidden Planet (Utopia) is busted, so I had to switch to TRS-80.

From the manual, via Macintosh Garden. I guess I’m never making it to Utopia.

I went back to where I was before and did find two small differences 1.) the location with a pair of creatures next to one of the ogres is entirely absent and 2.) a “hole” as described as being on top of the mountain is missing.

I think the hole at the top of the mountain is intended as an extra hint for a puzzle I’ll explain later, although it sidetracked me quite a while as I attempted to work out ways to survive going in or typing a rope to something that would let me climb in. (No addition to a game world is neutral; something may be intended to help, but can serve to distract to enough of an extent that it actually makes things worse.)

The puzzle I solved was at the location above. I decided to SWIM RIVER. I had done so before, apparently, but forgot. Normally you get dragged to the bottom of the river (making me assume at the time it was a dead end) but if you happen to be carrying the log, it lets you cross safely. (It took me multiple iterations before I realized that’s really what happened.)

In the TRS-80 version, here’s what’s on the other side:

Long anticipation for … advertising! At least that’s not the only thing. There’s a paper that says

ross the lake. Price for this service is 9 gold coins.

Combining this with the incomplete message from a book I mentioned last time:

Summon the Guardian of This Land and He Will Transport You Across the lake. Price for this service is 9 gold coins.

You might notice from the Macintosh screenshot I blew a gold coin already giving it to a centaur so it would go away. Whoops. The right action was to note that since the centaur drinks from the well sometimes, and the river is poisoned, you can transfer some water over:

Past the information on the paper is a swamp with an alligator who needs a highly specific verb.

I know WRESTLE was required in Haunt. I think there was one other game I’ve played that needed it but I’m not remembering which.

Then there’s an extremely messy scene involving a pedestal with an amphora on it. A spear trap nails you if you’re not careful, and an asp nails you if you’re not careful after that. Even if you are careful you can just die.

To explain, the bat from last time and the asp here are set to attack and kill at random. By “at random” that can mean “the first moment you see them”, meaning it is impossible to react and you have no choice but to die.

I found this the most baffling part of the game, and ended up just letting Dale Dobson’s walkthrough guide me through it. Let me just quote this one:

Dealing with the asp stumped me for quite a while. Removing the amulet and working in the dark seemed to inhibit its attack for a few moves, buying some time, but I was still dying on a regular basis. I tried to use the bowl to pour some of the poisonous river water into the amphora before shattering it, but that didn’t work. I thought perhaps the alligator would take out the snake, but they’re both more interested in attacking the player than each other. I tried to shoot the asp with the Disruptor and the crossbow, multiple times, missing on every attempt. I tried to THROW STICK, hoping it would take the asp with it, but it always just dropped the asp on the floor or ground, where it promptly attacked. What I finally worked out was that we can leave the Shrine quickly and THROW ASP / IN SWAMP. Whew!

Your services are most appreciated.

This gets you a stash of 7 coins. Combined with the one gold coin (that you have to not give to the centaur) this makes for 8 coins. The 9th one as required by the instructions isn’t hard to find but it requires escaping the cave first.

I originally assumed escape would be “through”, but no, it’s way back at the start. Remember what I said about the small hole at the top of the mountain being a hint? If you LOOK UP in the starting room you can see a hole in the ceiling.

I really ought to not be getting tripped up by that any more. LOOK UP has been a thing; it showed up in Nuclear Sub for instance. It’s still very much an anti-pattern against normal gameplay but I should still toss it somewhere in my How to Beat Moderately Unfair Text Adventures toolbox.

Anyway, knowing there was a hole up and remembering my fussing about with a crossbow bolt attached to a rope, I finally knew where that was meant to be used, but I still had to start the whole section over again. You see, the inventory limit is *very* tight and I had the crossbow outside of the collapsed cave. Time for another restart!

The logistics here are cruel. You have to heavily leverage the fact the cave only collapses when you walk farther in the entrance. You can bring a crossbow, bolt, and rope inside, and drop them at that entrance, and then go back and retrieve any other materials you need. Also, once you’ve finally used the crossbow appropriately and climbed out of the cave, you find out the rope has broken and so it was a one-way trip. That means you also can’t take any unessential materials on the cave expedition, like the conch shell. The upshot is you can only bring in exactly the objects needed for solving puzzles, because there are enough items you find that need to be retrieved (including a pickaxe) that you otherwise won’t have the space to take everything back out of the cave.

