IFComp 2020 games are up   1 comment

The 26th running of “An annual celebration of new, text-driven digital games and stories from independent creators.”

104 games.

You can find them all here.

I have taken wildly-out-of-context clips from each of the descriptions and made a 104-line list, sorted at random.

a mysterious tunnel leading from the cavern
either Cinderella or Prince Charming
an international society of elite occult investigators
an arbitrary task of questionable value
Snapping Turtle was killed in action in the war while saving Silver Bear’s life
a non-profit organization with the purpose of improving everyday life
The Knot, where all mana connects
The world is scary enough without help from the supernatural.
a position in our architecture department.
imitation on demand
The revolution
You and your dog.
the perfect miniature world of The Land Down Under
your IT internship
the season finale
the disastrous sidewalk chalk tournament
solving the riddles of the Tomb of Ilfane won’t be easy,
fantasia on Kipling’s “Just So Stories”
trust as if it all depends on the gods
slay the monsters
dancing on the beach
an aid for mediation
Isaac receives a mysterious letter
peaceful multispecies space station
hopefully disturbing
100 years of years of peace and harmony
the entire public transportation system seems to have it out for you
consuming carelessly
shave your chest hair.
pirate captain cobbles together a ship and crew
The Forever Cat stalks through this universe
sentient swords and yokai warriors
What secrets do you contain?
Evil, sealed away for Aeons
Follow user StaircaseHaven14 on a Neopets-esque site called Ruffians
an evil duke
dive into the neon sea
writhing in pain
a demonic spy in the Cold War between Heaven and Hell
Summon demons, bake cookies
Nero Brashov, vampire and failed businessman, has revenge on his mind.
looking for a way home
cursed hyper-awareness
mostly word puzzles
dangerous monsters, extremely competitive bodybuilders, and hyperinflation
a mysterious briefcase
a missing woman
Faltering light sources. Fear.
a playful adventure of peculiar proportions
If only he would let you see his face.
a hero & a villain start planning their battles over coffee
the kettle dies with dignity
a vast, trackless desert with no food or water
the gnarls of her brain
Fallen London and Flatland
the wine and canapés
If only you hadn’t been too drunk to remember
alone on the open road
and loot what we find!
important episode
the summer of 1920
the Order of the Fiery Doom
unraveling the universe
investigate the cause of the Darkness
when you’re running, you need to stop eventually
all the weekends that will have passed
It’s pretty much going to be all his friends
Save OkayCo from the Flame-Lame Fey and Ed Spray-Spread!
Get ready, young space cadet
the suspects are clamoring to be accused.
thieves have failed to steal it
all that matters
Hooves and bells approach. The school bus is late.
popstar idol!
Maybe it’s time to change careers.
the embryonic state of something more important
Use stealth to navigate his apartment as well as his arguments
an antique store proprietor trying to make ends meet
the end of everything
all is not happy in Happyland.
Piscespunk
life is about enjoying the journey
running out of options
you may not distinguish dreams from reality
search for congee on this rainy night
love story where not much seems to happen
body-swapping
no way to find him other than a series of obtuse riddles
a kingdom in peril, an evil queen to be defeated, puzzles to be solved and YOU are the only hope
purveyor of artifacts, seeker of treasure
the old man had died with no family
You embark to find that voice
Who murdered Jenny Lee?
the cognitive leap forward
the underground tomb of the Pharaoh Haputet
Southern Gothic horror
a place of fun for the whole family
combining a dystopian sci-fi short story with an escape game
Were you ever told you can be anything?
a different story, far worse than unpleasant.
a game within a game within a game
fight a monster using a crowbar, listen to the radio, find secrets
a thinly-veiled attempt to teach comma rules
your family and your heritage

Posted October 1, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Microworld: Landing on Their Valences   5 comments

An optioisolator, one of the locations you can visit in Microworld. They transmit information using light. From an eBay auction.

Before I explain what puzzles I’ve solved and have yet to solve, let me give the general layout of the map.

You start, having being turned into an electron, passing through “primary windings”, a “secondary transformer”, a “rectifier”, a “regulator”, before landing on the “ground plane”, possibly passing through a main memory maze on the way.

At the ground plane you can branch in multiple directions including a “casette audio processor”, a “data bus”, a “keyboard matrix”, and “video RAM”.

There’s also a snack bar and the MICROWORLD DISCO which I’ll bring up again later.

Video RAM leads you to a “CIO chip” connected to a “disk controller”, “disk select latch”, “printer controller”, and most oddly, an “RS-232 board”.

The RS-232 seemingly leads to the “outside” but also a bunch of error rooms where you can lose the game. A sampling:

As the last clip indicates, the same direction can do alternate things.

Described in a topological sense, the connections make sense, but as I was forming my map, it was a jumbled mass. I guess this is the “educational” part of the game (although I’m going to wait until my final post before I judge the educational qualities or lack thereof of Microworld).

I’m still not certain what the objective is. The opening room states “an interesting object is in one of the corners” and my original thought that this was just referring to the calculator is incorrect; you can GO CORNER.

