Archive for the ‘Interactive Fiction’ Category


(Click here to read my entire Institute series in order.)

One of the manual covers, from The Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

I have finished. The remaining three dreams turned out to be short, so the structure remaining was more like bouncing between environments as opposed to solving mini-adventures.

I’ve written before about how in this period when authors wanted to make a game difficult, and they didn’t have much in the way of conditional states (like environmental factors that change, or certain timing that needs to happen) they tended to resort to either lots of instant death, hard to find verbs, or hiding things. Given dying is almost a benefit, the game has to resort to the latter two, especially hiding things.

One extra side effect of puzzles being mostly reliant on hidden items is that past a certain juncture, puzzle solutions can come in a flood, where when finding one item it becomes totally obvious where it goes, and the problem is getting the item in the first place. Then, using that item to solve the puzzle in question yields another item, which again has an obvious place it goes, etc., especially given a map that has been combed over many times.

You start at the “Giant Statue Area”. The next dream is an impressionistic version of the Titanic, followed by a temple, followed by a dream with a saber-toothed tiger, going back to the giant statue. To finish the game I had to travel the loop quite a few times. The cover above tries to depict all four.

Fairly quickly after I left off last time, I found an UMBRELLA (I hadn’t done a “LOOK” at the natives just past the large green man). This let me at least get started on the next dream, which starts ambiguously in some smoke, but if you an open an umbrella you float upward out of a smokestack…

…and land on the deck of a ship.

The life preserver reads “TITANIC”. There’s not much to do other than go inside where there’s some furnishings and a picture; the picture is held in by screws. On the outside you can go to the stern of the ship and watch some icebergs incoming which eventually sink the ship. Using the life preserver you can, oddly enough, peek underwater after going overboard, and find a crowbar on the ocean floor. This doesn’t make sense for a deep ocean, but this honestly works fine as dream logic; one of the things I’d expect is expansion and reduction of space. The ship is known as very large but in gameplay is quite small; the ocean is quite deep but in gameplay terms is quite shallow.

There’s nothing else to do after obtaining the crowbar but eventually drown, but fortunately that makes for an exit from the dream. The dream that follows, outside a temple, I was able to get started by noticing a plant poking through the door, and applying the WATER to it.

Inside I found a blood-stained altar and a door with a lizard. I picked up quickly and realized I could try SACRIFICE as a verb, but the game asked me of what, and I was at a loss. I decided the item I needed was probably elsewhere.

You have to die to get out of this dream, which you can do by trying to open the door (a trap slices you) or trying to CLIMB when outside (you fall and die). Either way, you can visit a pre-historic area:

Again, very small: it only turns out to have 3 rooms. If you approach the chest you see at the start the tiger eats you. There’s also an area with rocks and a stream to the south where the water is poisoned and you can drink it to boot yourself out of the dream.

In actual gameplay terms, from here I died, and moved on exploring each dream carefully starting from the Giant Statue one, but to save time in narration, I should mention that if you go south and check the rocks carefully you can find a lizard. You can likely guess where it goes:

This is followed by a men-with-reptile-head room…

… and climbing up some stairs and dying due to toxic gas. The solution to the gas turns out to be straightforward but due to the rotating nature of the dreams I decided to move on and come back.

I poked through the loop a few times trying to search for things I had missed. A “shrub” had popped up at the color-changing water in the Statue area, which I was able to dig up with the shovel. I tried planting the shrub in various places with no luck, and decided to peek at hints again, although I wasn’t fully determined to read them; the questions themselves can be hints of sorts. However, even though the clues were encrypted by rotating the alphabet, I immediately was able to decipher the answer to the key problem anyway.

Specifically, on #8 above, figuring out what to do inside the statue was one of the dilemmas I hadn’t resolved last time.

I thought perhaps I needed special spectacles or the like and moved on, even though I had missed doing an action I already used elsewhere: JMMI SN, which I realized had to mean LOOK UP.

The ladder you spot by doing so lets you get up to a locked room which takes a keycode. (It is incidentally fortunate I happened to be holding the SHRUB — this is where it is useful, as otherwise there is a lack of oxygen.) Fortunately, I had a keycode lying around from last time (with the billboard) that I hadn’t used yet. I led me into another octagonal room with a metal plate on the ground I was able to remove with the crowbar (from the ocean in the Titanic dream). Below that was a bolt, and I knew I probably needed a tool I hadn’t found yet.

Still, that wasn’t quite enough to set off a chain reaction, but passing through the lizard-sacrifice dream again, I tried on a whim HOLD BREATH (the shrub didn’t do anything, but maybe…?)

The hole was frustratingly non-responsive to commands, but enough plodding led me to insert the mirror in it and get light to bounce inside. A rumbling started, and I tried to WAIT to see what would happen but then the whole sequence just aborted! I figured the parser wasn’t worth tangling with here and went straight for a walkthrough which revealed I needed to LISTEN, which is really the same thing as WAIT, but… well, let’s just move on with the result: some meat and a comic book. The meat I figured could go for the hungry tiger who kept tearing me apart in the pre-historic area:

(This is where everything speeds up.)

I was able to throw the meat and the tiger ran off after it, letting me open the chest. The chest had a screwdriver (dream logic, fine) which I immediately toted over to the Titanic (after going through the death cycle again twice) and used to get the painting off the wall.

This yielded up a small key, which I then took immediately over to the locked toolbox I remembered being stuck on and got a wrench.

The wrench I then took back to the bolt in the statue, which after I turned it caused the statue to fall over; you get “thrown free” and land on top of a gold key.

I wasn’t sure where else to go, but I decided “gold key” felt fairly final (and the counselor suggested the father — who the statue is of — being the “key to your insanity”) so I went back to the original Institute area and wandered a little, finding the Counselor was out.

There was a locked door now, which the gold key worked on, and victory.

Creators of art in a new medium don’t have much to go on; they can peer sideways at other works and peer forward at blackness and try to spill light in the right directions, but to make art that really says something in a deep and enduring sense requires some luck.

The Institute did start off promising; the hints of hidden background, the drug-induced mechanism for dreams, the dystopian atmosphere, the Counselor who was there to “help” but you also had to keep attacking, and later get to shoot themselves while in dream form.

The very premise gave lots of leeway for adventure-game oddness while opening a gap for profundities and revelations. Neither was reached. I wouldn’t say this is just from the ending — which essentially gave up the steam of narrative, surprisingly so given the prior Pearson games — but random puzzle after random puzzle just didn’t add to anything. I was expecting maybe the live father to show up and have a conversation, so we could find out what all the references were about, and maybe some of the items would have secondary meetings, but no, sometimes a scalpel is just a scalpel and a statue is just a statue.

As the screenshot hints, yes, there’s more Pearson to come. Lucifer’s Realm involves going into Hell to stop Adolf Hitler from raising an army to organize a coup over Lucifer. Some stores apparently refused to carry it? So that’s promising, but we’ll have to wait until 1982 to see it — which is getting very close, about 7 games to go before I wrap up 1981.

Posted October 17, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Institute: SOCIETY MUST BE PROTECTED FROM YOU   2 comments

(Continued from my previous post)

I had roughly the right ideas last time, but the Pearson parser remains ever-finicky.

