Archive for the ‘Interactive Fiction’ Category

Deadline: Everything Would Be Easier If He Was Dead   3 comments

On July 7, 1982, Marshall Robner worked late into the night, last being seen alive at around 11 PM. In morning, he was found dead of an apparent intentional overdose of medication.

The initial investigator on the case, G. K. Anderson, did a number of interviews of the people in the house with the deceased. First came the wife, who testified she woke in the morning to find her husband was not in bed; she assumed that he had fallen asleep working in the library, but he did not wake when she knocked at the library door. Eventually, Mrs. Dunbar (the housekeeper) and George (the Robner’s son) were awakened by Ms. Robner’s attempts to awaken Marshall. Eventually the police was called with axes. The police broke down the door to find the body of Mr. Robner.

ANDERSON: Did your husband ever talk of suicide?
ROBNER: He did, actually, though I never took it seriously. He would talk about how everything would be easier if he were dead, but when he would start again talking about how he was going to have to keep the business going. I’m…I’m stunned, really.
ANDERSON: Mrs. Robner, do you know of anyone who might have wanted to kill your husband?
ROBNER: Why, no. Of course not. He wasn’t a very friendly man; he was very quiet. But he was a great philanthropist, you know, and everyone that knew him respected him. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt Marshall. Do you really suspect he didn’t commit suicide?
ANDERSON: I don’t suspect anything. I just want to understand what’s happened

The coroner’s report noted a bruise on the left temple, “consistent with falling to the floor from a chair”. There was a blood level of 27mg% for Ebullion, with a fatal dose being from 10-20mg%, and no other “common” drugs were found. (This incidentally suggests “uncommon” drugs are still possible.)

There was massive liver damage (which corresponds with an Ebullion overdose) and 10mg of Ebullion in the stomach. Time of death was sometime between midnight and 2 AM.

There’s a photograph of the crime scene, and I see two things of concern:

Issue #1: the placement of the china. The idea, theoretically, is that Mr. Robner turned around and fell over, and the china fell down along with himself and the chair. Somehow, the saucer ended up underneath the chair, and doesn’t look like it suffered any damage. Was it placed there?

Issue #2: the coroner report mentioned the front left temple. Assuming he turned around and fell forward, hitting the furniture as shown (the chalk outline actually goes underneath, slightly) it seems reasonable he’d have some manner of temple injury, but unless I’m misunderstanding, wouldn’t the damage be to the right temple?

The actual events of the day before, July 7, seem to be (according to the testimony of the housekeeper) that Mrs. Rourke was settled down in her room at 10:30 PM, with everyone on the second floor of the estate except for the secretary Ms. Dunbar, who had just arrived. At around 11 PM Dunbar brought up tea, and was the last (that we currently know of) to see Mr. Robner alive.

DUNBAR: Why, yes. I brought him some tea at about I 1 PM that night. On nights when he expected to work late, he would always expect tea at that hour. I brought him the tea and he asked me to leave. That’s all.
ANDERSON: Did Mr. Robner seem at all upset?
DUNBAR: He did appear quite nervous, but he had been upset for some time, as you know.

Regarding “being upset for some time”, Mr. Robner’s business he had founded was doing badly, and according to an interview with Mr. Baxter (Mr. Robner’s business partner) there was a “drastic plan” to save the business. Jumping ahead a smidge to my first playthrough, Baxter goes into more detail what this means when asked:

Before Marshall died, we agreed that the only reasonable way to protect our interests was to be bought out by a larger company which could then provide us with capital for expansion. I had been talking to people at Omnidyne and we agreed in principle on the terms for such an agreement last week. I’m hopeful that we can close the deal quickly.

Other than the wife, business partner, and secretary, there was an attempt at interviewing the son (George) who was apparently quite wasteful with money and the week before the death Mr. Robner had said he was going to rewrite his will and take George out of it. This had been threatened before but this time was different? Except no new will has surfaced at the time of the start of the game. (This irregularity with the will is why we, the Chief of Detectives, have been summoned in the first place; this was as a favor to Mr. Coates, the lawyer for Mr. Robner.) The interview didn’t go well.

ROBNER: Look, I don’t get what you’re driving at. You find the poor guy dead in his room. The room was locked. His bottle of medicine is nearly empty. What sort of detective are you, anyway?
ANDERSON: I’m doing the asking, if you don’t mind.
ROBNER: Then ask someone else.

By the Laws of Mystery Plots, the most suspicious person at the start is not the one who did it. Even if we back up and ignore the meta, the locked-room plot does seem to be a little past George working alone.

The big problem is: how did the medicine get in Mr. Robner in the first place? A fatal dose was found in the stomach so he really did ingest a lot of the substance, but given only the one (oddly-placed wound) it seems unlikely he could have been “forced” into taking the pills. The tea was detected as clean from Ebullion. Is the substance dissolvable, somehow? I get the impression from what little I’ve played a great deal of the mystery is in howdunnit, and that once that gets entirely resolved, the suspects will get narrowed down by themselves.

Then there’s the locked-room aspect itself. Assuming the housekeeper was telling the truth (admittedly a big assumption in a mystery) then past the secretary delivering the tea, nobody went up or down the stairs past 10:30 PM as they were very noisy. The only possibility would be out the window of the library to a balcony, possibly down a ladder. There is a shed outside the estate with a ladder but it didn’t have an obvious place for fingerprints; this is something I’m still investigating.

A “meta-map” of the estate.

Even if we assume an entrance via ladder, that doesn’t work consistently with what happened — Mr. Robner would no doubt be quite alarmed by an intruder from the outside. This suggests that perhaps the criminal was hiding in the room somehow (it’s a small library, though) and only left by ladder as opposed to climbing in that way. That of course still requires some coordination to manage correctly.

This squeezed everything I could out of the starting documents. I did get through an initial play, but it was a very non-narrative playthrough when where I was creating a map and testing out verbs; there’s a slew of special commands for the game. I’ll save talking about all that for next time, but let me add one thing, a central event. At noon there is a reading of the will from the lawyer who summoned our protagonist.

Mr. Coates begins: “This is an awkward situation. Mr. Robner told me five days ago that he wanted to execute a new will, and promised to call me when it was completed. As I never heard from him, I must assume that he either changed his mind or did not complete the new will. Therefore, the one in my possession must be considered the most recent testament.”

From the corner of your eye, you catch George nodding his head, as if in approval, and smiling broadly.

Continuing, Mr. Coates says: “Naturally, should a more recent will exist and be found within a reasonable period, the present one will be voided. I will proceed with reading the will here in my hands, which was executed three years ago last month.” He reads the will, simply written and direct, leaving equal parts of the estate to his son, George Arthur Robner, and his wife, Mrs. Leslie Phillips Robner.

Again, the game seems to be pointing out George as an obvious suspect, probably too obvious. I’ve made a couple of extra discoveries but I want to fill in some more background and create a narrative for next time. Still, the “more recent will” line sounds ominous, sort of a Chekov’s Gun for information (Chekov’s Clue?) Is there anyone other than George that would have benefited from the new will going missing, assuming there is one?

(Thanks to Drew Cook for providing a scan for the photograph with enough resolution for me to make some zoomed-in shots.)

Posted April 4, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Deadline (1982)   11 comments

Imagine: instead of passively reading your favorite detective stories, having full control over the investigation. Infocom, the creators of the unexcelled Zork adventures, has made another major advance in the development of the electronic novel.