You are in the west corner of the blue room in front of an ATARI. A disk drive and a voice input device are connected to it.
The disk drive is empty.

The oddly bugged glass cube I mentioned last time (and was unable to open) does contain a disk, so my best guess the final objective is to escape the computer with the diskette and then use it on the computer. (I did manage to escape once, kind of, out of the RS-232 board, although no disk was at hand.)

The other objective related element has to be the assorted “IC chips” through the game. I’ve found a grey chip, a green chip, a white chip, and a red chip (separate from the odd buggy message describing a red chip in inventory when holding the glass cube — I have gathered you’re not supposed to be able to pick up the cube at all). Look at any of the chips and you get the message “all you need is a socket”, which alas, is something I don’t have; I’m also not certain how many chips there are. I did find a blue chip (although haven’t been able to hang on to) and one of the funky out-of-place errors indicated a black chip. This strikes me as a gather-the-Foobles-to-open-a-final-door sort of setup, so even though I’m not clear on where they go, I’m getting the general feel of plot advancement upon finding each new chip.

The most important thing I did was on accident.

You are in the transformer core. A couple of electrons are wandering around aimlessly. They seem to be mumbling something, but you can’t hear a word.

In the room above (in the opening area) I tried to LISTEN just out of curiosity, and hit the parser’s limit of only understanding the first four letters of each word. LIST gives what seems to be the full list of verbs.

This command doesn’t work in the TRS-80 version of the game, but it helped me crack some puzzles open in both a positive-space (what verbs are there) and a negative-space (what verbs aren’t there) sense.

For a positive-space example, there’s a snack bar with a CONTACT-COLA machine. No change is at hand, but KICKing a vending machine worked on another Med Systems game, hence:

I also, while thinking of the highly unusual verb ARRANGE, suddenly realized a place I could use it.

In a negative-space sense, notice there’s no GIVE command. I was able to sip the contact-cola but that seemed unsatisfying; there was a characteroid with its tongue out, and I realized perhaps the game just means for me to DROP the cola.

This yields an ID card reading “PRINTER MAINTENANCE”, allowing you to sneak into a new area and get the red IC card.

The DROP-instead-of-GIVE also led me to realize the *crystal* radio would be helpful in a room I’ve already mentioned:

STUFF I’M STUCK ON

In a way, the whole map is fair game. The problem with having artful and/or goofy text in an adventure game is it is hard to tell what is a clue and what is just atmosphere.

However, I’ve gotten past some “electromagnetic waves” using a surfboard, only to find a coil I can’t do anything with.

I found the blue chip, but when moving around after the game says it becomes LOST. There is a nearby lost and found, but I haven’t found any recognized syntax, other than LOOK CLERK (“the clerk looks at you expectantly.”)

One part of the maze traps you in a “well”; I don’t know if this is a trap or a puzzle.

Finally, there’s the glass cube I’ve already mentioned with a diskette inside. If you try to smash it persistently enough the whole thing is destroyed (including the disk).

I easily could just be missing some room exits, so I defintely don’t want any hints.

Posted September 30, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Microworld (1981)   8 comments

Let’s start with the smooth dulcet tones of William Shatner.

This educational film (originally recorded 1976, revised 1980) about the still-fresh-and-mysterious world of microprocessors has, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to do with the game Microworld (1981, by Arti Haroutunian, published by Med Systems, same folks as Asylum) but sometimes I have to just share things.

Amidst my review period for games to add to my list, there’s been the occasional reject for non-adventure status, like Dungeon of Htam from 1980:

YOU DISTURBED A MONSTER IN THIS CHAMBER
AND HE SPEAKS

HALT I AM LUM

YOU MAY NOT PASS THRU UNTIL YOU ANSWER THIS MATH QUESTION

WHAT IS
4 x 1 = ?

Other than that, Nellan is Thirsty has been “an adventure for children” but not really an “educational game”.

With those caveats out the way (and the note I’m not done with 1981, although I’ve poked at most of what’s ahead) Microworld seems to be the first adventure game specifically designed as educational.

From 80 Micro, October 1981.

I do not have the “12 page booklet containing a glossary and explanations of the electronics inside the TRS-80”, so I’ll just have to wing it.

I’ve seen the line about “the object of this adventure is part of the mystery you are to solve” elsewhere, including in the game I just played, Timequest. It was truly odd in that one given treasure collection was the obvious goal; here, it might possibly be as well, since I’ve found one item already (a crystal radio) with asterisks around it.

The original version was for TRS-80 but I played the Atari port (by the same author) instead; I’ll compare with the TRS-80 version when I’m done. This is in reverse of what Will Moczarski did when writing about the game; I figure it’ll give a different perspective.

I’m not sure who the game is targeted at. A 1982 review claims it is for an “intelligent child” or an “adventure gaming beginner” but it is designed too annoyingly for either one.

The above exchange is somewhat typical for educational games, which randomly have to toss in trivia questions (What year was Texas admitted to the Union?)

(You have to DROP CALCULATOR to move on.)