(In practical essence, I get the impression the author was thinking from their perspective rather than the player, here. The player doesn’t know which items are essential and has to carry multiple loads if they’re taking everything. Once you know exactly which items get used where the logistics aren’t as bad.)

Whew. After getting out, the rest is pretty straightforward as long as you understand the “summon the guardian” message. There’s one uninvestigated boulder — the pickaxe works — and it yields the 9th gold coin. Then you can go back to the river where you crash landed and blow the conch horn safely.

The no-win situations where an enemy reacts before you can even solve a puzzle were clearly a misstep. I found the inventory logistics to be the second-biggest pain. Looming over everything, though, was the parser. It just wasn’t quite adequate for the task. We had USE RAG to mean “break the glass tube that is already slotted in with this rag”. We had the trick where the game breaks a command into two parts


At what? Like: “AT TREE”


but that counts as two commands, and at least twice I died to the bat because I got the first command in but not the second. (I later discovered that just typing AT BAT works to zap it.) We needed to convey actions like scooping water from a river and transferring it to a well; of taking an asp and tossing it specifically directed into a nearby swamp. The parser made conveying them incredibly awkward. I got the strong sense Demas was working with good ideas and a nicely dynamic sense of puzzle design, but the actual implementation reduced the strength of the experience.

There’s still one more Demas game to go, as advertised: entering the city across the river. I’ll be saving it for closer to the end of 1981; it does seem to have squeaked into the year but only at the very end, plus that gives me time to diagnose my Mac woes and see if I can at least go back to nice graphics for the sequel.

Had to give up on this one after reaching the bat-infested cave. Was never granted the opportunity to defend myself as no amount of random attempts allowed me to move South of the main entrance without being instantaneously smitten by a blood-thirsty bat (and I did attempt this a good 20 times or so to no avail).

— From an anonymous commenter to the Gaming after 40 post

Posted April 28, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Forbidden Planet: Kishōtenketsu Revisited   6 comments

From 80 Micro, March 1981.

Slight progress. My largest chunk came from simply predicting something correctly in my last post; I could take a potshot at one ogre and lead them to a different one and they would fight.

Very satisfying! Then I could enter the new cave the ogre was guarding and get trapped in after one step away from the entrance.

A little detail here, because this moment is important in a theoretical sense, and also the Thing I Am Most Stuck On.

As the text implies, the ogres fighting are what causes the cave to collapse. This suggested to me this is one of those paused-time puzzles — where an event might normally in a fully realistic world move forward, but waits, for dramatic reasons, for the player to be in a particular position. We saw this in The Colonel’s Bequest where, despite the rapid collection of dead bodies, they waited for us to find them before they got spirited away.

However, the trigger for the cave collapsing is walking away from the initial room of the cave. That means you can walk past the fighting ogres, grab the axe and bones, then walk back away and visit other places. I had to meta-realize that the game wasn’t collapsing the cave for me so I had access to more than I originally thought. (Essentially, I transitioned from the physical logic I was using before into solving by looking at game logic.)

This is in a way bad, because it means there’s yet more items available for me to use to resolve the dilemma. For example, there’s a conch shell (left behind at the first ogre) that you can blow and causes the cave to collapse, but since you can go back and get it, can you somehow cause a “safe” cave collapse? Here’s my full item list, although I can’t carry all of the items at once:

small key (already used on spaceship, probably done)
metal plate (from spaceship)
box (from spaceship)
screwdriver (from spaceship)
old rag (from spaceship)
broken glass (from spaceship)
amulet (worn, providing light)
axe (from cave with fighting ogres)
dusty bones (from cave with fighting ogres)
old book (“Summon the Guardian of This Land and He Will Transport You Ac… The Rest of The Page Is Missing!!”)
leather bag (with three bolts)
crossbow (can use the bolts, can also tie a rope to a bolt but I haven’t found anywhere where this is helpful)
disruptor (still useful; on that screenshot above you need to zap the bat so it won’t kill you)
shovel (can be used to get a “small bowl” in the fighting-ogre cave)
hollow conch
log (took axe back to the forest and got this)
branch (ditto)

The well is refreshing, the river is poison. Either or both could be useful.