— From the New Zork Times Summer 1983 Catalog

Sometime late in 1981, Marc Blank (after having worked on Zork I and II) embarked on a new game entitled Was It Murder? premised, in its very title, with a murder mystery (or as the History of Zork called it, “Zork: the Mystery”).

From a printing of the manual, for C64.

The game was eventually published in April 1982 and is honestly flabbergasting. While we’ve technically had mysteries before in the Robert Lafore line (notably Local Call for Death) this game rolls out a cavalcade of invention in both technical and design elements.

You, Chief of Detectives, have been summoned to the Robner estate to investigate a suicide. It seems open-and-shut: Mr. Robner was found locked in his room having taken an overdose of the anti-depressant Ebullion, all the people involved have been interviewed and accounted for, and Robner was depressed with his business failing. But since a whole game has been written about it, something more sinister must be going on.

The game included a passel of real-life materials prepared by Infocom’s ad company Giardini/Russell: a bag of pills as physical evidence (I think someone tried them once and it was candy, but I can’t find the post verifying that), a photograph of the scene, transcripts of interviews. This was Infocom’s first set of “feelies” and it really does add to the mood, especially since — despite them having the best technology for text games at the time — they were still fighting against the same computer limits everyone else was.

Yet, they managed to stuff a game into those limits that was (according to a 1983 account) akin to “playing with a wonderful dollhouse or a model train set”. You have 12 hours to solve the crime and not only does time move forward of its own accord but all the characters do as well, and the impression (based on the very short amount of game I’ve tried so far) is poking at a holodeck in text form.

Regarding “very short amount of game” — yes, this is the first time I’ve tried this. I’ve owned it since grabbing Lost Treasures of Infocom Volume I but just never have gotten round to it, so y’all get to see me react to things for the first time. I will likely get terribly stuck and make wrong inferences and those of you who know the mystery already can be amused.

If you really want to “read ahead”, Jimmy Maher has a terrific history rundown and what appears to be a long series on what playing the game is really like — I haven’t read anything past the history, of course.

Please do note, as I already confessed with The Colonel’s Bequest, I have in the past been very bad at mystery adventure games. I’ve still haven’t totally isolated why, but I have a theory I may have been playing them wrong. I’ve usually thought of adventure games as, despite the presence of softlocks, arranged with the sort of story where a sufficiently smart and lucky protagonist can get all the way through without trouble. That doesn’t seem to be what this sort of game is wanting. There are supposedly timed events where you have to be at the right place at the right time. There’s the possibility of analyzing evidence where nothing is found. It really seems to be an investigation made by multiple clones through time in order to form a “final run”, not something where I can keep a save file called Good which I think is composed entirely of “good progress”. Progress is with information more than with solving puzzles.

I also do have a request for anyone who has a physical copy, especially anyone who had one in the 80s: are the pills supposed to be “clean” or are they supposed to have brown spots? I’ve seen other pictures (like here) with the spots. I would guess it’s just degradation over time and a zoom in the picture above reveals relatively normal pills, but if they are supposed to look tea-stained that would technically be a hint.

ENHANCE.

Posted April 1, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Adventure (Program Power, 1982)   8 comments

Explore the tortuous forests, dark caverns & castle dungeons. Beware the maze of twisting tunnels and the desert wastelands. Outwit the predators. Rescue the PRINCESS and carry off the treasures.

Ad from Computer & Video Games, April 1982, back when the game was called Atom Adventure

Lucifer’s Realm, two games ago, was wildly untraditional in setting. Castle Fantasy, the last game I wrote about, was wildly untraditional in gameplay. I figured since they’re hanging out on my list and need to be fit in sometime, I should try a game that’s the opposite direction, and super-traditional in both respects. Enough so that the actual name of the game is Adventure, as written and programmed by a mysterious J. Spilsbury.

The traditional-ness held for about halfway through the game until things started to seem a little awry, eventually landing on an absurdly meta puzzle which stretched the relationship between player, avatar, author, and narrator past its breaking point.

From Gamebytes.

Micro Power was another one of the software publishers in the UK that operated out of an independent computer store (the last one we looked at was A & F). In this case they had a shop in Leeds and was run by the Managing Director Bob Simpson (you can see a picture of him here). An interview by Richard Hanson (who published with them before going on to found Superior Software) notes that

Bob was one of the first people in the UK to appreciate that home computer software was going to become a very big profitable industry.

Early on Micro Power published games as the label Program Power before eventually just slapping Micro Power on everything. They started by specializing in programs for the Acorn Atom, before expanding to the Acorn Electron and BBC Micro once those computers were available. Adventure was released for all three.

Art from the cover of the Electron version of the game, via Acorn Electron World.

The most unusual thing about the packaging — and may be it isn’t so unusual for UK 1982, but I just haven’t played enough games from the year yet — is that at least the BBC Micro version came with an insert meant to be slipped in the keyboard, for hotkeys on some commands.

Otherwise everything was presented as very standard — you need to collect 7 treasures, plus princess — and at least some printings included “hints”, possibly to forestall people getting stuck, akin to how enough people got stuck at the maze in Wizard of the Princess that On-Line Systems included a hint card just for that puzzle.

Stories that you should read during your adventure include Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and Aladdin.

Rats are afraid of owls. Owls are afraid of the light.

I did dutifully try out the very first version, for the Acorn Atom…

Asking if you are a wizard is a tribute to the original Crowther/Woods Adventure only allowing play during “off hours” on valuable mainframes: “Only wizards are permitted within the cave right now. Are you a wizard?” The original let you type YES and a password. This game also asks for a password, but there is (according to people who have looked at the source) no password that works, so this is just a goofy tribute.

…but ended up settling on a version for the BBC Micro with some fixes to the text by The 8-Bit Tinker (so it wraps properly, and uses case) and the addition of an actual end state; the game normally doesn’t recognize you’ve won. I’m honestly fine with all uppercase, and I’m fine with just realizing I’ve won rather than the game telling me, but having words wrap over improperly is a pain in the neck to read, so I’m grateful for the modified version. The added end state part affects the meta-aspect I was talking about (affecting the “message” of the game), but I’ll discuss that when the time comes.

Moving on! As shown above, just south of the starting place is a “lost luggage office” with keys and a lamp outside. I went through most of the game without realizing IN worked as a command, and in fact tried to futilely drop treasures outside the lost luggage office and be baffled at my score going down. There have been, in very few cases, were IN and OUT count as standard directions like N/S/E/W, but this game didn’t do a great job of announcing that. Notice how the strip of paper setting hotkeys only has the cardinal directions.

Just north of the office is a closed-off cavern.

You are near a closed cavern entrance. A road runs off south into the distance

Moving farther gets the player into a forest maze, which is just as tiring as ever. There’s an axe hiding within, as well as a precipice which sticks the player there forever, unless they try the command GO BACK. (In other words, not a puzzle as so much as an oversight / bug.)

A bit more wandering let me to think I wasn’t missing any exits, so I circled back to the cavern entrance and remembered the explicit hint given by the packaging (as well as Time Zone using the same command).

Some definite weirdness here: the game should already know I have a LAMP in inventory, why did it need to ask? And if you say NO, it tells you to check your inventory, indicating it already knows. Going north again leads to a frog:

Given the Roberta-Williams-style fairy tale reliance (thinking perhaps the princess was a frog), I immediately tried KISS FROG.

Oh yeah? you are thrown out of the adventure by order of the wizard.