I haven’t run across much in the way of puzzles; gameplay so far has mostly been wrestling with a gigantic map where almost none of the directions make sense.

In progress. I’ve marked rooms where I’ve checked every exit; did I mention the game only occasionally mentions which exits go from a particular room so testing all of them is required?

I have run across a great many puns and strange in-jokes, and that’s honestly been the thing keeping me going so far. Some samples:

There is, as you might expect, a maze. The maze has more than five rooms and you have an inventory limit of five items, so there’s some “move one of the items to somewhere else mid-mapping and hope you don’t get confused” aspect to the whole process; the sort of thing you’d give beginners only as a cruel joke.

Also, the only reward has been a “column address room” where nothing seems to happen.

The items have been truly odd: a spinnifax, a crystal radio, a “lonely” clock pulse, a glass cube that looks like a “red IC chip” when you’re holding it (??), a surfboard, a refrigerator (???), and a “dielectric coin” which says “Go PLUS on display error.”

Regarding the last item, that’s a hint for a particular puzzle.

This is the “display error” — the only way out is GO PLUS. This incidentally suggests to me the glass cube/red IC chip thing might not be a bug but a puzzle.

I suspect more META will happen before the game is through. I’m just happy this game is something other than a generic manor or fantasy cave.

Posted September 28, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Timequest: 12 Out of 12 Treasures   2 comments

Thanks to comments from Matt and Voltgloss I trudged my way to victory.

My key sticking point was missing one of the game’s invisible norms.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

Navigation in Scott Adams-inspired games is often not just by compass directions, but by “GO LOCATION”.

I’M STANDING ON A DIRT ROAD. VISIBLE ITEMS:

MARBLE BUILDING. STREAM.

SOME OBVIOUS EXITS ARE: WEST

For the room above, while you can just type WEST, GO BUILDING and GO STREAM are also possible. The game uses this relatively extensively, and it seemed like the norm was that whenever a location was enterable, it would always be mentioned as a separate object (as opposed to implied by the location line).

This was a false assumption.

I AM STANDING OUTSIDE OF A MOUNTAIN. VISIBLE ITEMS:

STRANGE MACHINE.

SOME OBVIOUS EXITS ARE: SOUTH EAST.

By the description above it looks like east and south are the only exits (if you try to GO MACHINE the game gives the explicit syntax GET ON). However, you can GO MOUNTAIN.

I suspect the author didn’t even think this was really a “puzzle”; one of the items you find up the mountain is a book. The book hints that TURN ON and TURN OFF are syntax for the flashlight and that spinning the brass ring (the one in inventory from the start of the game) could make something interesting happen. If you haven’t found the book, you’re almost guaranteed to run across the flashlight and try to use it. Why would you put a parser hint for the flashlight in the book if you didn’t expect it to be read first?

Invisible norms still haunt pretty much every videogame genre, but to stick with adventure games, consider the norm where the main player has items in their inventory that go unmentioned until INVENTORY is typed. I think most modern authors would not consider that aspect a puzzle, yet it is something players could clearly get stuck on.

I found the remainder of the game fairly satisfying, so if you’re interested, now is the time to veer away before I spoil the rest of the game.

The mountain also had a jade buddha treasure and a glove.

This was enough the make the rest of the game go smoothly. The glove I immediately knew was used to pick up the diseased raccoon, which I fed to the lion blocking the cave. This led me to a waterfall (hiding some coins) and a slab.

The SPIN RING worked at a the slab to teleport. Then I was frozen instantly, but already had a coat for that problem.

I ran across the only live human in the game. For time travel in 1235, most games would visit some European area. (I’m not sure how aware people in 1981 were of the word “eskimo” being offensive.)

The spear (from the screen above) was sufficient to kill the angry mole I was stuck on last time. Additionally, the ring/slab combination also worked in the future to get me to a computer room.

This led to a few more treasures, and victory.

So: was this really a time travel game?

Genuinely, I wonder what the author was thinking: as I’ve already mentioned, the compartmentalization of time zones made for a good structural organization, but in the end I was dealing more with teleportation than time travel. The far-future computer device uses a reel of tape; one of the treasures is some TECHNICAL MANUALS and the only other gizmo is one that turns sand into a copper bar (Which is sort of impressive but not something I’d time travel for).

The cover (from my last post) suggests some sort of wild trip to the far future, with an odd creature in the center, and this game had none of that. Maybe this was somehow a well-planned enough time travel trip that the protagonist knew not to meddle with areas containing people (paradoxes, etc.) I did enjoy myself, but it was curious to play in a genre that lacked nearly all the elements of said genre.

Posted September 24, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Timequest (1981)   11 comments

Timequest is also known as Time Quest, via the printed disk label and the opening title screen, and the title is given on a followup screen as Timequest Adventure. I’m honestly beyond being surprised when this sort of thing happens, although no game can match the pure naming chaos that was Dragon Quest Adventure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Timequest shares a publisher in common: The Programmer’s Guild.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

The author of Timequest, William Demas, is better-known for doing the majority of work on Scott Adams Adventure #12 (it was a scenario like Pyramid of Doom where Adams just did some editing) and two “talking games” (Forbidden Planet and Forbidden City) for the TRS-80 published by Fantastic Software.