Including the items in the cave that collapses, there’s also

gold coin (although I end up giving this to a centaur)
small bowl (already mentioned, can be filled with water)
pickaxe (seems like it could be useful for digging out, but there’s no item the pickaxe can be directed at like a pile of rocks)

I’m sure I’ll make more progress next time (if nothing else, I’ll be willing to start cracking open the walkthrough) but I wanted to take a moment to return to a concept I haven’t written about since Zork I: Kishōtenketsu.

To summarize quickly, it is a 4-act structure rather than a 3-act structure:

Ki: Introduces characters and other necessary information.

Shō: Follows any lead characters, but without major changes.

Ten: Provides an unexpected development. This is the essential substitute for the climax, because it may not be a “confrontation”, but can be just an unusual change in the environment, or enigmatic development.

Ketsu: The conclusion, which unifies the original elements with the “twist”.

I theorized adventure game puzzles didn’t really fall well into a 3-act structure, which is how was seems inarguably plot-like activity sometimes is written off as “not story”.

The ogre battle seems traditional: we have two ogres that won’t let us by locations (the Setup). We can get one of them angry and follow us to other (the Confrontation), and then they’ll fight, allowing us passage (the Resolution). A clever protagonist in a fairy tale could easily encounter similar.

What doesn’t seem to fit 3-act is something I brushed over in the object list above: obtaining a log and branch. I had been puzzling over any use for the forest, despite it being a maze and me needing to spend a fair chunk of time there to map it. I had reached “ki” — seeing the forest for the first time — and “shō”, which developed the forest as an area and where I poked at its puzzle potentials without any real “change”.

This was more a pain to make than it looks because it took some fiddling to get the room placement in a way that made the links between rooms make sense.

Finally, I found the axe, the “ten” (unexpected development) which led to the “ketsu” (conclusion, obtaining the items). The whole sequence seems limp and fruitless in a climax sense but isn’t that far off the mark with 4-act (which doesn’t necessarily need a “climax”) yet this is the sort of manipulation that happens in adventure games all the time: slow discoveries that chip away at the world and increase our ability to manipulate it. When put contiguously, maybe this sequence could be part of a 3-act structure, but it doesn’t happen to the player contiguously. The complete plot, for one of my sessions, was simply finding a log and branch, and it did feel internally like a plot was moving, but when trying to explain to others the revelation, I can’t think of any way that isn’t underwhelming.

It may be adventure games deserve a structure all their own that doesn’t fall under static story lines in any sense.

Posted April 27, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Forbidden Planet (1981)   7 comments

… a desolate planet where only your skill and your talking computer will help you survive. (80 Micro, December 1981)

We’ve seen William Demas with Timequest (published by The Programmer’s Guild) and The Golden Voyage (with Scott Adams, published by Adventure International); his next two games, Forbidden Planet and Forbidden City, were published by a third company, Fantastic Software.

Fantastic Software (run by Al Loose) and the author William Demas were both located in Las Vegas. Al had come across a piece of software by Dick Barker that could provide voices to the TRS-80. According to William Demas, Al Loose “thought that it would be a great addition to an adventure game” so William went on to write two games that used voices. (Source 1, Source 2)

I’d like to say the voices make a positive addition, but it’s pretty much just the same voice over and over again asking what you want to do next. Let’s just say the sheer novelty does not overcome the annoyance. (I’ll try to get a recording so you can hear it, but I’m having technical difficulties.)

The author later ported both Planet and City to Macintosh, using the names Utopia and Futuria. From what I’ve gathered hopping back and forth between the two games, dropping the voice and adding graphics (with Mac-style tweaks to interface) are the only changes.

I think it ends up being a pretty good trade; the graphics aren’t stellar but aren’t irritating either. They pass the bar of the clunky vector-graphics into an aesthetic.

As the screens above hint, you awake from suspended animation on a spaceship in trouble, and (after some puzzle-solving) end up crash-landing on a planet.

The “puzzle solving” was a pain: you find a key that unlocks a cabinet with a rag, a tube, and a screwdriver. The screwdriver lets you get into a crawlspace with a CHARRED TUBE, as depicted here. The wires are purely a red herring and kill you if you try to take them. I tried various permutations of PUT TUBE and REPLACE TUBE but the right action is to USE RAG. This smashes the old tube (!!) so you can put in the new one.