I marked this as an odd little joke and moved on, toting the little frog on for maybe a magic potion or eating a fly or some such.

Adventure-tribute signals continued, like the cage for catching a bird in, so I dutifully picked it up expecting a bird.

Look, oil. That’s for filling our lamp when it runs out, just like Adventure 500, right?

I had in the back of my head — keeping in mind the hint about Aladdin — that RUB LAMP would be useful somewhere. I had the good fortune of this being the first room I tested it out in, it just felt like magic had to happen here. The rubbing turns out not strictly necessary; it lets you skip navigating a maze, but you have to go in the maze anyway to get one of the 7 treasures of the game.

A very random and obnoxious one, as well, where I found the only treasure quite early (a pearl) but still had to map the rest to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. There were additionally many more rooms than items so I had to do exit-testing on unlabeled rooms in the hopes that I would be able to figure out where they were relative to other rooms I was able to mark with objects (that is, test to see if south goes to a room I was storing, say, a glass slipper in — if so, then I could assume it is the same maze room as a previous one I had found where going south also led to a glass slipper).

I found a ming vase (a treasure from Adventure, again, it breaks if you DROP it, but LEAVE works, and why are these British games assuming DROP means “drop violently”?), a hostile rat, and a “cobwebbed lair” with an owl that flew away from my lamp. I tried in vain to turn off the lamp before entering, but you fall in a pit and die if you attempt that. The owl flies into the maze and I was able to after some experimentation have the owl “run away” but randomly locate itself in the room I just entered. Then I tried to CATCH OWL or TAKE OWL or USE CAGE or the like but kept getting rebuffed by parser errors.

A bit more wandering led me to a “castle of a black wizard”. It had wine in a bottle and a plant underneath a hole, and original-Adventure style, I was able to drink the wine

Thanks. Thersh an old mill by a shtream, nellie….Hic!

and fill the now-empty bottle with water (from back where the frog originally was) and use it to grow the plant into a beanstalk. I could then climb the beanstalk to find a diamond, another one of the 7 treasures, and an empty bedroom.

The black wizard castle was otherwise mostly empty, no wizard. Adjacent to the castle was a sleeping dragon; going farther led to a “rocky landscape” and a maze of desert that turned out (I found out later) to have no exit and was entirely meant as a trap.

My confusion went for a while longer, but I think now is the best time to mention that in addition to the desert being useless, the cage I tried to trap the owl in is, in fact, also utterly useless. The oil is useless, the lamp goes on forever. The scarf from the start of the game is useless. And the frog, that I got booted for kissing earlier? The right action was to KILL FROG.

The green frog turns into a beautiful princess and runs off

The princess runs to one of the empty bedrooms at the Dark Wizard castle so you can pick her up. If you drop her she just runs back to a bedroom again.

To handle the owl, you don’t take it at all. You can go to that hostile rat I mentioned earlier, turn off your lamp, and HOOT.

I found this whole sequence baffling since there was no room past. Was this a useless puzzle? I eventually found out IN works here (notice “near” a peculiar little room) even though typing IN gives no feedback until you LOOK.

For all this being lost, I was eventually able to acquire 6 of the 7 necessary treasures and get back the princess. While doing so, the parser started giving off strange messages in the middle of everything, like:

You are a persistent little…

or

Let me think about that…
Dear me! I dozed off

the latter which pauses until you hit a key. It went (upon taking a treasure)

Your next move is so obvious that I shall not mention it

even though the game had already not been stating anything upon picking up an item from the very beginning of the game. In other words, the game had to specifically program itself saying something when it would by default be saying nothing!

All this weirdness affects the very last puzzle, which I don’t think is solvable without poking at source code. Instead of just using GET to take a treasure, you need to at some point STEAL one.

This is the only way to get to this room! If you have the keys on you from the start you can easily let yourself out. This is the only method of getting the golden ring.

If we just interpret what’s going on in the physical space, there’s no way to distinguish GET versus STEAL: the player is just taking the item. The only way to get the send-to-Dungeon flag to trigger is to declare intent as if this was stealing happening, like the Wizard is watching from behind the electronic screen but normally gets too sleepy to pay attention to what’s going on except if you use the magic word STEAL.

I mentioned the port I was using fixing the ending. In the version I played, dropping the princess at the lost luggage area gets:

The princess gives you her heartfelt thanks for rescuing her from the clutches of the Black Wizard, and invites you to a banquet to be held in your honour.
CONGRATULATIONS!!

but remember, this only occurs in the ported version! If you drop the princess in the published version she just runs back to one of the bedrooms. Given that she runs “into the dark” this was probably just a bug, but it still felt weirdly apropos to have the princess be, strictly speaking, impossible to rescue as if she doesn’t want to be rescued.

I really got the impression that the wizard was the narrator the whole time, and this was some sort of lark on his part.

You can get out of this by typing WAKE UP.

The puzzle with the owl definitely indicated some sort of intention on the author’s part to be wry rather than just lazy (although I still suspect some element of “I’m out of my 12K of space, this is good enough”). And while the “wizard” has the say most of the time, the programmer does poke out once themselves, if you try to swear.

Posted March 31, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Castle Fantasy (1982)   11 comments

As of 2022, Matthew Stepka is not only on a lecturer at UC Berkeley, but he previously was Vice President of Business Operations & Strategy for Google working on philanthropic efforts and opening new offices in Africa. He has studied both computer engineering and art, has a law degree from UCLA, and was a founder of one of the world’s first cyber-cafes.

A portion of his art from his webpage.

So quite logically, today, we’re going to look at an essentially unfinished game he wrote for Atari 8-bit computers when he was a sophomore in high school.

I was highly tempted to skip it — it only barely counts as an adventure, it uses a quite broken randomization system — but realizing this took so much effort I was invested, and I managed to hack at the BASIC source long enough to at least get a notion of what the author was aiming at.

1 REM CASTLE FANTACY REVISION 1.0 BY MATT STEPKA 3/30/82

(Yes, that’s the spelling in the comments. It is done correctly in the PRINT statement giving the title, though.)

I’m not clear how the game escaped into the wild. Mr. Stepka has put two of his later pieces of Atari work on his website (Shark! and OS II: The Sequel) but not this, yet somehow the BASIC source for this game ended up on both Atarimania and as an entry on CASA Solution Archive. I wonder if it would be possible to estimate how many student efforts (finished and unfinished) are lost to time.

The game is undecided as to whether it intends to be an RPG or an adventure and never quite settles on either. The “class” seems to be randomly determined and the idea — assuming the game had been finished — might have been to have a “thief”, “wizard”, “warrior” and so on with different starts. As it is the default is to give a map and a sword.

The map (displayed with the MAP command) shows in ASCII form like the above. It’s interesting for adventure format; I don’t think I’ve ever seen something quite matching. To borrow terminology from The CRPG Addict, the two possible map types (generally) for games on grids are razor walls and worm tunnels. Castle Fantasy, as seen on the map above, uses worm tunnels. We have seen a few adventure games use the razor walls model:

A sample from Deathmaze 5000.

The map in Deathmaze 5000 is still stored on a grid, like a CRPG. However, based on the original Crowther/Woods model, adventure games tend to be something else, and follow the concept of “nodes” from graph theory. We can even trace this back to Caves and Wumpus; Caves in particular felt like a pedagogical exercise in computer science trying to illustrate what a tree structure is like from the inside.