Timequest, on the other hand, has fallen down a memory hole of sorts; CASA is light on information, Mobygames has wrong information, and its existence doesn’t get mentioned at all in this interview with the author. There are no hints or a walkthrough anywhere, and nobody I can find has played it on video.

This is nearly identical to Journey Through Time in the premise: go through time, nab treasures, 12 in this case. However, the time periods don’t really have any theming; it’s more like you’re using a general teleportation device rather than visiting Nero or printing yourself a brand-new Gutenburg Bible.

Rather unusually, the game does not start with “home base” in the “present” of 1981.

Yes, 1886. I suppose a time traveler’s home base can be any-time and any-where. You can PUSH LEVER to go to 2930 or PULL LEVER to go to 1235. There are no other time periods (at least as far as I’ve gotten).

The “where” is somewhat important, though — there is some sense that you are fixed in location as you travel in time. The machine starts in a basement, but you can drag it outside (PULL MACHINE). If you travel forward in time while outside, you end up outside a mountain.

If you travel forward in time while inside, you end up inside the (fortunately hollow) mountain.

Traveling to the past while the machine is outside is fatal; your machine falls into a swamp. If the machine is in the basement, you get taken next to the swamp instead.

So (as of yet?) there are two 2930 locations, one 1886 location and one 1235 location.

My map so far, but certainly not complete, given I’ve only seen 3 treasures out of 12.

Even though the game doesn’t fully use the “fun” aspects of time travel (historical events and/or setting up paradoxes) the map still gets naturally broken up in sectors, which gives it a crisp and modern feel.

Besides figuring out the time machine itself, the puzzles so far have been straightforward; I found a key in a sandbox and used it to unlock a room that is supposed to hold treasures. The same room had a snorkel which I used to get a fish and gold trident from a river; I also found a flashlight lying around which led me to get a gold chain and shovel. The shovel then let me dig to an underground area in 2930.

I’m stuck on

1.) the underground area, which has a reel of tape, some silver coins, and an angry mole; while I can get in, the angry mole kills me if I try to get out.

2.) 1235 has a cave guarded by a lion.

3.) 1235 also has a swamp which you sink in and die if you try to go in (this may just be a trap)

4.) 2930 has a dead raccoon that is diseased and you die if you try to pick it up (the game implies you need gloves).

So far, I have yet to use a BRASS RING (that you start the game with), a FISH, a FROG, a FUR COAT, and some SAND. The two treasures I’ve gotten which may or may not be of use are a GOLD TRIDENT and a GOLD CHAIN. It is of course possible that the KEY, SNORKEL, and SHOVEL somehow get reused, but otherwise, that’s all I have to work with. (The snorkel doesn’t work on the swamp; you can’t kill either the mole or the lion with the trident.)

The game has me interested enough I haven’t resorted to hacking at the game file itself yet. If you want to try it out, this link will let you play online (it’ll delay, then give an error, then you need to type TYME2 and hit ENTER).

Frog is another William Demas game. This is the first I’ve ever seen an in-game ad for something sold by an entirely different publisher.

Posted September 22, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Nijmegen Adventure: Finshed!   4 comments

This was a small game; the Dutch of course slowed me down, but the text was generally simple and repetitive, and I only had to look things up on words like “traangasgranaat” (tear gas grenade).

(Just to keep the eyes on the prize in what follows: the goal is to get at a treasure. The treasure turns out to be hiding in the Church of St. Steven in Nijmegen.)

Where I really had trouble was getting in the same frame of thinking as the protagonist: make progress by any means necessary, including violent property damage. The tear gas should have been my first clue, and I later found a weapons shop selling a “thermischelans geweer raket” (“thermal bazooka”, I think?) but as Nijmegen is described as a “real city” my first tendency was to play in those terms. This stymies most early progress; while it is possible to get most of the starting map without solving any puzzles…

Reminder note: there are no compass directions, you move by typing GA (“go”) followed by the name of an adjacent location; for example, GA GROTE MARKT, “go great market”.

…one early thing you need to make much progress is to smash the parking meter in the first location and grab the money (>FORCEER PARKEERMETER — I don’t think “FORCE” is a verb I’ve ever seen in an English game, would it be easier to find playing in Dutch?) The money from within lets you visit the nearby Fotozaak (photography shop) to get some binoculars and the Shoenwinkel (shoe shop) to get some boots (that must have been a lot of change).

The other open place is a “tower” (you need a “latch” from nearby before you can go in) which has a basement with the hint “look in the distance”.

Climbing the tower lets you get up to a room you can use your binoculars and see the message “DRINK MEER BIER” which is a key phrase. Use it back in the basement to find a secret room and get yourself some dynamite.

You can use the dynamite to explode a building at a quay and get some gin, which seems a fair tradeoff for the property damage; the gin can be used to bribe your way into a new location with a crowbar. You can then use the crowbar to move a rock to get some keys, which let you break into the church (making sure you throw your tear gas grenade first).