Upon crash landing, the map opens up quite a bit more; you can see the city of Utopia right where you land (which is apparently the goal for the game).

Exploring a bit, the game oddly went into fantasy mode. I found a amulet which glowed when worn …

The forest is a small maze, but I found nothing useful upon mapping it.

… a crossbow (and some bolts), a rope (which you can tie to one of the bolts), a book that talks about “summoning” something to get to our destination, a shovel (I’ve tried DIG everywhere with no luck) and some small creatures and ogres.

One ogre is guarding a cave; you can kill it by shooting it with the crossbow (but it falls on top of you) and it ignores blasts from the disruptor (which came from the ship).

Another ogre gets mad enough to punch a wall and start following you if you shoot it.

This turns out systematically interesting, because the ogre chases you across the map. I’m not sure where to take it.

I can go through the hole it just punched, there’s a conch shell (blowing it collapses the cave, you die) and a boulder (I can’t do anything with it). However, you can also run around outside, although I haven’t found anywhere useful to go.

This phase of the game has enough open possibilities that I don’t feel like I’m stuck in a “use object on puzzle” mode (possibly with an obscure verb to boot). Maybe I get the two ogres together somehow? Can I set up a trap before hand with the crossbow and the rope? Can I survive a collapsing cave? I’m not sure yet, but it’s interesting enough to keep trying things out.

Posted April 20, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Hunt the Wumpus on the AskHistorians Podcast   Leave a comment

I was a guest on a podcast! You can hear me talk for an hour about Caves and Hunt the Wumpus from my Before Adventure series.

Link to podcast here


Unfortunately my attempt to give plugs at the end got mangled, so let me quickly mention:

Aaron Reed published his article on Wumpus a week before recording, and it had some new research I got to use, as part of his excellent 50 Years of Text Games series.

I also referred some to Alex Smith’s book They Create Worlds.

And while dated, I can still recommend Steven Levy’s Hackers as a good glimpse of the era.

Posted April 15, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tanker Train (1981)   7 comments


Tanker Train — another in the long series of Roger M. Wilcox — is a good contrast to Castlequest, since instead of a sprawling 100 rooms, it only has 14. It’s a very tight, cinematic, and linear experience where you’re tasked with stopping a saboteur and defusing a time bomb.

You start sitting in a cabin seat (holding an FBI badge and a pistol, so we’re only marginally off-duty, I guess), and we hear a scream as mentioned above and stand up to find a dead body.

Like all the Roger M. Wilcox games, this was originally on TRS-80. I had trouble getting that version working so early on I switched with his modern port.

This is admittedly one of the most puzzling parts of the game — we wouldn’t notice someone else in the room coming in? Wouldn’t the murderer at least notice us and be concerned?

And unfortunately, things don’t quite hit fast-paced from here, because I was terribly stuck for about 10 minutes. You can go back to the original seat you start at an open a window, but try to go through and your hands slip and you go flying out at presumably 400 miles per hour.

I made a verb list testing my standard words


and while this turned out to be useful later, I was still lacking the right word to get started: FRISK. (Just random inspiration I tried it, but I remember now it was used in a prior Wilcox game, so I have now added it to my standard verbs-to-test list so I don’t get stalled the same way again.)

The body had a credit card, a leaflet advertising a different Wilcox game even though they were still all private games (“GET ‘THE VIAL OF DOOM’ ADVENTURE FOR YOUR TRS-80!”) and a helpful note.

The card works to open the door, revealing a coal fireplace and a fire extinguisher which can be applied to it.


I suppose 400 miles per hour on coal-burning would be tricky. The burning leaves a pile of ashes, and DIG ASHES reveals a bent piece of metal, and here I was stuck again for a while longer until I just rammed through the entire list of verbs and found RUB ASHES was useful as well — it meant that I was taking the main characters hands and covering them with ash. (I guess that’s correct syntax, but not usually the way the word RUB is used, so it didn’t occur to me. An odd bit of gameplay where slight variants of action based on the same verb can cause confusion — RUB is usually used to activate magic rings and the like in adventure games of this period.)

Moving on, the ashes were enough to give me a solid grip climbing out the window, and I was able to walk on the train to another car and use the piece of metal to break into it. (OK, it really can’t be going full speed, I guess then.)