An example from Asia 1400 AD in Time Zone. With a worm tunnel model the entire grid would be stored in memory or on disk somehow, and there would be a “0” or “-1” or the like marking the three empty spaces shown. With the adventure game model, those rooms simply don’t exist in any sense at all.

Where I think the worm tunnel model might have some purpose in adventure games is coherent destructibility. By which, I mean, there have been games (like The Public Caves) that have tried to allow expanding the map, but due to allowing the players to name the directions anything they want — hence not being physical directions really, but nodes of graphs — it’s hard to convey a sense of physical position. (Enchanter did manage to do this with a puzzle, but thinking in terms of edges between rooms rather than the rooms themselves.) Whereas if all walls have a physical relative location to rooms, they can be easier to remove and possibly used that way in puzzles or as a way to work within a adventure-roguelike system with randomization.

This is all theorizing about admittedly a much better game, so let’s get back to Castle Fantasy. The verb list is wildly limited, and is simply composed of:

ESP, UNLOCK, XXYZY, HOLD, LOOK, QUIT, MAP, N, S, E, W, TAKE, DROP, KILL

Yes, XXYZY instead of XYZZY. That helps reveal secret passages in particular locations (which teleport you elsewhere). HOLD shows your inventory. I’m still foggy on what ESP does.

Returning to the game proper, you start in a narrow arrow of “open passages” and “dark forests” blocked by a gate that needs a key, and my first time through there was no key nor a way to get a key. There aren’t any secret passages either (based on my testing XXYZY on every room).

Some poking at the source code reveals that the key is just the variable K, so I tossed a K=1 in on initialization and re-ran the game to explore a little farther…

…only to fall into a pit where there wasn’t any way out, nor any method of avoiding it. I would guess there were ladders or some such planned but never implemented.

Resetting the game “properly” without hacking myself to gain extra items, I tried a different random setup and found no gate blocking my entrance, but I still was stuck later by a gate down one corridor and and a pit down the other.

You start on the left, and the impassible rooms are marked in red.

What the game reminds me most of is Wumpus 2, specifically the String of Beads map. In that particular level, items, enemies, and obstacles are randomly placed (just like Castle Fantasy) but the particular geography means that it is possible to get into an “impossible start” where you are completely blocked off from reaching the Wumpus. At least in that game you only had the one objective and could send arrows sailing over pits; this game has no such consideration.

The only mitigating factor is the odd behavior of QUIT, which you might think starts a new game, but actually just restarts you at the start in the same “world” holding anything you’ve picked up. So you can get out of a pit that way, but it still puts the obstacle there.

Even if there’s some method past the pits (maybe ESP holding a particular item?) sometimes parts of the map are just blocked off at random. That is, there isn’t even an obstacle to get by, it’s just what the map shows to be an open corridor is in fact just a wall.

There are three different enemies: green dragons, dwarves, and “worlocks”. I only ran across dwarves and green dragons. Dwarves I managed to kill where the only choice was whether I wanted to keep fighting.

Any attempts to attack green dragons with my sword failed.

This screenshot is from when I had a torch. It lets you see what is in all adjacent rooms, so you don’t have to wander into a pit to find out it is there.

I made multiple earnest attempts to “play well” — there’s at least a SCORE function going on — and where each time I did a full reset of the game (that involves breaking out and typing RUN in BASIC, remember that QUIT doesn’t actually quit) I had maybe a 60% chance of starting with a completely impossible situation. My “best” run I managed to find a key early and a secret passage shot me off to an area without many obstacles, but the experience really emphasized how much the whole situation was a slot machine rather than something resembling skill.

The concept of milking the Wumpus-model of randomization still I think has some untapped potential and fits cleanly into the adventure-roguelike style I’ve referenced before, but Treasure Hunt back in 1978 managed a much more pleasing and coherent experience, even if it was apt to have impossible situations of its own.

Posted March 28, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Lucifer’s Realm: The Princes of Peace and Darkness   4 comments

This is my finale post on Lucifer’s Realm, so if you’ve arrived from elsewhere, you should read my prior posts first.

The UK edition of the game, from Retrogames. They’ve tossed Mussolini in the lower right, there. Despite the mention in the ad copy Mussolini shows up nowhere in the game.

I left off last time in a forest, which is a (mercifully small) maze.

Out to the west you can find the Prince of Peace himself, Jesus.

There’s a little bit of a catch with the whole “Satan sets you free” arrangement, you see — your soul has still been damned by your actions and Heaven won’t let you in. So the whole idea with meeting Jesus is to get absolution. His hint is to go back to the well of Beezlebub (?!) and try the vapors again. This doesn’t toss you in the dreamlike state again, but it does give a hint:

The verse in question here is “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” You need to go back to Jesus and CONFESS SINS.

Now you’re almost ready to take on Satan, but there’s one really nasty puzzle remaining. Going the other direction from Jesus on the other side of the maze you can find a crack in a wall.

The crack does not let you take an inventory items in. If you drop everything and go forward you find a stone door (which doesn’t want to open) and Judas the betrayer himself.

The silver coins seem like an immediately obvious bribe (it also seems like a wondrously appropriate hell-punishment for Judas to be wandering in eternity gathering more and more silver coins) but the crack makes it impossible to bring the coins over. I admit to being completely stumped here and had to look at hints.

Specifically:

a.) the word LUCIFAGE lets you open the stone door and get into a cave, which contains nothing

b.) to get the cave to contain something, there is one exact room in the forest you can drop items which will teleport over to the cave, for no clear reason

Part b does have a clue of sorts. At the start of the maze there is the message

OFFICIAL SAVEGAME SITE..NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR LOST ARTICLES!

which sort of hints at this might be something that happens. The appropriate room to drop things is at the very end of the maze but by then I was out of objects to drop and had figured out the form of the maze was mostly regular, anyway. If I had mechanically put something down and kept on moving I might have run across the trick by accident.

The trick with the magic cave let me grab the coins for Judas, and the crown from Hitler I still hadn’t used yet.

I finally arrived at a “SATANIC PALACE”…

…where I was able to KNOCK to be let in.

I mean, Jesus dropping by to absolve a sinner, sure. But an angel (that’s still angelic) opening the gates of Satan’s palace? Nuh-uh. The “angel” asks you to drop the crown.

It’s a trap!

No, you can just ignore the angel and move on to Satan himself.

If you give him the crown he will meet his end of the bargain (better than Hitler, that way) and let you free, and assuming you’ve made yourself proper with Jesus, you can ascend to victory.

Well, sort of? Satan getting his crown back allows him to kick Hitler’s army out of hell, but they still have the Deecula statue (remember us helping Hitler activate that?) And so… they try to invade Heaven instead.

It’s a 1982 game, so it won’t be terribly long (I’m estimating 3 months or so) before I get to the The Paradise Threat. Text-only this time, alas, but I’m still interested in having a final showdown with Hitler.

It’s not often that I invoke deeper themes here — as lovely as all the games have been, we’re still scratching the surface of artistic achievement. I thought The Institute had a promising setup that didn’t follow through; it vaguely indicated something about father issues and had a couple nice dialogue bits with the psychologist but the vast majority of it was a random glob of puzzles.

While Lucifer’s Realm still suffers some in a gameplay sense, I’d say it doesn’t have the same complaint: it sticks the landing on trying to say something with its story. Our protagonist has evil unmentioned deeds that go unremarked, but they (us) are clearly willing to go to extremes to help. What point is someone past saving and what point does redemption make sense? The encounter with Jesus indicates that, in some circumstances, past deeds can be forgotten.