Inside the church there is a “duck shaped” opening; you can use boots to reach high enough and use a duck from the park which opens a safe, finally yielding the treasure.

You’re rich, you managed to get the gold, are you very smart or very bad? (I’m not sure on the last two sentences, but it’s something like “now, go waste your money”.)

This was really odd and random to play; unlike Dracula which had layers of narrative, this was intended as a random path of adventurer destruction, where destroying an entire building to get some gin is a perfectly acceptable exchange. At least the game was self-aware about it.

Some quotes from here indicate that Wim Couwenberg himself made the original C64 port, and it is identical to the PET version, so there’s no need to go on a grand crusade to find the original (…unlike Dracula Avontuur, where I’m still curious). He doesn’t know who D.N.T is.

He also mentions his brother Jan made the story, so I’ll toss him in my credits. (I really am curious what the writing process for the story was like, since it comes off as a string of random puzzles.)

I apologize I couldn’t do any deep exploration of language learning this time around; most of the parts were all-or-nothing scenarios, where either I easily sussed out what was going on and what the right action is, or I had no idea and even when I did have an idea I didn’t know how to communicate it (for example, blowing up the dynamite is given by the walkthrough as BLAAS OP, “blow up”).

One last item of importance: while perhaps this game isn’t a candidate, the Hans Courbois predecessors (which I still have yet to find, but I’m working on it) might be vying for the title of “first graphical adventure where information is conveyed in the graphics” along with Mystery House; you have to, of course, have a loose definition of “graphics” which allows character graphics, but it’s still a noteworthy convergence, and one I don’t believe any texts in English on adventure game history have previously noted.

Posted September 20, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Nijmegen Avontuur (1981?)   2 comments

I’ve lost track of all time and space lately, so I had to remind myself by checking: it was one year ago that I tackled and wrote about Dracula Avontuur, a very early text adventure in Dutch, without knowing any Dutch.

Nijmegen Avontuur is also very early; originally for the Commodore PET, but later ported for the Commodore 64, and that’s the copy that still exists. I’ve seen both 1980 and 1981 dates, and it potentially could be earlier than Dracula. There’s so little information it’s not worth it to fret over which came first.

It was written by Wim Couwenberg and apparently based on a text-adventure layout used by Hans Courbois. That means, yes, there are definitely earlier games, although I haven’t been able to find them as of yet.

Landscape with a View of the Valkhof, Nijmegen. Painted by Aelbert Cuyp around 1655-1660. The palace shown was originally built by Charlemagne.

Nijmegen Avontuur translates to Nijmegen Adventure, Nijmegen being a 2000-year old city in the Netherlands, close to the border with Germany.

De bedoeling is een SCHAT te vinden die ergens in Nijmegen verogen ligt.

The goal is to find a TREASURE somewhere in Nijmegen.

The opening screen gives some terse instructions and the quest above, and then some character-based graphics.

I’m guessing D.N.T. refers to the maker of the C64 port.

It most likely looked something like that in the original, given the reference to the “layout” of Hans Courbois being used.

Translations: JE HEBT = YOU HAVE

ER LIGT = THERE LIES

WAT MOET IK DOEN? = WHAT SHOULD I DO?

The room description seems to eschew compass directions and lets you go to places instead.

PLEIN ’44. JE KAN NAAR DE BLOEMERSTR.
DE GROTE MARKT HET PARK
EN NAAR DE MOLENSTRAAT
ER STAAT EEN PARKEERMETER.

PLEIN ’44. YOU CAN GO TO THE BLOEMERSTRAAT, THE GREAT MARKET, THE PARK, AND TO THE MOLENSTRAAT.
THERE IS A PARKING METER.

“Plein ’44” is the center of Nijmegen, the “city square”. The “Bloemerstraat” and “Molenstraat” are place names, and here we hit my first question for my Dutch-speaking friends — are they recognizable ones?

Given the text seems to be more minimal than Dracula, it may end up I have more trouble with culture/place than language on this one.

Locations marked on a Google map. There are two parks nearby so I don’t know which one the game means.

Posted September 18, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Cranston Manor (1981)   2 comments

No, this game doesn’t have anything to do with Infocom. It does have to do with the virtues of text vs. graphics. I particularly like the quote from Softalk in the ad above about prose “far more graphic than any depiction yet achieved by an adventure with graphics.”

(You should read my posts about the original version of Cranston Manor before reading this post.)

The Cranston Manor Adventure by Larry Ledden was published by Artworx; On-Line Systems (the future Sierra) licensed it to keep the Hi-Res Adventures series going, the one started with Mystery House, Wizard and the Princess, and Mission: Asteroid.

On-Line changed the credits to be Harold DeWitz and Ken Williams (according to Mr. Ledden, he was a newbie and didn’t think to get a credits condition on his contract) but I’m leaving Larry’s name on.

Via Mobygames.