Then I was able to drop into a car with a security guard and show my FBI badge.


Moving on, there’s another security guard, but trying to show the badge this time doesn’t go so well.

Yep, that’s the saboteur. You’re supposed to shoot him instead. Then just behind him you can find a ladder leading to an open valve (TURN VALVE closes it) and the time bomb. My first thought was to pick it up and take it somewhere to throw safely.

Fortunately, past the bomb there just happens to be a secret lab where you can mix some nitroglycerin. Taking the nitroglycerin back to the bomb and pouring it (as long as you’ve closed the tanker)…

…and victory!

Really, that’s it. That’s the whole game. I said it was short. It still felt satisfying to finish without hints, even if the swiftness of the plot seemed to demand a slightly more expansive parser. It’s the eternal dilemma with action-based text adventures like Heroine’s Mantle — you want to fight a ninja, or whatnot, but spending five minutes to communicate just how you want to disarm the blowdart mangles the atmosphere. Fortunately, with this game the big stopping point was right at the start.

Posted April 14, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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A Master at Castlequest   13 comments

(If you’ve arrived here from elsewhere, you should read the series in order, as this post discusses gathering the last treasures of the game.)

I’m ready to check out of this one. There’s some sort of endgame section, like Crowther/Woods Adventure, and just like various Adventure variants, I have only partial confidence that it even is triggerable. A scan of the source code indicates I have otherwise found all the treasures. So, let’s do my final delve–

I was, rather satisfyingly, correct about the long sequence with the boat — since you open a hole past the moat, you can take the boat that way all the way to a spot where you can cross over to a small island.

You are at the base of a magnificent underground waterfall. A cool mist rising off the surface of the water almost obscures a small island. A tunnel goes west and stone steps lead up.


You are on a small island near a large waterfall. The sound of crashing surf can be clearly heard, although you cannot quite make out the form of the waterfall through the thick mist. A message traced out in the sand reads “GILLIGAN WAS HERE”. There are pieces of a wreck (the S.S. MINNOW?) scattered about.

There is a very large ruby here!

Rather less glamorously, my rope issue was resolved by finding an exit I had missed on my map. I used what I’ve termed the walkthrough method where I wrote a partial walkthrough just to be careful re-tracing my initial steps (and to feel like doing so wasn’t a waste of time, important psychological bit, that). My first thirteen steps (the game understands T for take):


In the process, in the underground section with a hunchback I found I simply had missed testing a particular exit. I also found, as a side effect, the hunchback is not doomed to die early: he simply acts as defense against the werewolf if it does a sudden attack no matter when it happens. I’ve noticed the rare occasion where the werewolf would cause instant death upon appearance, so this seems to be there simply to guard against that.

With the rope, I managed to go back to the room at the start of the game and retrieve a gold statue outside the starting window. Again, nothing too glamorous there, and even more unglamorously, I figured out my problem with the glacier: I needed to type IN as a direction and I could retrieve a crystal swan.

I still was fairly short on points and knew I was missing a section. Importantly, my use of the rope did *not* apply a grappling hook I had — I simply tied it to a bed. So I tied the to the grappling hook instead and went jaunting around looking for a place to use it.

I came across a cliff past the maze, and a final section:

You are at the edge of a sheer vertical drop overlooking an immense N/S cavern. Narrow paths head away to the east and west.

A rope is hooked to the top of the precipice.

There’s two places probably for atmosphere…

This is the disco room. Multicolored lasers pulsate wildly to the beat of badly mixed music. A stairway down is barely visible through the glare. A large passage exits south, and a smaller one leads west.


You have entered the land of the living dead, a large, desolate room. Although it is apparently uninhabited, you can hear the awful sounds of thousands of lost souls weeping and moaning. In the east corner are stacked the remains of dozens of previous adventurers who were less fortunate than yourself. To the north is a foreboding passage. A path goes west.

… but the remainder of the map was there to serve up a cyclops, and a wizard. I was short on items, and tried my cuban cigar on the cyclops.

You are in a tall tunnel leading east and west. A small trail goes SE. An immense wooden door heads south.

There is a fairly large cyclops staring at you.


The cyclops turns to you and says:
“Hey buddy!. Got a light??”


The light is burning dimly.


The torch is burning noisily.