At a simultaneous level, the whole plot involved helping the Prince of Darkness. Is this a paradox or reconcilable?

Is Judas, still desiring more silver coins even in Hell, essentially causing his own punishment?

Was giving Hitler the final piece to the Deecula statue worth it; that is, by helping a great evil, have we caused too much unintended consequence?

Or if you want to approach from the ludic angle, what was the significance of the final obstacle being a demon pretending to be angel trying to steal the crown from Satan?

Don’t forget Will Moczarski has been playing along the same time as me here, using the text-only TRS-80 version. I haven’t seen his final post but I was curious if any puzzles would come out differently, and if he had any different reactions in general to the events of the game. A few quotes of interest:

It took some time to get the parser to cooperate in almost every situation and so far I’m not exactly fond of the game.

It’s about as fussy as the previous Jyym Pearson parsers, but the thing I found trickiest was the occasional inconsistency. For example, at the very start, when you land in hell, you CLIMB down to a room with water and then pull a drain. (You can’t GET DRAIN either, it says you can’t see that here.) This automatically send you down a level. If you go back up again (absolutely necessary for the game, since the starting room requires the sunglasses to see LUCIFAGE), trying to CLIMB down and then CLIMB DRAIN just goes back up again rather than in the drain. The command is ignoring the noun. You have to GO DRAIN in order to keep progressing. There’s no real logic why the verb is different. Just one extra piece of friction to keep moving. (I believe the TRS-80 version is different again here, although I’m not remembering the exact commands; I tested it when I was first booting up the game.)

It works but he asks me why. I really don’t know, so I say “kill him”. Eichmann doesn’t react to this but the game tells me “You’re too kind.”

If you try to kill Eichmann in the Apple II version, he vaporizes you. Relatedly, Will had a lot of trouble getting past:

My next task will be to find the exact right words to get past Eichmann. I try “join him”, “warn him”, “aid him”, “talk to him”, “give him something”. Nothing works. “Join his army” does, as I find out after quite a while. “O.K., tell them I sent you”, says Eichmann, then leaves. It’s a bit ludicrous but I’m happy to finally be able to move on.

JOIN ARMY is the first phrase I tried (it seemed strongly implied by the poster). Just a matter of luck, really, but it makes for two rather different play experiences.

I can’t figure out what to do with the well and assume that I need to either smell the vapours (which doesn’t work) or drop something down the well (I might be missing the right item). Oh well.

SMELL works in the Apple II version, Will had to come across BREATHE.

I’m in doubt for a moment. Shouldn’t I be helping Satan instead of Hitler?

From the department of pair-of-sentences-I-wouldn’t-expect-anyone-to-write.

Looking reveals a smiling snake. I try talking to the snake and it gives me a hint to drop the crystal here. Or is it a trap? Anyway, I drop it and the snake swallows it. I have a bad feeling about this!

Because I’m unable to save my game I don’t try to proceed without feeding the snake. If you want to give it a shot and report back in the comments, by all means: please go ahead! Or maybe Jason smelled a rat and avoided dropping the crystal?

I think the picture helped here. It looks like the sort of snake aching to have its belly cut open and dug through.

As it turns out, that’s not exactly how it went — the snake disappears when you kill it at the crystal goes back to where it came from — but that was at least my thought when the snake ate the crystal, not that I had made a mistake, but that I commenced on immediate plotting to cut it open to get it back.

There was, on the opposite end, a spot where a picture hurt rather than helped. There was a spot (next to John Wilkes Booth) where using SMELL led to a rock, and there was an opening under you could get into. Will’s issue when he was playing is he had found the dark area below before he had found a lamp. My issue was knowing that you could even go in the opening in the first place:

That does not look like you can just crawl under the rock and go in; I have vague suspicion there might have been miscommunication with the artist here.

Speaking of the artist, yes, I’m in general agreement with the comments that Rick Incrocci’s artwork is fabulous, especially compared with Time Zone and other works we’ve seen of late. Some of this is technical: he had access to the Penguin drawing software (first published in 1981) whereas Time Zone was in development before it came out, and I don’t think anything else we’ve seen (other than The Institute) has had a chance to use it, either. Of course, the raw skill as an artist is in play here as well, and don’t be too sad about the sequel to Lucifer’s Realm not having art; he worked on other games that we will be getting to in due course, like Masquerade, which (due to the author Dale Johnson publishing an early version in 1982) we will be arriving at later this year.

For now, though, I have a couple of curious one-offs to get through (including an ultra-obscure adventure-roguelike), before we arrive at Infocom’s first game of 1982, a detective game I have never played before. Much excitement!

Posted March 27, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Lucifer’s Realm: Let’s Kill Hitler   4 comments

Well, not “kill” because he’s already dead, but it was about as satisfying.

From Mobygames.

I left off last time giving Hitler a piece of some sort of crucial magical object. As Beelzebub indicated earlier, however,

WHEN DEECULA IS RESTORED AND IT’S POWER GLOWS, THE CRYSTAL SEALS HIS FATE.

The crystal is going to come up fairly shortly.

After the scene with Happy followed by Raging Hitler, his goons tossed me down a slide and onto a pillar which was slowly lowering while being surrounded by giant spiders.

The pillar had a “beam of light” and I was able to look up to see a hook and an opening. I had fortunately grabbed the chain I had used earlier to clamber up to the Hitler Area so I threw that up and caught the hook, and was able to climb to safety.

This led to an vent with a wall covered by a canvas. I used the dagger (which was randomly stuck in a door from last time) to cut through and find a giant crystal with a slot. At the same time I collected the dagger I had collected a sword with blue jewels in it, and it seemed about the right size, so I did some reverse Sword in the Stone action:

Crystal in hand, I went down farther in the vent and found a grate I was able to push open leading to Hitler’s office. Crawling in led to, well, let me just show you:

Notice: “stunned”. Hitler had a crown on him which I yoinked, and I was able to retrace my steps all the way back to John Wilkes Booth and Satan’s room, but John Wilkes Booth was now gone.

Technical aside: on the Apple II version you need to sometimes swap disks. The Hitler area required a disk swap, as does walking through this door. There’s still a decent amount of back-and-forth with already visited locations so this isn’t a scenario where the game is neatly partitioned off. Unfortunately, on the emulator I was using (AppleWin) I wasn’t getting any kind of disk swap message and the game locked up instead, so the only way I could keep playing was to swap the disk before entering one of the thresholds (either hopping from disk 1 to 2 or vice versa). Having to anticipate swaps wasn’t part of the original experience but I figured someone in the future might want to re-trace my steps and would like the locking-up mystery resolved.

Exploring farther, I found a giant snake that wanted the crystal. Dropping the crystal led to the snake swallowing it.

You still need the crystal. I’ve always liked the puzzle structure of an item getting lost that needs to be retrieved. It gives sort of a liveliness and dynamism to what normally are static tools.

Incidentally, I tried to KILL SNAKE after the crystal-swallowing scene and was told I didn’t have the right weapon (the dagger doesn’t work), which was a custom message. I mentally marked the location to return to later.

Just above the snake was an unpassable fire.

After some experimentation (and realizing I wasn’t getting through) I figured now was the time to re-re-re-visit ever location to see if a new item had popped up (like when the dagger appeared).