The objective is still “find the treasures”, sixteen of them. Text from the packaging, including the typo:

It seems that old man Cranston was not exactly your run-of-the-mill type millionare. Exactly how he made his fortune is unknown (it appears he wasn’t a man known for either scruples or morals). Before his untimely death, he had amassed an uncalculated fortune in jewels, gold and various other rare and expensive items. Cranston was aware of the fact he was dying. He had lived a life of excessive luxury, pleasure and sin, and knew that soon he would end up “paying the piper”! Being a greedy and covetous old man, he figured that if he couldn’t take it with him, no one would take it when he was gone. He hid his treasure throughout the mansion and property encompassing it.

The game shifts the action to “Coarsegold” (where On-Line Systems was located), abandoned due to Cranton’s plotting somehow. I haven’t quite worked out how this happened in either this version or the original. You may remember the hologram of Cranston directing his army of tin soldiers; were those terrorizing the town somehow? In this version, the treasures are explicitly stolen from Coarsegold, and finding and returning the treasures to Coarsegold somehow will return the town to livability. I get the impression there’s still missing backstory, but the even stronger impression nobody thought too seriously about the logic behind it.

The “droid” idea from the original is dropped (it was, admittedly, a little weird). The game simplifies the map; here is, for example, the opening town:

The original “outdoor section” took me about one hour to map; the new one took roughly five minutes. All the mazes have been removed, nearly all paths have been straightened. (There’s an odd bit where going west “jumps” the player over a room; it being just a bug is quite plausible. Remember, the last On-Line game we looked at left the asteroid-hits-the-Earth timer running even after winning the game so the Earth can be simultaneously saved and destroyed.)

Both an inventory limit and the need to rest at intervals have been dropped. There isn’t even, as far as I could find, a limit to the lantern light.

This all sounds great, and I suppose is; but the end result really felt more flavorless than the main game. Example:

You may remember from my original posts that the revelation of the armor in all the rooms being spooky and atmospheric. Here the armor is more obvious (and it’s much clearer it’s the same armor following you around everywhere) but it comes off as nearly goofy. The armor also stops you from getting items other than treasures, which is I suppose would be fine, except there are two exceptions (cheese and a cage) which it does let you take in order to capture a mouse, and use as the same way as before (dropping the mouse scares away the armor). I could see someone getting stumped here because they assumed they couldn’t get the items.

The library, which has a secret passage that opens with the word EMASES in both versions, now has the word placed in a book in the library, where it is the only book there. Now, the original wasn’t stealthy either, but the word was in the observatory; having it be right on the shelf that gets opened seemed a bit too on-the-nose, turning an easy puzzle into a near-trivial one.

Relatedly, the previous game’s “organ room” had the organ not actually do anything, and you could just enter the fireplace; this version has PLAY ORGAN open the fireplace. (While simpler, I’ll admit this was more satisfying to do than just realizing I could walk in the fireplace.)

The tin soldiers show up underground again, but this time there’s no way at all to kill them. The game includes the dagger, but the dagger doesn’t do anything, so all you can do is run away.

The computer room is still there, and this time the puzzle that requires busting the computer by throwing some water on it works (more on this in a second). However, there’s no scene of the tin soldiers charging themselves up; this room doesn’t connect with anything in the game other than the sphere being another treasure.

The pink bull is still in, except this time the time stasis field doesn’t hit right away. You have to turn off your lantern, and THEN a time stasis field hits (without even a meta-narrator, just some wizard does it…?) and then you have to walk by in the darkness. I imagine the idea was to enforce having the lantern on/off puzzle be solved, but it turned what was sort-of-fair-but-nonsense (you can just avoid second visits to the bull room in the original game) into complete nonsesnse (it’s not clear how the player character would even know about the stasis field while in total darkness).

The absolute worst change involves an item. In the original, you get a “cauldron” that you fill with water; it is used for both destroying a computer (as already mentioned) and priming a pump. I could not find the cauldron in the On-Line Systems version. I was very stumped and had to check a walkthrough. In the new version, the cauldron is now a “pot” and it is not mentioned in the room description.

I am somewhat supportive of the items-in-picture-not-in-text system pioneered starting with Mystery House — I didn’t run into guess-the-noun or be-unaware-an-object-even-exists with Wizard and the Princess so it’s possible to be clear, even with a janky art style — but I had no notion at all of a pot in the picture. It’s that partially-visible black thing on the stove, I guess. Also, when the armor is on the screen it entirely covers the pot.

I mentioned being stumped by the raft on the fountain due to a failure in visualization. Unfortunately, I can’t tell for certain how I’d react with this game, but I think I’d make it through; the raft is depicted as very tiny, so at least visually it does fit inside the fountain.

To summarize the changes:

1.) no inventory limit
2.) no lamp timer
3.) simplified map
4.) water container hard to find
5.) suits of armor more obvious
6.) tin soldiers can no longer be killed, removal of visible connection with computer room
7.) computer room puzzle now works as originally planned
8.) pink bull puzzle now enforces turning off the lantern
9.) EMASES is right where it gets used
10.) the organ is used to open a secret passage

There are a few more points, and summed up I think they mostly average out to neutral (except possibly the pink bull puzzle pushing slightly to negative). Yet, as I already implied, I liked the original text-only version better. Why?