I’m still puzzling over how many of the odd tendencies are things One Could Get Used To, and how many are truly bad design. To compare with a later game, Graham Nelson’s Jigsaw (from 1995) requires you in at least one spot to LOOK UNDER an object. Early on (before the moment where the command is required), there’s a rolling piano seat, and you can find something underneath if you MOVE or ROLL it. This gives an early hint that needing to LOOK UNDER things is required, but since it’s not a requirement, there’s still a little bit of ambiguity and the later moment can easily be missed. At the time it was written, LOOK UNDER was kind-of-standard but not really? I remember complaints at the time. Note that SEARCH, EXAMINE, and LOOK UNDER all gave different messages:

The vestry once held surplices. Today, it holds a surplus. Debris, broken furniture, blown-in leaves, panes of dusty glass and mildewed cloth, all unwanted.

There’s even an old Victorian piano stool, but no sign of a piano.

>search stool
You can’t see inside, since it is closed.

>look under stool
There’s a charcoal pencil underneath the stool.

>examine stool
An old wheeled piano stool, wide and tall, with a hinged and padded seat.

The Pearson standard list of verbs has LOOK UNDER. I had tried it early (LOOK UNDER BED) but hadn’t seen anything and forgot about it — the message was IT DOESN’T SEEM TO WORK. Later, I tried it again, but just typing it as LOOK UNDER — the parser usually takes verbs only, and that especially feels natural when the parser is mostly a two-word one. (There’s even a bit later where you are forced to break a command into two parts, like Scott Adams, rather than type all four words as one phrase.) Yet, it turns out at the bed at the very start, if you wait until after the dwarf leaves, you can LOOK UNDER BED to find a mug.

What elements of me being caught by this are “my fault”, so to speak? I was cued in already to the possibility of LOOK UNDER, but that was only because it showed up somewhere in a previous Pearson game (I’m not even remembering where, exactly); there’s no “training moment” like in Jigsaw. I did make a full LOOK UNDER BED but apparently it was too early. Later, it changed — is it really fair that it changed? Certainly “IT DOESN’T SEEM TO WORK” feels like it is being in reference to the action itself, not that there was nothing useful to see. Jigsaw also had the virtue of being a full-sentence parser where it feels normal to type three words, whereas the Pearson parser breaks open 3+ words only in special cases, and really doesn’t seem to “understand” such sentences.

…that was a bit long for just one moment. In any case, I found a mug, which I took over to the padded room from last time (the one I got to by using ATTACK on the counselor) because I had meanwhile found another secret via a Pearson tendency.

Even though there isn’t any particular reason to, LISTEN will reveal a dripping sound. You can then LOOK DRIPPING to find there is water. I previously didn’t have a way to get the water, but DROP MUG lets the mug start filling with water, and you can wait to get thrown out of the room and the mug stays behind (the staff is very on top of some things and very apathetic about others). Then, you can go back and attack the counselor again which gets you tossed in the same padded cell excepted this time the mug is full of water.

From here you (and I) can go on to finally quaff the red powder from last time, but before I do that I’m going to mention another action in the padded cell — I found this rather later in my gameplay but I’d rather get this out of the way. I had theorized last time, remember, of taking a sharp object in the cell. I found a SCALPEL by doing LOOK SHELVES a second time at the place I found the bottle at before (yet another Pearson tendency, repeat those commands until they run dry, and then repeat them a little more just in case) and tried to CUT WALL and CUT PAD and STAB WALL and the like but got nowhere. I eventually found out from a walkthrough I could CUT PADDING (even though the actual word “padding” doesn’t show up in that form in the game, it simply mentions a “padded cell”) and get a rope that was useful later.

Enough noodling around, it’s dreaming time. Grabbing the bottle with the red powder and holding the water from the mug, I could finally EAT RED POWDER.

Just as a heads up, this gets very dense; this is a dream where anything can happen and while there is continuity of landscape, characters can block your progress without anything resembling motivation.

To the east there’s a cliff, which you can climb using the rope and find a telescope. Then you can LOOK TELESCOPE to find it out of focus, and see the Earth.

In yet another Pearson tendency (a good or bad one?) you can keep LOOKing at deeper and deeper levels, LOOK EARTH lets you see continents, LOOK CONTINENTS lets you see a metropolis, LOOK METROPOLIS lets you see a tall building, LOOK BUILDING reveals a billboard on the roof, and LOOK BILLBOARD finally gets a code (which I haven’t used yet).

Heading back the other way to the starting room, you find a corpse that wasn’t there before:

I haven’t been able to do anything with him yet.

Going through my standard rigamarole, I was able to LISTEN to hear a willow whispering, and talk to it where it asks where I am from. SAY INSTITUTE causes it to reveal a stair going down.

There’s the Counselor from the “real” world, who, as part of his speech, repeats the line


Since he does what you ask, you can ask him to SHOOT the gun he’s holding and he’ll disappear


After this encounter comes a stream with an owl.

The plaque referred to here is in the “real” world with the inmates, which says PEACE = DEATH. It will be useful in a moment.

By drinking the water, your skin changes color:


South of the river is a statue (LOOK BASE reveals a tube of glue) where if I say the magic word I learned from the inmates last time (SHAFLA) a door is revealed. I didn’t make any progress otherwise so I assumed a key was somewhere.

Then there’s an encounter with the fellow above, who the game describes as — slur warning — as a “midget”. To be fair, this isn’t like the Earthquake San Francisco 1906 situation; it is quite possible circa 1981 not to know; here’s Roger Ebert in 2005 being informed for the first time the word is derogatory in regards to a review of Death to Smoochy.

In any case, he demands to know what death means, which you must respond with PEACE. This inspires him to the try to start kicking and punching, and you just need to attack back to dispatch of him. Dream logic, yeesh.

The next encounter is a log where CLIMB for some reason is the right verb (but I was used to it from, you guessed it, other Pearson games) except you slip, as shown above. You can take the glue before and either PUT GLUE followed by ON SHOES or simply use GLUE SHOES. (The full phrase PUT GLUE ON SHOES doesn’t work. Also note that shoes never actually show up as an inventory item.)

I finally became horribly stuck on a green man.

He kills you if you try to enter. In dream land this causes you to exit the dream, which isn’t necessarily bad! — and I’m guessing there’s other parts where you want to die. However, I still kept with the current dream and tried various contortions to get through, before I finally resorted to checking hints again.

Remember the river that changes your body’s color? If you keep drinking (remember, in Pearson-world, keep repeating things!) your body turns red, then back to blue, back again to red, back yet again to blue (you’d think you could stop here, but no), green, blue, red, blue, red, bright green. Green is useful, but bright green is really the useful one, as the bright glowing lights up rooms to helps solve a second puzzle later.

Being green is sufficient for the green guard to let you by. While I was hitting the hints, I also found out that after I had crossed the log, I could GO LOG (!) and find a SHOVEL and COPPER KEY hidden away. The key was enough to get inside the locked door from earlier…

…but I couldn’t find anything there (the room was all one color and hard to see) so I moved on to the area past the green man.

The village have other green men, and a hut with someone who calls himself RUDY BEGA…

I assume this is a specific reference, but I’m too exhausted at the moment to figure out what it is.

…and a dark shack where you can find a toolbox as long as you’re glowing.