Fortunately, it didn’t take too long to find something new, as shown above. That valve wasn’t visible before! Turning the valve and rushing back (remembering to swap disks yet again) I found that the fire was off.

The Black Mass looks pretty metal, although if you try to talk you get “slain for sacrilege”. Ow.

Here I was stuck a very long time — I could refer to the pews but couldn’t see anything, and started to get the strong intuition that I was just getting stymied by the parser. I took a hint, which told me to SIT DOWN. (I had unsuccessfully tried SIT earlier, so yes, parser issues. What made this spot doubly galling is the parser quite often lets you use verbs without nouns and you can even inadvertently hit a puzzle solve by just testing verbs alone.)

Moving on! The right action here is to PUSH the door (another tough one to find, although it is drawn with no handle) which leads down to a corpse-ridden basement with silver coins and candles with a ball of WAX. There’s also a crystal door with a slot…

…and this was the moment I realized I needed the crystal back.

The WAX needs to be melted, but there is weirdly a shortage of hot things in hell. I originally tried tossing the WAX in at the flames at the very beginning (where the LUCIFAGE keyword was shown) but was rebuffed. I had just recently found a fire I could turn off and on, though! I delivered the wax to the fire-grate room, went back to the valve, cranked the valve up, checked the fire room again, and found a CLUB. (You need to make one more circle to turn the valve back off.)

The CLUB, of course, counts as a weapon, and I already knew I needed one for the snake.

Did I do it … wrong? I wasn’t sure if it was destroyed, but I thought perhaps I could hike all the way back to the original big crystal and cut off another chunk somehow.

One hike across the map later (although to be honest, it still isn’t a big map) and I found what turned out to be the original crystal returned to where I found it. Nabbing it and hiking all the way back — past the bat cave, past the entrance to Satan’s area, past the Black Mass — and finally used it on the slot that needed a crystal. This pulled me into a black forest.

A maze! So exciting!

I mean, a maze, ick. Fortunately not a complicated one. While I mapped it already, I think this is a good spot to stop, although a brief preview:

Jesus, hanging out in hell.

So close I can taste it. Almost certainly next time for the (apocalyptic?) conclusion!

Posted March 22, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Lucifer’s Realm: The Suffering   11 comments

If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.

— The Second World War (1950), Winston Churchill

The cover of the American Eagle edition of the game, from the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

The afterlife lends itself well to computer gameplay. Depending on how it gets described, characters are essentially immortal and can die and revive without any disjoint between game universe and mainline narrative (done magnificently in the recent game Hades). Logic and geography only need to be held onto in a tentative way. Odd, repetitive actions and futile motions can seem “normal” (also known as: testing actions in an adventure game that don’t work).

The last part is kind of unfortunate, but expected in the context of a Pearson game: making sure to LOOK at everything, then LOOK at what might plausibly be considered a sub-noun in the description you get, then LOOKing again three more time just in case you missed something. Also, LISTEN and SMELL for good measure. Quite a bit of my early stuckness had to do with this kind of activity, which just isn’t consistent enough to feel like “exploring”.

But to start things off, I tried to kill John Wilkes Booth. As one does. He tried to strangle me with some rope and I was able to run away, and helpfully, grab the rope. (Unhelpfully, I didn’t notice the rope had come along with me until a few iterations of just running around, but I’m condensing a bit.)

In the same location next to Booth, I incidentally found a rock by SMELLing, but I couldn’t do anything with it at the time.

The game also mentions an “opening” under the rock, and at the time (based on the picture) I assumed the rock needed to be dislodged somewhere so went through great pains trying to lever it away with no luck. It turns out this was almost meant to be a non-puzzle, but I didn’t realize it until later. In the meantime, I went back to test SMELL in other places some more and found at the well from last time, while SMELL generically didn’t help much, if I typed SMELL VAPORS I was able to go into a “dream-like” state.

After some listening I got some communication straight from Beelzebub (see above) hinting not only did I need to find a crown, but that Hitler was after a piece of the statue called Deecula.

WHEN DEECULA IS RESTORED AND IT’S POWER GLOWS, THE CRYSTAL SEALS HIS FATE.

Thanks, Beelzebub … friend? Next to the well was the screw I had posited earlier I needed to tie a rope to, and this was indeed the case. Climbing down, I found another Hitler ally.

The Jim Jones massacre happened only four years before this came out, in 1978. The short version is that in the US he formed a quasi-Christian cult of personality known as the Peoples Temple, and eventually (due to paranoia and concern of nuclear war) moved the group to Guyana. Some complications with the US government led to the group murdering a US congressman and the eventual distribution of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid to all 909 of his followers. Some refused to drink and were given cyanide by syringe, with the end result was that all of them died including 304 children, so yes, Jim Jones richly deserves his place in hell.

Jim Jones said he saw sin in me and I could not pass. While being judgmental he dropped a spare pair of sunglasses, and I was also able to swipe the contents of the skull I had tossed off the ledge: a lamp.

If you try to KILL Jim Jones this happens and you get teleported back to the start. This is not a game over.

The sunglasses I knew immediately to take back to the “word” from the very start which was too bright; with the sunglasses on I was able to read LUCIFAGE. I then flailed around quite a bit more and somehow came across a DAGGER and a SWORD that were along the way to see Satan while I was wandering. I don’t know if the two items just appear after a certain amount of times, or if I really missed LOOKs in the right rooms somehow.

I beat upon all the various rooms in case I missed something else before returning to the pesky rock-on-opening. While testing things out I tried (more by rote process than thought process) the command GO OPENING, which worked! I guess the rock on top of the opening was not meant to be a complete covering even though it was drawn that way.

If you don’t have the lamp, this room is too dark to see.

This led to an ancient chest which read “the word is the key”. Given I had learned all about LUCIFAGE, I tried it out, and the chest revealed a disk marked DEECULA — this was the thing Hitler was wanting.

This looks a lot like a ping-pong paddle, especially when Hitler is holding it later.

I didn’t find it my first, second, or even third time through, but I’ll save time and mention there’s one more item hiding here, if you LOOK BLOOD: an oil can.

With the disk in hand, I took another visit to Jim Jones — knowing Hitler wanted the disk — and Jones stepped aside to let me through, commenting that Hitler wanted to see the disk. This led to a room with sleeping bats, and a squeaky door.

The game has been pretty good at avoiding softlocks, given that death isn’t really death, but if you see this screen, you’ve softlocked the game. The bats are awoken by the squeaky door and can’t be calmed.

The oil can is obvious once it is in hand, but I first tried a bunch of ways of scaring off the bats, even though I did have in the back of my mind the whole situation would be avoided if the door didn’t squeak.

I then encountered a very dark room that was only made less dark once I took off my sunglasses.

If you try to wander in the darkness while sunglasses-clad you get this scene of falling into a pit, which looks like it was rendered from a photo rather than drawn.

With visibility, there’s a chain you can climb up (and take with you) in order to make it to Hitler’s room.

The guard asks who sent you, you have to say EICHMANN (who said earlier to mention his name).

Arriving with the disk results in a very enthusiastic Hitler, and I’m just going to give the whole sequence of images.

Are we the baddies? (I mean, going to hell means the answer is “yes”, but I mean in the sense of I thought we were supposed to be stopping Hitler, not helping. This seems to be the only way to make progress though, this is an “intentional” story beat.)