While I have nothing against graphics, even bizarre looking ones, the text — despite it being erratic at times, and often just functional — somehow painted the world more vividly. Let me pick a direct example.

I’m standing in a long room with tall stained glass windows on the west wall. Hard looking wood pews line each side. There are exits to the north and east. Standing in one corner is a large black suit of armor.

Again, the text is almost completely pure function here, but my imagination paints the chapel much more strongly than the Apple II image does.

I wouldn’t welcome a text version of Wizard and the Princess; that game seems designed for its slightly odd characters and locations; I’m perfectly fine with Cranston Manor being reverted to all-text. I don’t know if it’s the sense of loss of setting that makes the difference (the “hard looking wood pews” being gone) or just the loss of part of my imagination, the “brain as graphics engine” as mentioned in the Infocom ad. When Ahab at Data Driven Gamer played both games and had the same reaction: “And as with Sierra’s previous graphical adventures, the graphics are really not very good, and came at the expense of verbosity, and while the writing in The Cranston Manor Adventure wasn’t exactly mind-blowing, it still wasn’t a good trade to lose it.”

One last oddity — and it would take some experiments in hacking the game to be sure — is I’m not sure if all the “positive” improvements even helped. Both the sleeping and lamp time were frustrating to cope with, but they added a rhythm to the game and added tension to explorations underground. Even though I skipped killing the tin soldiers in the original game, the existence of the possibility of doing so added an edge; I was making a strategic choice, one I sometimes questioned.

I also can’t really defend the convoluted map of the original that strongly, but still, I spent time in the opening abandoned town, whereas in the graphical version it was essentially a footnote. Spending time made the sense of abandonment more tangible. There clearly would be a better way to handle the same situation (with a shorter opening and more vivid text, perhaps some character dialogue) but it’s interesting that just dropping the flawed gameplay element ended up hurting the game when it wasn’t replaced by some element that conveyed the same effect.

It’s easy to whale on early adventure games (why is there another maze, why do I have to worry about lamp life, etc.) but sometimes, those flawed and now-outdated elements were still used with purpose.

Posted September 17, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quest / Fantasy Quest (1981, 1983)   Leave a comment

I normally associate the Sharp MZ series of computers with Japan (and while we’ll get to Japanese adventure games, we have to make it to 1982 first); however, it also sold decently in Europe. Quest was originally published in 1981 by Kuma Software for the Sharp MZ-80A and republished in 1983 by the same company; it was additionally republished the same year by IJK for the Oric-1 (Tangerine’s successor to the Microtan 65) as Fantasy Quest. I’m having trouble running the Sharp version, but I’ll link a video of the game running on a real machine just so you can see it.

There was a third version for Tatung Einstein, but I went with the Oric-1 edition.

Via Retrogames. I incidentally am going by the title on the main loading screen rather than just “Fantasy”, if for no other reason to distinguish this game from Level 9’s first game Fantasy (1981). Couldn’t think up an easier-to-Google title, early game programmers?

The back of the tape case states our mission is to “find and take the four sectors of the eye of Morpheus to the eternal fires of hell.” This will allow us to cross a “crevasse” and find the “long lost treasures of BORGAN.”

Well, it’s not quite a Treasure Hunt, even though the plot says it is literally a treasure hunt. I’m curious why the author (John Wolstencroft) felt obligated to toss the treasure in there, even though destroying some presumably evil artifact seems motivation enough.

The author also wrote Castle Quest. Clearly, he had a penchant for generic titles.

Almost right away, because I had to take notes, set up a map, and so forth, I ran into a feature that I’ve never seen in a text adventure before from any era: the text equivalent of idle animation.

If you haven’t seen it yet, let the image above sit for a moment.

Perhaps a few extra moments. The computer starts to beg. There’s a lot of messages; I cut the file off early just to keep the size reasonable.

You can also peruse, as you’re idling, the spot in the upper left corner: that’s a compass map view, as seen all the way back in Spelunker (1979) although formatted as an above-down view of the environment.

A brief pause.

Texts have rhythms to them, sometimes particular and specific ones. Words best read fast, words best read slow. Scenes painted literal, scenes painted as metaphors.

A thief drives to the museum in his black van. The night
watchman says Sorry, closed, you have to come back tomorrow.
The thief sticks the point of his knife in the guard’s ear.
I haven’t got all evening, he says, I need some art.
Art is for pleasure, the guard says, not possession, you can’t
something, and then the duct tape is going across his mouth.

— From Girl Writing a Letter, William Carpenter, 1993

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.

— From On the Pulse of Morning, Maya Angelou, 1993

The first excerpt works like an action film, thrusting forward with a similar force. The second is more contemplative, more demanding of reflection. While it’d be possible to swap the reading approaches and get satisfaction, there’s still some sense of optimal approach.