Locked, can’t open it yet.

Finally there’s wall with a “dark hole” containing an “oracle”.

Using the right item (from my last post, I’ll let you work it out) broke open a crack I could enter and then wake up and exit the dream without dying.

I don’t know if there’s something superior to this method of exit than just dying.

To recap the open threads, because that only vaguely resembled a narrative, I still have to investigate:

– the corpse, who might just be there for plot reasons
– the room inside the statue that’s all one color and hard to see in
– if there’s something useful to do with Rudy Bega
– some way of opening the tooolbox

I suspect that I’ll need to visit other dreams and loop back. Just to be clear, all items carry over, so these aren’t entirely self-contained areas. I additionally yet have to use the code I found from the telescope.

Once I got out of the dream I went back to the red powder to try eating it again. I found three more dreams this way before looping back to the original one, but I haven’t explored yet. Some screenshots to close things out, though:

Posted October 14, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Institute (1981)   4 comments

The duo of Jyym Pearson and Robyn Pearson finish off 1981 (finally!) with The Institute. Will Moczarski calls it a near-masterpiece so we’re likely in for a ride.

Rather than Adventure International, this game was originally published by Med Systems as text-only (for both TRS-80 and Atari computers), and after Med Systems switched to being Intelligent Statements, Inc. (trademark filed July 13, 1982) they published a Commodore 64 version of the game sometime that year (probably text-only, see image above). The next year they published graphical versions for Apple, Commodore 64, and Atari using the name Screenplay. (Screenplay is listed as a trademark owned by Intelligent Statements, even though the trademark on Intelligent Statements itself was listed as abandoned in 1984, so I’m not totally sure what’s going on other than possibly bad handling of paperwork.)

I’m playing with the Apple II version.

It hasn’t been that long since I tackled a Pearson game (see Saigon) but there’s a general style and rhythm where once you get used to it the Pearson games are easier to solve. For example, using LISTEN in all locations, applying LOOK not just generally but to what seem like “location objects” that otherwise can’t be referred to, and being prepared to use movement verbs like CLIMB when otherwise not prompted to.

The premise, from a 1983 version of the manual:

Trapped in a mysterious “Institute”, you know that you are not mad, and yet many of your fellow inmates are. The Freudian solution to your entrapment becomes a series of vivid dreams, induced by a strange powder. Each of the dreams takes place in a different location, making the adventure actually five adventures in one. Each location contains objects and information that you must use in other places in order to escape. You may actually have to let yourself be killed in order to escape one dream and proceed to another.

Promising! The prior Pearson games had issues where the heavily linear structure led to some obnoxious softlocks (Escape from Traam in particular) and we’ve seen with other games from this era that splitting into smaller areas has often made for stronger games.

The credits are incidentally slightly different on this one (not surprising given the change in company)

Written and Produced by Jyym and Robyn Pearson
Programmed by Norm Sailer and Jyym Pearson
All graphics created with the aid of: THE COMPLETE GRAPHICS SYSTEM by PENGUIN SOFTWARE
Illustrated by Rick Incrocci

The graphics have a new illustrator, which starts to be obvious when you see people.

You start awakening in a bed unable to move, and a dwarf enters that you can TALK to.

After the conversation, you can GET UP and walk around.

You can break off a piece of the mirror, descibed as SHINY. I haven’t used it yet.

There’s not much accessible at first. There’s a room with a bottle of mysterious red powder, but if you try to walk away with it you get stopped by a guard and tossed back in your room. You can duck into a closet and try to eat the powder but it “sticks in your mouth”.

There’s a room full of inmates — and this is where the improved art starts to be more obvious —

and you can TALK here multiple times to get clues like the one above. I haven’t gotten anywhere with SAY SHAFLA, but I assume that gets tucked away for later. The most useful message otherwise seems to be:


Well, I can try to oblige that request at least. The third thing easily accessible is the “Counselor”.


Trying to ATTACK does get a reaction: you get tossed in a padded cell. I haven’t found anything useful here. Maybe smuggle in something sharp at tear at the walls? I have gone through the requisite LOOK and LISTEN regiment but it is hard to miss things anyway.

Posted October 11, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Chinese Puzzle (1981)   2 comments

From Atarimania.

This is the last of the APX titles, and just like Sultan’s Palace, it is by Dennis Koble.

After Sprint 2, Dennis Koble worked on Dominoes, one of the family of Snake-like games. The first such game was the RCA game Mines in 1975, but it was only run as a location test. The first fully released arcade game with the concept was Gremlin’s Blockade, released November 1976. The first clone (Bigfoot Bonkers) was exactly a month later, and Atari’s clone came a month after that. The early arcade industry was thick with ripoffs.

Mr. Koble mentions in an interview that he felt his text adventure games were “inappropriate for the public” but APX needed titles so he let them have the games to “help them build their initial base of available software.”

My game and the Chinese Puzzle Adventure (published via APX), and possibly the other ones too, were based on an “Adventure” system someone wrote in order to create a modular text-based adventure system. Basically it allowed anyone to create a text set and a logical road map as it were to make their own adventure. We were all very familiar at that point with Zork and so a number of us used that system to create our own fun adventures. I don’t think any of us ever actually thought of using it for a commercial game or anything but we had fun creating them.

The Chinese puzzle game I designed was never actually intended to be “fun”, believe it or not. My goal when I created it was to create the most difficult text-based adventure game ever. It was never intended to be marketed, either.

The internals of this game are entirely an abstract puzzle with no pretense of plot whatsoever, which is oddly prescient, since that makes it the sort of thing that would be entered into IFComp* circa 1995 but definitely doesn’t have good comparisons circa 1981. (A more recent comparable set of games might be the Hard Puzzle Trilogy.)

You have been drugged by a Chinese madman to find yourself locked in a suite of rooms.

That’s it. The whole plot. There’s intended reference to Chinese puzzle boxes and the ultimate riddle of the game. It is “slightly dodgy” on the Asian-stereotype-meter but nothing in the content indicates the game has Issues; whoever did the ad copy for Atari, though, went all-in:

You’ll need patience, endurance, and an understanding of the clever Oriental mind to win your freedom.

Ugh. We can wave the Atari catalog away as non-canon and just consider the game itself, which is super-minimal in nearly every way.

Going south enough times loops back to the starting “3-Room”: same with going east and up. The only exception is down from the starting room, which opens up after fulfilling the conditions to win.

This is the entirety of the map, with most of the rooms just being a color.

This room is blue.

You start in a “3-Room”; going down is blocked and is the exit. To get to the exit you need to say three words in three particular places (this is not clear until you succeed).

Out in the open there’s a “crystal”

and a “Chinese ideogram”

but no other items to start, and there’s only one more to find.

There’s no indicator or reasoning behind what color room does what, you pretty much have to experiment everywhere, although the game at least gives you a smallish number of verbs to pick from upon typing HELP:


The general intent — if there really is one past this being a programming exercise that escaped into the wild, more or less — seems to be to treat the parser interface itself as a puzzle. You need to test out the items in various rooms and use error messages as clues. For example, DROP CRYSTAL it most rooms gets the message DROPPED followed by THERE IS NO EFFECT HERE. There isn’t a game-translated-into-real-life reason for the “no effect” feedback, but the intent is to clue in that the room the item is being dropped in is checked, and if dropped in the correct place, there will be an effect. Namely, at the “black room”:

Again, there doesn’t seem like something remarkable happening, but the knowledge that a special-coded message occurred means that something did happen, so the next thing to do is recheck the map for changes. Not far away, back in the white room, a box has appeared.