I’ve made it a smidge farther but this seems like a good cliffhanger. In a way the setup feels very tight and modern, but the awkward ability to miss basic items has been quite a drag. I suspect I’m at a halfway point (at least, I switched from disk 1 to disk 2) and — depending on how hard the rest of the game is — should finish by my next post or the one after.

Just a quick reminder, do check out Will Moczarski’s write-ups, as he is playing this game also in the text-only version.

Posted March 19, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Lucifer’s Realm (1981)   10 comments

You have died. And you’re not on The List:

Down to the basement with you!

After a relatively minor puzzle …

… you find a poster noting Hitler is forming an army to overthrow Satan, and if you can stop him, Satan will let you free.

So, the overarching plot: we’ve deservedly gone to Hell, but find a prime opportunity to team up with Satan to stop Hitler and his minions (including, I have heard, Mussolini) in order to earn a ticket back out.

Welcome to Lucifer’s Realm, another Jymm Pearson jam (last seen with The Institute), as joined by Robyn Pearson, Norm Sailer, and Rick Incrocci, the latter two doing programming and art respectively for the Apple II version.

It’s worth picking over the various releases this time, not only because it’s a little messy and mysterious (and we like messy and mysterious in history circles, or perhaps “like”) but also because I am simul-blogging this with the ever-resourceful Will Moczarski, who is doing this as part of his Med Systems Marathon over with the fine people at The Adventurers Guild. He’s playing the TRS-80 original, which looks a little different from the Apple II versions I’ve shared screenshots of.

To be specific, there’s

  • 1982 releases for TRS-80 and Atari that are text-only, published after Med Systems and Intelligent Statements had merged (*)
  • a 1984 Apple II / Atari / C64 graphical version, published by American Eagle, which is the same thing as Phoenix Software (after it was sold in 1984), which — if you’re caught up on my backlog — you might remember from Adventure in Time
  • a 1985 All American Adventures UK release for Atari and Commodore 64

The split releases are also important in that the credits change. The early text versions only credit Jyym Pearson, not Robyn Pearson. Jyym’s prior game (The Institute) had Robyn Pearson listed in the graphics version but not any of the graphics versions before that, and not in any of the text-only versions. Given the games are very similar except for the addition of graphics, what happened here? Was there a collaboration earlier but not mentioned on the earlier printing? I’m reminded of the Michael and Muffy Berlyn situation with Oo-topos (where Michael is listed on the earlier 1981 release but not the later graphical one) but that game has major textual changes in the later edition and is really a case where Michael’s wife got involved later (he quit Infocom specifically because of their no-hiring-spouses policy). Credits in those days could be unruly in general (why did Scott Adams give himself co-credit on The Golden Voyage but not Pyramid of Doom?) so I don’t want to read too much into it.

All this about the premise is lovely (assuming you include the screaming of thousands of condemned souls in “lovely”), but of course a Jyym Pearson game can’t go without some major stalling points early. The room past the drain has two doors. One leads to John Wilkes Booth, who is loyally guarding Satan.

The other goes to Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who wasn’t captured until 1960.

Eichmann will let you pass if you tell him you’re going to go see Hitler in order to join his army. This let me get by and find an “iron spike” by a ledge where two armies were fighting below.

There’s a SKULL from the other path which is described as having something rattling inside; I was able to BREAK it here which involved the protaganist just yeeting it off the cliff. I’m guessing we tie a rope to the spike to climb to wherever the skull ended up.

This is followed by a well I haven’t got a reaction out of.

Suspecting this game was like the other Pearson ones with locations needing re-re-visits, I hiked back to the start and found that the original pool of fire I landed next to had a word written into, but the “flames are too bright” to see what it is. Maybe I come back with cool shades.

(*) The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), January 22, 1984:

In late 1981, he [William Denman] merged Med Systems with a company created by David Handel, a radiology resident at Duke University Hospital. They kept the name of David Handel’s Company, Intelligent Statements Inc., and adopted Screenplay as the firm’s “retail” name. Since last summer Screenplay and Intelligent Statements have operated under the umbrella of a parent firm, AGS Computers Inc.

Thanks to S.M. Oliva, with a blog about the Computer Chronicles TV show, for sleuthing out the clip above.

And a brief reminder: while it probably won’t be up at the time of this writing, Will should be posting about this game today as well.

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

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Smurk (1981/1982)   3 comments

Planet of the Robots, which we just played, was Daniel Tobias’s text adventure entry into the “magazette” Softdisk from December 1981. Smurk is from the next month, January 1982, by the same author.

Softdisk catalog from the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

There’s not much more history to give here. The game simply says the goal is to collect treasures and slay the Smurk. I thought, due to the humor and unconventionality of the first game, there might be some parody element going on, like House of Thirty Gables

Perhaps one meant to invoke Smurfs, like this modded version of Castle Wolfenstein from 1983 where all the Nazis have been changed into Smurfs. Given all the Adventure variants we’ve seen, I disagree that it was the “first mod”, but it was still rather early.

…but no, this is very, very, standard. There were bits of annoyance just left out — specifically, the lamp you get at the start of the game doesn’t seem to have any kind of limit, you can wander in darkness without worrying about tripping over a pit or being eaten by a grue, and you don’t have an inventory limit — but for the most part it seemed like the author went through a checklist of what he expected a “standard” adventure to have and checked all the boxes.

You start in a tent with a lamp, and go out to find some woods. You can go in the woods in any direction although the only thing you can do is wander back to where you start (check) and go into a nearby cave instead (check).

Inside the cave there are a fair number of items just lying around, including rubies and diamonds. The diamonds are adjacent to a club, which is itself next to a spade. Neither the club nor spade are useful, it’s just a card joke, and DIG doesn’t even work as a verb.)

One room (the pantry above) is chock full of stuff, and four out of the five items are useful. The baking soda can mix with the vinegar in the bowl if you like, but is just an easter egg; the baking soda isn’t otherwise important.

THE STUFF IN THE BOWL FIZZES….
CO2 IS RELEASED, A CHEMICAL REMAINS IN THE BOWL.

There is (check, sigh) a maze that is essentially random connections, where filling it out is akin to making a spreadsheet as opposed to exploring a place.

To get more specific, the map is designed so that “random” movement will funnel players back at the start (I put a “dead bat” at that location) meaning random thrashing will likely get the player to the exit, but not to the destination, which is a “dead end” with an English-Sanskrit Dictionary at it. Looking backwards, you need to get from the “coins” room which only links back to the “silver” room. Looking forwards, there is a way to get to the “silver” room in two steps, but only one way: north, then north again. Any other choices will send the player flailing around in the middle area. At least the lack of inventory limit and plentitude of items led to a straightforward map-making experience.

Other than defeating the Smurk (which I’ll get to), the only other puzzle is a “ferocious” tiger. Fighting it leads to death, but back in the pantry, there’s something helpful:

Yet another animal puzzle solved by feeding it (check).

The Smurk is at least somewhat interesting. Just like the tiger, attacking is death:

Nearby, quite helpfully, there is a book that tells you how to kill Smurks. Convenient, that. (It’s in Sanskrit, but there’s that dictionary from the maze. It works automatically, so I had to go back later and confirm the dictionary was actually doing something.)

The ingredients are pretty straightforward to find; a ghoul shop nearby sells magic powders and will trade your dead bat for Magic Powder #20. The other ingredients just happen to be lying around.

The PUT ITEM IN BOWL syntax seems rather out of the blue for what is normally a two-word parser, but the instructions at the start of the game did explicitly mention it, at least.