The cyclops chokes from the rancid tobacco, and crashes through the door in search of water.

There is a cyclops-shaped hole in the door.

This really strikes me as Zork-reference territory — I don’t think if it was ever cleared up with the authors if either one had seen Zork, but both the Land of the Dead and the cyclops in close proximity seem like direct references. As you’ll see in a moment, the Zork references get even more direct:

The broken door leads to a cyclops lair with a sword. Taking the sword further on, it starts to glow:

You are in a tremendous cavern divided by a white line through its center. The north side of the cavern is green and fresh, a startling change from the callous terrain of the cave. A sign at the border proclaims this to be the edge of the wizard’s realm. A rocky and forlorn trail leads east, and a plush green path wanders north.

Your sword is glowing dimly.


You are in an immense forest of tall trees. Melodic chanting can be heard in the distance. The trees seem to be guiding you along a N/S path.

Your sword is glowing very brightly.

Just a bit farther in:

This is the wizard’s throne room. Scattered about the room are various magical items. A long message in ancient runes is carved into the southern wall. It translates roughly as “Beware the power of the Wizard, for he is master of this place”. Two green paths go south and east, and a marble walk leads west.

A powerful wizard blocks your way with his staff.

The wizard just vaporizes you if you try to attack him. This is where my previous work in generating a verb list for the game paid off. I looked at any I might not have used, and the only one that came up was WAVE. So instead of swinging for the jugular, I tried WAVE SWORD:

The walls of the cavern tremble as you unleash the terrible power contained in the sword.

The wizard, sensing a stronger power than his own, flees in a blinding flash and a cloud of smoke.

Glorious! Past the wizard I found a cache of money, which represented the last missing treasure.

This is the safe deposit vault, an immense room with polished steel walls. A closed circuit T.V. camera hums quietly above you as it pans back and forth across the room. To the east is an open elevator. Engraved on the far wall is the message:

There is an ornate skeleton key here!

There is a bottle of vintage champagne here!

There is an ivory-handled sword here!

A gold statue is glistening in the light!

There is a silver cross nearby!

There is a very large ruby here!

Perched on the ground is a valuable jade figure!

A sapphire sparkles on the ground nearby!

There is lots of money here!

A delicate crystal swan lies off to one side!

Now, the reason I’m suspicious the ending might be broken is that the score acts oddly here; I checked at one point and had 275 points. I did a slight bit of object rearranging, and then afterwards, had 271 points even though the same treasures were in the vault. Some hidden timed element, perhaps? Either way, I got no messages indicating something signficant had happened, nor secret areas open up. I did find a real “ending text” scanning the source code but I’d rather only give it if I ever manage a true ending.

The game claims upon exit that I am a MASTER of Castlequest, which is honestly good enough for me.

ADD: Arthur figured out in the comments there’s a hidden time limit, and if you don’t get the treasures fast enough you don’t get the endgame. He made his own posts playing through the game here and here, if you want to see what the end is like. I also recommend his outstanding code comparison between Adventure and Castlequest (for example, Castlequest forces verb-noun order, while in Adventure word order doesn’t matter so you can GET LAMP or LAMP GET equally well).

Castlequest managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of 1979/1980 games; except for the maze with the bizarre changing names, the puzzles are essentially straightforward, and it was a longer game simply due to content as opposed to trying to get the player stuck on the same puzzle for hours. Most of the issues (ahem missing exits) I admit were essentially mine.

The framing around a nemesis to fight gave a slight bit more motivation than “just go find treasure”, and the castle structure also made the underground part seem less random (even when it started resorting to putting a jungle a few steps away from a glacier, and a disco room adjacent to the screams of the dead). It would be nice, still, to have a slightly more modernized port; there’s a save game feature, for instance, but it quits the game, and RESTORE only works at the very start of the game. The game also only understands ALL CAPS commands which turned out to be a source of 50% of the errors for me (especially when I kept switching back and forth to a map!) But in the end I am very, very, grateful both the authors (Michael Holtzman and Mark Kershenblatt) and Arthur O’Dwyer who helped rescue this game from oblivion.

As I stated on my first post about this game, The Pits (another lost 1980 game, this time on an online system called The Source) is also buried somewhere in the US Copyright Office. Anyone want to make a go at nabbing the treasure?

Posted April 12, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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