If you redo the process and drop the crystal in the black room again at any time, the box teleports back here.

Trying to READ BOX and TURNOVER BOX gets the message YOU HAVEN’T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET, a clue that there’s some sort of game flag that needs to be set. In past APX games we’ve looked at this ambiguity was sometimes fuzzy as to what, exactly, the obstacle was (a locked door? a magnetic field?) but here it leans into the ambiguity as something intentional: you are never told what the flag is, you just have to keep experimenting in each room until you get something useful to happen. Incidentally, READ and TURNOVER in anywhere other than the White Room just gets THAT HAS NO EFFECT HERE.

With box in hand, you can go back to the Yellow Room (for no particular reason) and drop the IDEOGRAM and READ it.

This is the first of the “code words” that needs to be said to win. Going to the Red Room and typing SAY CHINA gets


If you go back, pick up, and drop the IDEOGRAM (without reading it) you can head back to the White Room and now do TURNOVER BOX

After getting the Russia keyword, for some reason now the China one works! You can go back to the Red Room to use it:

Ah yes. One of the big 3.

This might be enough to figure out what the third mystery word is (it is in fact possible to bypass the “puzzle” that reveals it — you need to get the game in the state where you can OPEN BOX rather than TURNOVER BOX). I think I’ve made my general point about how nonsense the gameplay flow gets, so I’m just going to quote the complete walkthrough from Dale Dobson, who resorted to studying the source code.

1. DROP IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room (sets flag 4:1)
2. TURNOVER BOX in the White Room (requires 4:1, sets 4:2)
3. SAY CHINA in the Red Room (requires 4:2, sets 3:1 which is never required)
4. TAKE IDEOGRAM and DROP IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room again (resets to 4:1)
5. OPEN BOX in the White Room (requires 4:1, sets 4:4)
6. READ IDEOGRAM in the Yellow Room (requires box in hand, sets 4:3)
7. SAY RUSSIA in the Blue Room (requires 4:3, sets 4:6)
8. SAY U.S.A. in the Green Room (requires 4:6, sets 2:1)

After this gloriously sensible sequence, the exit below the starting room is unblocked and you can reach victory.

I’ll call this game “accidentally innovative”. If you asked someone in 1981 to sit down and write an adventure to be published, I don’t see any universe where anything in the ballpark of this game would emerge. It just happens this was more of the author playing around and it got published anyway. I’d be like if you went back in time, recorded Mozart banging variants of a C-major chord 10 times in a row as a joke, and published it, proving that Mozart invented minimalism 200 years early.

Or if you prefer something that actually happened, this painting of J.S. Bach has him holding an actual piece of music, Canon triplex a 6, BWV 1076, but by necessity of it fitting on a sliver of a painting it sounds like something Terry Riley would write in the 1960s.

(*) As of this writing, IFComp 21 has started. You can sort by “choice”, “parser”, and “other” this time if you fancy only a particular kind of game, and voting is open to anyone.

Posted October 8, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Sultan’s Palace (1981)   3 comments

From Atarimania.

That rainbow cover can only mean one thing: we’re back to the Atari Product eXchange (APX) series from Atari, and one of the text adventures made using their slightly dodgy in-house engine and where the games were more or less written as private flights of fancy and then dropped on the APX catalog in order to fill in space. (More background about this is at my writeup on Wizard’s Revenge, the only one of the text adventures to be written by an outside party.)

This is one of the two APX games by Dennis Koble, whose Atari credits go back all the way to 1976 with Sprint 2.

From Flyerfever. Kee Games was Atari. Atari made their own competitor. Quoting Nolan Bushnell: “I wanted world domination, and it turns out that there are two coin-op [game] distributors in every city. One would have Gottlieb pinballs, one Williams. We had chosen the best distributors, but the [distributors] who didn’t have the Atari brand were doing everything they could to spawn a competitor. So I thought, let’s make that happen.” The jig was up after 1974 but they still kept making games under their own name for a while.

This also has the distinction of being the only game from Atari reviewed in The Dirty Book, volume 2, number 1 alongside other titles like Zesty Zodiacs, Dirty Old Man, and Softporn Adventure (the latter being a game we still need to get to). Yes, this one was advertised as being Slightly Naughty.

The notorious Sultan Abdul has abducted the sheik’s daughter, Princess Fatima, and is holding her captive while he arranges for the wedding. Gallantly, you accept the distraught father’s plea to rescue the princess from Abdul’s pleasure palace … This is an R-rated Adventure. The verbs are the usual ones, but how they combine with certain objects makes the result quite provocative. This version also has many humorous comments.

As typical for APX games, this has a very limited verb set; including the usually TAKE (no GET) and DROP, you can WAVE, RUB, OPEN, LISTEN, GIVE, ASK, and SAY. (The imaginary verbs TURNON and TURNOFF that are particular for the Atari games are here, but there’s no items they go to.)

Also as typical, some of the room descriptions stylized in quite a particular way —

You have entered the Palace and many doors await you.
You have but to choose.

— by what I mean, is they have an odd informality that doesn’t always bother describing exactly but instead try to get across a mood. This is bad in an interface sense (you have to test every room exit, they are almost never described in this game) but allows for some moments of narrative atypical in a 1981 game:

Room exits do have a way of making it difficult to be poetic.

Now, alas, all this is buried in what was surely just an Atari internal whim of a game.

Most of the game’s map, excluding a small mirror maze and underground area.

The protagonist inventory start off empty, except for a pair of pants. I started making a map and scooping up a bunch of items out in the open: a golden lamp, …

… a jar, a pillow, some peacock eyes …

You have to use PEACOCK EYES in full to refer to the noun here.

… a carpet, a “wizened head”…

… and a jeweled dagger. I a ran across a “Fountain Garden” with a closed copper door, a “Concubine’s Quarters” with Salome (who you can take along with you, and doesn’t demand your head on a platter, but more on that in a second), a Harem Room where you get dragged down by “sex starved lovelies” and have to eat peacock eyes to get the strength to escape, and a “Sultan’s Bedchamber” where I knew one of the exits was blocked off because when I tested going WEST the game told me — in the ambiguous way of the APX library — SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY.

A bit more wandering and I realized DROP PANTS had an odd effect:


Ah-ha! Given the promised content of the game, this ought to have an effect somewhere. Indeed it does, in the Palace Guards Brothel, where for some reason a woman does “unmentionable acts” while saying the word SHAZAM.

This word is for the copper door, but it isn’t quite useful yet — the game says you need to have something else for it to work — the something else turns out to be the princess you’re rescuing. A bit more searching and I found that Salome, who I was still toting around along with the dagger, jar, etc, says the word SESAME if you ASK SALOME while in the Sultan’s Bedchamber. One OPEN SESAME later:

Waving the jeweled dagger somehow works here (ATTACK, THROW, and the like aren’t even verbs).

The Hydra recognizes the jeweled dagger as belonging to its master and in its confusion moves out of your way.