Doing MIX then creates a POISONOUS MIXTURE. You can’t apply it to the Smurk directly, but the book does say you need to poison its water supply.

The room with the stream rather helpfully notes the stream flows towards a red glow, just like the Smurk room has a red glow, so pouring the bowl leads to victory.

Well, not total victory: you still need to collect up all the treasures, including the emeralds that were in the Smurk room. But everything is laying around, so it’s more like Pac-Man gobbling up power-pellets or Mario picking up coins than any kind of puzzle solving past this part of the game.

I really am curious the circumstances behind this game, given how unusual the last one was. Was Dan feeling like he had to “go traditional”? Did he get feedback indicating such? These days, a “traditional” adventure reverts back to something in the territory of Infocom, which still has lots of gold to be mined, but it is much harder to go all the way back to Crowther/Woods and make it something new.

It should also be remembered in early 1982 lots of people were still discovering computers for the first time, so while from our perspective we can see the grand march of 100+ adventure games, for those at the time they might have seen three or four, so doing an imitation — and at least one that’s technically competent — wasn’t so terrible after all.

Lisa, from Softdisk January 1982.

Let’s hit something more substantial next time! Maybe it’ll even involve a little bit of teamwork.

Posted March 11, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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Planet of the Robots (1981)   3 comments

From Softdisk, Issue 1, October 1981.

In the genre of magazines-on-disk-or-tape, we’ve so far experienced CLOAD (for TRS-80) and CURSOR (for Commodore PET). We could also reasonably count the Softside Adventure of the Month even though that counts more as a single-game subscription service, and we could stretch to include Micro-Fantasy Magazine although no copies of that has ever surfaced and it may have been vaporware.

Softdisk, which started on Apple II in September 1981, is similar but different.

Softdisk December 1981, which will be the issue important for today.

THE BABY ON OUR ELECTRONIC COVER IS SYMBOL OF…

1. THE POTENTIAL OF 1982

2. SOFTDISK IS AN INFANT.

3. THE INFORMATION AGE IS JUST A BABY.

At least in the era we’re talking about, it was almost a “community magazine”. While this is another publication on disk, to get any issues past an initial disk, subscribers would send back their disks to receive a new one. Rather like CLOAD and CURSOR, there were user-written programs:

YOU ARE ENCOURAGED TO CONTRIBUTE PROGRAMS. THEY DON’T HAVE TO BE MAJOR CREATIONS EITHER. WE AWARD COUPONS GOOD FOR FREE ISSUES OF SOFTDISK IF WE USE YOUR CONTRIBUTED PROGRAM.

Rather unlike the other two, there was “magazine-like” content on the disk itself, and some of it was collated directly from those returned disks. Issue 1 had a survey about piracy…

and there were “classifieds”.

A good analogy might be to the various “exchanges” that were popping up in local places. Call-A.P.P.L.E., started in 1978, has the acronym deconstruct to “Apple Pugetsound Program Library Exchange”. Their publication was not by any means a “magazine on disk” but they still served as an informal community distribution outlet, and plenty of other local groups with no associated magazine at all existed (like Rhode Island in the late 70s and Sydney’s in the late 80s). The difference is that Softdisk was entirely “virtual” — as much as having disks traded back and forth by mail is virtual — not associated with a physical group at its origin locale of Louisiana.

The whole enterprise was the brainchild of Jim Mangham, who wanted to place ads for what he was calling The Harbinger Magazette in the Apple II magazine Softalk (one that was free for Apple users and funded entirely by advertising). Al Tommervik (who ran Softalk) liked the idea enough to agree to be a partner, leading to the magazine being renamed Softdisk to be considered a parallel publication. This ended up being trouble when Softalk went under in 1984 but not Softdisk; Mangham bought back the shares in order to re-separate, although this connection helped jump-start the original subscription numbers.

The subscription service eventually extended to C64 (Loadstar) and PC (Big Blue Disk). The Softdisk family are the most important of the early diskmags, in not just longevity (chugging until the late 90s), but also becoming the launching point for both Apogee and id Software.

Screenshot from 1989’s Catacomb as published by Softdisk, made with the involvement of Tom Hall, John Romero, John Carmack, and Adrian Carmack. Two years later all four were part of the founding of id software.

Issues 0 (September 1981) through 2 (November 1981) have nothing resembling a game. Issue 3 has a handful, including Keno and a Simon clone, and it also includes Planet of the Robots, essentially Softdisk’s first original game.

In other words, even for someone not interested in adventure games this is an important moment in gaming history.

Dan Tobias describes himself as a “charter member” of the publication and worked off and on for Softdisk, including even in the 2000s when it tried to pivot to being an internet service provider as opposed to a software distributor. This is, as noted earlier, back when no money was involved, but his involvement led to his getting a job in 1984 for the launch of Loadstar, which ended up including a “reprint” of his game Planet of the Robots.

The premise involves a “time warp” having transported you into the future where humans have been wiped out, but the robots that remain aren’t aware this has happened. You start outside a mall which includes a restaurant and clothing store and other things which robots clearly have no need of.

The “humans are all dead, but the robots keep going on” premise makes the game tragic and comedic at the same time. I admit I was originally still expected something styled after Forbidden City with lots of robot combat, especially since the first item I found was a ray gun, but there’s only two moments where there is a “berserk robot” you have to shoot. Otherwise all robots have a force field and can’t be hurt.

This is after I shot a “robot clerk” at the robot. The “defendant” prompt lets you type GUILTY or NOT GUILTY, but either way you end up electrocuted.

Ignoring the mall for the moment, I found a “city hall” with two guards requiring ID, a working subway, a library with a book explaining how to log on to future-Internet and check census data, a “university” which asked about a room number I wanted to see, and a plain destroyed by a bomb blast.

The plain was a small maze that intentionally foils the ability to drop objects (they fall into cracks in the ground) so you just have to wander, but fortunately it is easy to find the only intact structure, a phone booth that has over $100 in cash. The cash can then be toted back to the mall for some shopping.

Some items, like a comic (THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERROBOT) are entirely fluff. The only useful thing to buy is the tie, which lets you get into the restaurant (otherwise a robot stops you). Once in the restaurant, rather like a similar scene in Time Zone, the idea is to order something too expensive and get into trouble. The catch here (or at least thing that makes the puzzle easier) is that everything is too expensive.

This whole sequence land you in jail, but the bars are incredibly fragile and you can just bend your way out, and the guard robots don’t seem to care (I assume the bad maintenance is due to the humans being dead, so this is another moment of tragicomedy). Breaking out of jail lands you near an ID card which you can then use to sneak upstairs in city hall and get some login information and a room number of the university. You can then go over back to the mall and the computer with an Apple X and take it for a test run, getting a door code in the process.

The room number and door code be carted back to the university in order to find a time machine, which can then be used to warp back safely to the 20th century (you actually get to choose exactly when, so if you hate the 80s you can go straight to the 90s, say).

This game was clearly intended as minimal but still managed to eke out some fascinating interaction in the process. The premise of an aging robot civilization was interesting enough in itself to allow the bar-bending puzzle to be simultaneously a moment of puzzle-solving and a moment of tragic world-building at the same time.

Mr. Tobias returned the next month with another text adventure, so we’re not done with him yet.

This action “game” in the arcade moves very slow and you just move around shooting things with the space bar. I originally thought reaching a certain score was necessary to get a clue in the game, but no, this was tossed in for fun.

Posted March 9, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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