This leads to an underground corridor with a more or less straightforward walk to the princess, with a boulder blocking the way.

The “you must do something gain her trust” is pretty interesting — one of the items I’ve described already works (LAMP, SALOME, CARPET, JAR, HEAD, DAGGER, PANTS, PILLOW, SCIMITAR) — can you guess which one?

The Princess now likes you and will go with you.

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, from 1507-1509, by Andrea Solario.

So, to break this down, this is simultaneously

a.) impressing a woman with a head picked off from a “Chamber of Horrors” with “objects of ghouldom”

b.) a reference to the story of Salome, who (at the coaxing of her mother) requested the head of John the Baptist from King Herod

c.) the sex pun

d.) a weird out-of-body experience, given Salome can still be in the protagonist’s inventory when giving over the head, and then they can carry both Salome and the Princess at the same time.

With the princess rescued, the word SHAZAM works to leave to victory.

The Orientalizing was uncomfortable, the sexual references were just odd. I’m not sure to whether to be impressed or horrified. The Dirty Book was not impressed: “very mild inspite of the enticing advertising and promotion”.

At the least, this was a window into what the computer industry was like when they didn’t bother screening content or doing any bug-testing whatsoever. We’ve only got one APX game left to go (Chinese Puzzle) by the same author, so we should enjoy (“enjoy” ?) the slightly askew products while we can.

(Thanks to Kate Willaert who pointed out the existence of The Dirty Book, and writes things at A Critical Hit!)

Posted October 3, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Arrow of Death Part 1: Finished!   5 comments

(Reading my prior posts on this game is necessary for this one to make sense.)

I didn’t have much left to go before finishing. Really, with the exception of the rather strange last puzzle, everything was a matter of figuring out the parser.

First off, only 5 minutes after I made my last post, I realized that while holding the log I could GO FLUME and the ride would begin. I assumed you sat down the log and got on it, which seems reasonable, but I guess not. This leads shortly to a beach with a cliff, which you can climb to find a mighty eagle.

With the sighting of Feathers I realized this was the second “ingredient” in my Arrow of Death; I had the arrowhead already, and with feathers I just needed the shaft. However, I was completely and totally unable to interact with either the eagle or the feathers other than — rather unhelpfully — I could kill the eagle with my sword, causing it to disappear.

Frustrated, I went back to the other part I had verb trouble with — the chained slave — and once again found immediate success. I tried FREE SLAVE which instructed me to CUT his CHAINS, so I suppose it’s a really firm sword I’ve been toting around.

Once you free the slave he will follow you. Heading up to the boulder that had me stumped, trying to MOVE BOULDER told me that I received some help, and it opened up a cave.

That’s all that was in the cave. Nothing magic or even new information — I already knew I needed feathers! I spent a long time trying to SEARCH CAVE and the like but even the noun CAVE wasn’t recognized.

Bouncing around futily trying to examine things for the nth time, I went back to the eagle and tried another crack at extract feathers. Here I was saved by my “verb list” procedure I had gone through earlier…

…and I realized, off of my “rare” verbs in the far right column, that PLUCK worked. (I first added it back when playing Vial of Doom and later used it in Ulysses and the Golden Fleece. It has shown up in no other games so far.) PLUCK FEATHERS not only put feathers in my inventory but got the Eagle to fly me to a new area.

And then … I’d like to describe some fabulous adventures here, but it seems like the author ran out of space, or gave up? There’s a brook you pass by…

…there’s a hut with a dead dwarf that has a silver medallion…

…a lot of random grassy locations with nothing…

…and a Cellar with a MASTER FLETCHER. I assumed that after collecting the shaft for the arrow I would be returning here.

Finally, past a marsh, I encountered a willow, and immense parser frustration.

The Guardians of the Willow are the final obstacle for the game, but I have no idea what they even look like! They prevent the action CUT WILLOW without any details. All I know is I was able to take the silver medallion I just got a few minutes before, and throw it; they chased the medallion, distracted.

Chase Medallion!

Then I was able to CUT WILLOW and get the last piece of the Arrow, and the game ended, informing me to continue the story in Part 2. Not even a scene returning to the Fletcher and assembling the arrow, booooo.

You can now make the Arrow

I think the one thing this game emphasized for me is just how solid the original Scott Adams games are. Now, I had legions of complaints, of course, but I never felt like I was in a scenario where an item was in the room description that couldn’t be referred to, or where I circled for an hour finding the right verb rather than using any kind of logical reasoning. (They had their own, unique problems, mind you, but just not in implementation.) I do strongly get this was possibly Brian Howarth doing the ports from his original TRS-80 games in haste, really wanting to get back to writing new games.

At least the slightly askew ZX Spectrum graphics grew on me. They’re not traditionally pretty, but they’re trying their best. As an aside, I tried out the Z-machine z6 conversion using Frotz, and it lets you see the room description and room graphic on the same page as you play; it made the static nature of the graphics seem a touch more sensible, as I never had a situation where I would read text and then switch to graphics to see a scene that did not resemble the text much; having them both delivered at the same time made the issue feel less irritating.

An example. There’s supposed to be a chained slave here, but I’m honestly not sure what I’m looking at.

I confess this just wasn’t as strong as The Time Machine, and at least Golden Baton had a memorable ending. I’ll just save overall judgment until part 2, I suppose, but that will have to wait until sometime in 1982; I’ll keep with the ZX Spectrum for when I get back to the worlds of Howarth, and his first game that was written solely for the Scott Adams database system.

Posted September 28, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Arrow of Death Part 1: The Edge of an Awesome Precipice   11 comments

(Continued directly from my last post.)

The VIC-20 Digital Leisure version of Arrow of Death Part 1, which was cut by the author into 8K, half the size of the original. Howarth was “persuaded somewhat against his will” into doing the arrangement and “felt he was cheating the people who were buying the games”. (Source.) Source from Gareth Pitchford, picture via @AgentReyes2 on Twitter.

A bit of progress over last time. I carefully re-re-re-checked each room and found that in the opening courtyard in the game if I did LOOK COURTYARD I would find a rope. This happened in the Kitchen as well (with a hook) but rather frustratingly, the actual syntax doesn’t even work elsewhere: LOOK THRONE in the Throne Room gives an error-type message, the same as LOOK VAULT in the Vault. It came off as a pointless bit of bad UI — someone could easily have “trained” themselves that the syntax didn’t work at all before finding any items — moreso than a well-hidden secret.

I was able to use the rope with the hook and attach them together, put the hook in at the top of the ledge, climb down to the armor, tie the armor up, and then drag it up by pulling the rope back at the top of the ledge.

This let me go into the dark cave (shown above, even before it gets revealed in the game) with armor on, and able to survive walking into darkness. After some thought, I retrieved the orb that showed the cave and rubbed it again while inside the darkness, and it lit up showing a serpent. Multiple whacks of my sword were sufficient to take the serpent down, and I was able to retrieve an arrowhead after the fight. I assume this is a piece of the titular Arrow.

Nearby the cave location in the TRS-80 version is this precipice. It doesn’t serve any puzzle-solving purpose so I can understand why it was cut from the more minimal remake, but I still liked the cinema of it.

I thought I’d have opened up more areas by solving what I did, but I was at a dead end. Another combing through all the rooms, and this time, while in the forest and frustrated…

…I decided to try out the hint that the beggar had earlier (“when all seems lost, WAIT”). I assumed previously this clue meant WAIT was intended to be tried out in some location that felt like a dead-end (like the Cave which had the serpent) but apparently it was really intended for the forest. Using WAIT teleported me to a new location, where there was a riverbank and a barge with a ferryman. The Ferryman held his hand out — and the amulet I found off the Messenger had a picture of a barge — so I GAVE AMULET which was sufficient to get passage.

This led me to a new area with a ruined forest, a chained slave in a clearing (who can’t talk to or interactive with via any verbs I’ve tested, an apparent dead end at a rock wall, some toadstools, a large boulder (I’m not strong enough to carry it), a “cookhouse” for some giants, and a giant building.

If you try to enter the giant building you “trip” and give yourself away to giants living within.

The “cookhouse” has a cauldron with broth. You can take the toadstools and POISON CAULDRON (not any verb referring the toadstools themselves, which would be the usual thing) leave, and then somehow in the interim between leaving the cookhouse and going to the main giant building the giants have quaffed the poison so you can safely walk in.

This leads to an upper level with a log and a log flume. Any attempts to drop the log on the flume and ride it or otherwise get it moving have been denied by the parser.

So to summarize, I’m stuck on:

a.) the log/flume part, which may just need the right verb to get the two to do anything together

b.) the chained slave part, which may just need the right verb to interact (I don’t otherwise have a key or something helpful in breaking a chain)

c.) a heavy boulder, which I might assume I need to enlist a giant for except I knocked them out already (was that a mistake?)

d.) and a dead-end rock wall which I again have found no luck with

At least progress is progress, but it is frustrating knowing what might be stopping is getting the right phrasing (POISON as a verb took me a while, for sure).

Posted September 27, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Arrow of Death Part 1 (1981)   3 comments

From Mobygames.

Previous Brian Howarth games: The Golden Baton, The Time Machine.

This is, as far as I can find from records, the last of the Mysterious Adventures to have a unique TRS-80 version. Just as a reminder (or if you haven’t read my prior entries) the original TRS-80 versions were rather more verbose than the later versions, which were re-written (and later, freshly-designed) to run using the Scott Adams database system. This led to some scenarios where it was easier to solve a puzzle on one version of the game than the other; I simultaneously ran the BBC Micro and TRS-80 versions and hopped back and forth when I was stuck.

I’ll do relatively the same here, but with more emphasis on the minimal version, for two reasons:

1.) Since Part 2 (coming in 1982) will be the ultra-minimal style, I’d rather have my Part 1 gameplay be somewhat comparable.

2.) Due to the recent passing of Sir Clive Sinclair, in his honor I wanted to play this game using the ZX Spectrum version of the game.

By playing on the ZX Spectrum I also can show graphics, but since I have yet to show ZX Spectrum graphics on this blog and not everyone has yet experienced the joys, I need to explain: they look strange for a technical reason. Here, for example, is the title screen for one of the best of the ZX Spectrum games:

This screen does a good job hiding the tech problem, but if you look at the “S” you may notice there is a portion where the white “bleeds over” into the yellow.

Zoomed in. I’ve circled the relevant spot.

This is because, on any given 8 by 8 tile on the ZX Spectrum, only two colors are allowed. So you could have white on black or yellow on black but not white, black, and yellow all the in the same area. This led to lots of clever and not-so-clever tricks of mitigation, and on some games it is clear the authors just gave up and let the colors go wild.

Screenshot from the academic paper Arcade Colour, Illustration and Attribute Clash 1979 – 89 if you want to read about the effect in more detail.

I give all this intro to avoid confusion. I gather my older European audience is just used to this and are waiting patiently for the main show to start, but I assure you for someone not raised on such graphics it looks like there might be some sort of graphical error. Here is the first screen to Arrow of Death Part 1:

This is why, for example, the black lines to the right have interruption around the white, since there’s a portion that is set to show only yellow and white.

The story picks up from The Golden Baton, where the magical gizmo in the title which brings magical prosperity was returned (by yourself) to the Palace of Ferrenuil. An evil spell descends on the kingdom and the Baton, which had previously “shone with a brilliance far surpassing that of ordinary Gold” has now become “dull and tarnished” and and anyone nearby now feels “an almost tangible feeling of hatred for living, growing things.”

The king’s sorcerer, Zardra, tries to study the baton, but has been missing for three days, and there have been screams and flashes of lightning from the castle.

You return to the palace, with a messenger, and the plot picks up — with an interesting jump hinting at a hidden event — at the Courtyard of the palace, with the messenger dead for some unknown reason:

The “text description” screen and graphics screen are separated where you can switch by hitting ENTER, just like many games at the time. The interface “locks in” to either one or the other in such a way that the way to play with graphics is to “peek into” the graphics window at each step to see the new room, then switch back since there isn’t enough information without the text. Another odd side effect of this is that there is a death graphical screen, but you almost have to pre-setup to see it, by switching to the graphics window, typing a command (on an unseen object, location exit, etc.) and have the death occur. It’s weirdly like playing blindfolded. In Saigon: The Last Days there was sufficient text with the graphics to get what was going on, plus you would see the graphics initially upon entering a room.

Taking the messenger’s amulet, it is only a few steps in to encounter Zadra and the Baton. Trying to interact with the Baton kills you. Talking to ZARDRA quickly results in his name description becoming ZARDRA (dead):

He gasps and says:
Magical Arrow…Destroy ZERDON..!
He Dies!

Despite there not being that extreme a difference in plots, I found this opening more engrossing than The Golden Baton’s — just the minor action at the start makes the difference — which threw out a bunch of undigested lore before the quest for the Foozle. Here, I’m guessing the Arrow is the Foozle, and then in Part 2 we’ll need to shoot it in the right direction.

Despite the Baton being deadly on even trying to LOOK at it, it is otherwise safe to explore the castle, and I racked up a few items both secret and not-secret:

  • a hook in a Kitchen (the room was otherwise empty, I had to LOOK KITCHEN, just LOOK wouldn’t do it)
  • a suit of armour (wearable)
  • a sword hidden in a secret passage (enterable by turning a Coat of Arms multiple times)
  • a pillow hiding a purse with coins (the pillow can be cut open with the sword)

The Kitchen, with the hidden hook. None of the items shown can be referred to.

The Coat of Arms, which can be turned to open a secret passage. The graphic is entirely static.

There’s a beggar outside the castle, where if you give the coins you get a Glass Orb and a Note.

When all seems lost.. WAIT!

I’m stuck fairly shortly after that.

I can make my way to a “ledge” and climb up, although the armour is too heavy to go up. There’s a cave up top (findable via rubbing the Glass Orb) but entering it is death:

Serpent eats me!

I suspect either a.) there’s some way to shuttle the armour up, in which case it might protect against serpent-eating or b.) some sort of serpent-repellent or c.) a light source I’m missing. There’s also the ever-classic-for-me d.) I missed a room exit but the game is very tight so I doubt I made a mistake, but it wouldn’t be the first time.

If I get stuck for much longer I’ll break out the TRS-80 version for comparison purposes. If nothing else sometimes approaching in a fresh context can help my brain unlock new puzzle-solving ideas, kind of like how if I’m editing a text it helps to switch devices to prevent my eyes from skipping over typos.

Posted September 24, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Saigon: The Final Days: The City Was Dying   4 comments

Suddenly, we were over Saigon, but I couldn’t recognize it. The huge cloud was still overhead, and the lightning added a witches’ brew flavor to the ghostly, blacked-out city. I could see Tan Son Nhut airport only when the lightning flashed. There were several tires scattered throughout the town. More artillery and mortar. More desperate voices on the radio. The city was dying.

— Leader of an A-7 assisting with the final evacuation of Saigon in 1975

I made it to the end. If you haven’t read it yet, you should go to my previous post for context.

From Mobygames.

With “made it to the end” I will say I relied on hints quite a bit, enough so that I’m not going to call out every instance. Let’s just say there were a large number of instances where the parser did not want to cooperate, and one instance where an object I assume is meant to be revealed by LOOKing I could not for the life of me make appear, even after I knew from a walkthrough it existed.

Continuing from before, I was stuck in a scenario where I was penned in by a machine gun nest with a booby trap, a minefield, and a checkpoint. I found a rock I could climb letting me loop back around, but nothing else. Remembering past Pearson games, I tried LISTEN every and found (at a location right before the checkpoint) that there was a whirring sound to the west, past some bushes. Still, I found no way to barge into the bushes or get over, and I even pulled up my old verb chart and tried every single word on the bushes just in case.

It is here I first broke down and checked hints, and found out I had been struck by a case of scene scripting.

You see, if you find the rock and loop back around, nothing has changed. However, if you go listen to the whirring first, and then loop back around to the machine gun nest with the radio:


I think the intended script is that there is a man at the checkpoint that looks like they’re holding the same machete, and you can attract their attention and then flee over the rock so the man investigates, avoiding the minefield but setting off the booby trap. I in fact tried to implement this exact plan (run into the checkpoint, then run back out) but there was no indication that this was going on, and if you stand next to the checkpoint and just wait, nothing happens. It is as if the authors (Jyym and Robyn) had a script in their minds but the world-universe wasn’t fully coded to implement it.

Moving on with the machete, I was able to chop away the bush and hop onto a waiting helicopter just a bit farther along (how the Vietnamese soldiers didn’t notice the helicopter, I don’t know).

This is essentially true, there were large numbers of refugees trying to get into the last days of the evacuation. Evacuation had proceeded all the way through the year but logistics made it slow to implement.

This would be a short game except the helicopter gets downed by rocket fire and crashes. You wake up “PARYLIZED” and the only way to undo this is to use the verb MOVE. (Other verbs which imply motion do not help.) Finally you awake and meet a friendly person, Ming Li:

Out of context the yellow color is kind of shocking (yellow stereotypes of Asians, I mean), but it is the base cover of everyone, including non-Asians.

She offers some food (which has something crawling in it) and then after eating she offers to help you escape. This leads through a sort of “cutscene” where she takes you past the crashed helicopter, then a secret series of caves, then finally pulls a chain to reveal a rope ladder so you can climb up to the main city.

There, you run across soldiers chasing an “escaped prisoner” and shooting. Ming Li dies in the crossfire.

Here I got stuck again for a bit. There’s a warehouse with a door I was able to break down with my machete, and a soldier wanting a pass.

There was a door behind the door (see above) and I was unable to refer to it or see anything new, so I moved on and found that there’s a second pull chain revealing a rope ladder on the top, even though there is no way (as far as I can tell) to see it in the room description. The intent is to re-trace the steps you did before with Ming Li, although it is quite possible to just wing it and map out the underground section, falling into pits along the way.

I mostly remembered the way to go. The section had gone by fast enough I hadn’t made a map.

Backtracking you can find the helicopter again — which you had no time to interact with before — and some binoculars, a wallet (containing a pass) and a revolver. (There’s also VC soldiers in a ravine you need to stay away from.)

Oddly, even though there is a dead US soldier here, you can’t take their uniform (blood soaked or something, I suppose). There is one down in the cave whose uniform you can grab, though.

Heading back and using the pass, I ran into a South Vietnamese soldier who wanted something to help escape.

The uniform works here; then he clears out and allows you in a plaza with refugees.

Before proceeding farther, though, I wanted to loop back to deal with the warehouse. A walkthrough told me there were some WIRES. Maybe it’s easier to get them mentioned in the text-only version? In any case, they can be removed with the pliers from all the way back at the start of the game (they had been used already to undo a snap).

Inside the warehouse is dark, and there’s heavy breathing to the south. If you try to proceed, things explode and you die. The binoculars (which have night vision) let you see a figure.

The right action is then to blast with the revolver. There’s a shovel, dog tags, and a parachute left behind. (The dog tags say A.K.C. REGISTERED and the parachute I never found a user for even though I toted it to the end of the game.) The shovel turns out to be immediately useful … but you have to backtrack a second time to where the helicopter crashed.

The soldiers are gone. Yet another invisible trigger happened, although I don’t know where. A dirt mound is left behind, that you can dig with the shovel and find a corpse in a body bag.

You need to remove the body bag and take it with you, because this is still an adventure game. Ugh. (It’s also very easy to miss this, and the bag isn’t used until the end of the game, so it’s bad both in a player-doing-distasteful-stuff sense and a puzzle sense.)

Speaking of the player doing distasteful things, the next destination is back to the plaza with refugees, where on the south side there is a South Vietnamese soldier with a tank. He warns you to leave. It’s revolver time:

It’s plausible to happen, at least — in the later stages of the Vietnam war there was the practice of “fragging” where soldiers murdered officers they didn’t like, usually with grenades. This still feels like Escape from Traam where you randomly kill a human even though they aren’t actively stopping you.

If you then wait a beat, the refugees come in a mob and tear you apart. Maybe this should be the canonical ending. But assuming you want to continue after blasting one of your allies for no good reason, you hop into the tank, and drive it all the way through a wooden wall into a river.

Swimming to shore you can find a large crowd around a “game” being played where two people put their hands on a “mark”, a cobra is released, and whoever moves their hand off the mark first loses. The winner gets $1000. The loser might be dead from the cobra.

This whole process seems randomly specific, but I don’t know the source. The closest I can think of is the Russian Roulette in the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter.

You can go back in and volunteer to play, winning $1000. However, as you will see in a moment, you need $2000, and if you play a second time, the snake bites. So you need to come back with an edge.

Specifically, not far nearby (after climbing up a pipe and a ladder) you can find this soldier, who wants a bribe in order to pass. If you offer the $1000 he says it isn’t enough.

After this scene (and only after this scene, because narrative railroading) if you talk to a guard at blocked off courtyard…

…he will ask (after doing TALK twice) who sent you? The answer is MING LI.

This takes you into a courtyard with more refugees which doesn’t seem too helpful; there’s a locked door to the south. LISTEN mentions a VOICE IN YOUR HEAD, and you have to LISTEN VOICE and Ming Li will speak to you from the dead:


Key in depth is a cue to go back in the river (the one you swam out of, GO RIVER and the like don’t work, you have to JUMP, because why would communicating anything in this game be easy) and DIVE where you can find a RUSTY KEY. The RUSTY KEY can go back to the courtyard to unlock the door and find an apothecary with a box and some “ampules”.

The ampules automatically spill on your hands. I kept the box through the rest of the game but I don’t know what it does — probably prevents something bad I never saw.

The substance on the hands turns out to be snake repellant, which lets you win the cobra game a second time for another chunk of money. Bribe in hand you can shoo away the soldier past the ladder, and then almost be done with the game…

…and here’s where the body bag comes in. Drop the bag, climb on in, and wait: you’ll be loaded on.

I’m guessing you’ve noticed in my tone I was not impressed with this one. I mean, kind of? Certainly in a raw rating-number-of-stars way, I’d give it pretty low for the clunky parser and tank scene alone. (Not counting the random mystical voice, the vague undercurrent of racism, the premise being ahistorical, etc… ) The art also isn’t helping matters, but the very original 1981 version of this is text-only, so I’ll give that a pass.

In a way, though, I am flabbergasted by the ambition. Go back at my All the Adventures list and look for games that try to be this audacious with plot. The “Interactive Fiction” series like Dragons of Hong Kong, I suppose, but those were meshed firmly in genre. This game really tried to blend classic adventure style with tragedy. People die unexpectedly by gunfire or rocket fire, people you get to have actual conversations with. The main character does odious things to survive; not remarked upon, but given the effort put into the refugees reaction to the murder, it at least is an intentional touch.

Almost nobody, in this era, was actively trying to create adventure game art. They were still getting used to their bearings and copying old formats. (There were still some beautiful strokes, mind you, and I deeply appreciate all of them.) So despite my feelings for this game, I recognize it as historically interesting. Furthermore, we aren’t done with the Jyym/Robyn Pearson duo yet! They even have another game for 1981 (The Institute) which I have heard is very good, so there’s still something to look forward to in their development.

Posted September 19, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Saigon: The Final Days   4 comments

Via Mobygames.

Jyym Pearson continues his busy pace for 1981 (previously: The Curse of Crowley Manor, Escape from Traam, Earthquake San Francisco 1906) and teams up with Robyn Pearson for the first time, with graphical work in a later port again by Norman Sailer.

I intended to play the Apple II edition, just like I did with Jymm Pearson’s prior games, but no Apple II port exists on the Internet, and possibly anywhere. Even though an Apple II port was advertised in a November 1983 ad, a full year later in a December 1984 issue of Compute! the ad takes off the mention of an Apple version while maintaining the Apple being listed on the other related games.

It seems odd that they simply “sold out” of Apple II copies given the other ones still being mentioned. Also note in both the original and new ad the screenshot is given specifically for the Atari version (and all the other screenshots are for Apple II). Maybe there was an unfortunate tech accident and the port just never happened?

The upshot is we are seeing Atari screenshots instead of Apple II ones, which seem to my eye to have muddier color, although that was perhaps intentional given the setting.

As the ad mentioned, the game is set right before the “Fall of Saigon” on April 30, 1975. The US has already been following Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy and all combat forces had been withdrawn by 1973 following the Paris Peace Accords. The action starts with you as a captured prisoner; this isn’t historically realistic as all captured POWs had been released with the withdrawal of combat forces, but 1981 was a year where conspiracy theories about POWs still in Vietnam were still rampant. (This formed the plot of the movie Rambo: First Blood Part II from 1982.) Mashing the theory together with some imagination allows the situation in the game.

Like the previous games, there’s a “text game” window that is entirely separate from the graphical one, and you can swap back and forth. Repeated use of LOOK is necessarily to be able to see everything, and the graphics will sometimes show something before the text does.

Exactly one turn in after starting, a mortar blows up the hut you were trapped in…

…and then you are thrust directly in the quirky world of the Pearson parser. You can LOOK to find a DEAD VIET CONG, then LOOK VIET CONG to find they are wearing a JACKET, then LOOK JACKET to find it has a pocket with a snap. Trying to OPEN SNAP says YOU CAN’T and trying to UNSNAP SNAP says THE SNAP IS STUCK! It is unclear why the message are different, and at no point is anything listed as a “visible item” (that’s only items you can pick up, so we are fortunately not needing to tote round a dead body).

Moving away from the exploded hut is a log by a stream, where PUSH LOG is sufficient to roll it into the stream and form a bridge.

The log isn’t mentioned in the room description without using an extra LOOK command, but since it is visible in the picture I started interacting with it anyway; this makes for one definite difference between playing this version and a text-only one.

Past the bridge is a machine gun nest, where hanging around for long enough gets you killed.

There’s some pliers there, which you can take back to the previously-unopenable-pocket on the dead person to get a grenade and a document which says CODE = WHITE XMAS. (In adventure gamer terms, this is perfectly normal. In a narrative sense by the standard of Vietnam War stories, this is utterly bizarre.)

The grenade is simply described as Russian. The way to use it is to PULL PIN and THROW GRENADE, and now I really need to grump a bit, because the pin is not described at all and the only way it gets acknowledged is that the parser intercepts the custom command PULL PIN (PULL doesn’t even work in other contexts!) I went through various permutations of ARM GRENADE before hitting the correct answer. This is one of those moments that would look perfectly normal on a walkthrough but didn’t work in practice, and again we hit the problem where a “cinematic” style author isn’t thinking carefully enough about the world modeling beneath.

Using the grenade you can blow up the machine gun nest, and then CLIMB up to it.

The radio music as reflected in the document. This was the actual code signal for evacuating Saigon. I don’t know if there’s some in-game ramification or if it is just here for atmosphere.

I tried to TAKE RADIO (I couldn’t) and MOVE RADIO (in case the code meant something) and was rather baffled when I was blown up by a booby trap. Heading back with a saved game, I found the body looked like it was on top of something, and MOVE VIET CONG also blew me up by booby trap. It didn’t make sense for them both to be booby traps, but I realize the parser was simply intercepting any kind of MOVE command as moving the body, providing another object lesson in how slight parser irregularities can cause radical confusion in interpreting the world universe.

Moving on (from possibly a puzzle, or might have just been a trap) you can find a minefield. I could step out into the minefield and have one turn with a mine underfoot before exploding, so it is possible there is some disarmament procedure, but again, I’m not sure; it might just be a trap.

Heading north away from the minefield is a three-room road leading to a Viet Cong checkpoint.

In the middle of the road there is a rock you can climb to get back to the river/log area, but it seems to be a one way trip. I suspected, briefly, that I could pop my head in the checkpoint, run back, crawl up the rock to hide, wait as the Viet Cong pass, and let them accidentally blow themselves up in the minefield, but trying to enter and exit the checkpoint just led to immediate death (as well as several other tricks I’ve tried).

I’ll save talking about the game’s depictions of Asians for when I’ve got farther in. Nothing as egregious as the Chinatown encounter in the last game, yet.

So, to summarize:

1.) I can blow myself up at the radio with a booby trap.

2.) I can blow myself up at the minefield.

3.) I can blow myself up get shot at the checkpoint.

I haven’t found any new items (I’m still toting around those pliers and the document, but that’s it) so I still strongly suspect the rock in the middle of the path is used somehow. The early part of Earthquake San Francisco 1906 had reasonable puzzles; let’s hope the same pattern holds here before things start getting ludicrous (or possibly all the puzzles will be reasonable…?)

Posted September 13, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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