The same extrapolation applies to gameplay. By surface appearances, adventure games of the early era — rooms, objects, a parser — are blended to the point it may appear all games are simply extensions of each other. But for each one of these games I have re-adjust, and sometimes I simply start wrong — reading room descriptions too closely, or not closely enough. Bypassing verbs that search things, or using them at every opportunity.

With Fantasy Quest, I diligently started a map with “Large Cavern” mapped out and continued for each room like a traditional Infocom game. This is not the best approach here. Many of the rooms are described as just tunnels, or just turns, or just intersections, and are quite intentionally described in a generic way. The focus here is on dens.

Spots in orange have passages going up.

I have marked with color each “den” in yellow, which represents some foe or friend. For example, there’s an orc den you can pass through safely once, but the game explicitly says not to enter again; if you do, you get eaten.

A troll demands money; some nearby coins help to satisfy.

A devil can be driven off with a cross.

The interesting part — and this is where it really did take me a while to catch on — is that the layout forms a logic maze of sorts. Here’s an early example:

A “super-structure” map. This is generally the better way to think about the game, and hits at what I meant by the poetry analogy earlier; I originally wasn’t properly “zooming out” but rather getting annoyed at all the “plain” rooms in between the important parts.

The Opening Area lets you visit a devil early, but you can’t get by because you don’t have a cross yet. There’s also a chest that has the first sector of the eye of Morpheus (remember, the objective is to find all four) but you can’t open it without a key from the second area. So the only way from the opening to the second area is to pass through the orcs, but that’s a one-way trip. But in addition to finding a key in the second area, you can find a cross, so you *can* then get through the demon lair and back, which lets you access the chest in the opening area.

There’s yet another route back to the opening area past a spider, but it only works once, and you use up the cross later (it’s silver, and there’s a creature that wants silver) so this needs to be saved for when you no longer have the cross later in the game.

Another example:

A monster wants a feather. A feather happens to be nearby. However, to take the shortest route back requires passing through a “lizard bird” who normally ignores you; if you’re holding a feather, he attacks and kills you. So to get the feather back to the right place you have to take an alternate route: which passes by a.) a dark area with a pit (that you need to LIGHT a TORCH for) b.) some elves, who require an ORB to get by and c.) a dragon lair, will the dragon will only appear if you visit the place twice — so this is a one-way trip, so you need to make sure you haven’t tried to enter from the other side prior to taking the feather trip.

There’s an entirely different route from the feather to the elf/dragon portion of the route which passes by some gargoyles, but just like the orcs and dragon, you can only pass through once, as the gargoyles will kill you if you enter a second time.

The sequence above is where the setup on the game clicked for me; I had solved the “puzzle” getting the elf orb to the elves but was led to rooms I had already been to, and the dragon lair from the north rather than the south side, but was confused what that accomplished until I realized I need to focus on available paths more than individual rooms.

But not too much focus — while the automap is helpful, there are parts of the game you can GO UP or GO DOWN, and that’s only described in the room text itself.

I really wanted to finish this by reporting victory, but I’ve only managed to get 3 out of the 4 sectors of the Eye. The last map section I managed to arrive at has a wizard satisfied by a gift of a wand, but past the wizard I can only go back to part of the map I’ve been to. I have a plank of wood I haven’t used and there’s two parts nearby where you get dropped a level via traps (one by a burst of water, and one by a trapdoor) but all my attempts at verb use have been stymied. (This is an ultra-minimalist verb set; a lot of the cases you’re just giving gifts to monsters, or applying items automatically like the cross and the devil.)

(If anyone wants to try the game, Fantasy Quest is here. I played it with the Oricutron emulator here. To load the tape you need to type CLOAD”” as a single command.)

Posted September 13, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Castle (1981)   4 comments

It’s been a while since we’ve visited the APX (Atari® Program Exchange) so it’s time to give it another try, with a work by Robert Zdybel who also wrote Alien Egg; I don’t know if Castle or that game came first.

While the gameplay in Alien Egg wasn’t impressive, it had a fun sense of attitude.

This is where the rest of the crew slept before their mysterious and untimely disappearance.
There are several bunks against one of the bulkheads. All of the are neatly made and empty.

>U

CAPTAIN’S BUNK
This is where the Captain used to bunk before HIS mysterious and untimely disappearance.

This one doesn’t quite have the sense of attitude, but it does feel written; there’s at least gesturing towards environment-as-storytelling. For Alien Egg, I also wrote the parser was “suffering” and looking back after finishing, I can’t say anything has changed, but I got a little more used to the particular quirks. (I’ll mark these spots when they come up as Parser Oddities #1 through #5.)

You got a wizard mad for mysterious reasons and you’re now trapped in a magical castle. So this one is Escape rather than Treasure Hunt. The map is sensibly laid out in levels, and feels more modern than a lot of what I’ve seen for 1981; I suspect the author was aiming for easy difficulty which accidentally led to this.

I mentioned environment-as-storytelling; rather than the castle we’ve been teleported to being generic, it gives the impression of having suffered some catastrophe, with snippets of life interrupted.

There’s no “payout” — in a modern game you’d expect some sort of climax where the player discovers What Really Happened, but the mystery remains a mystery even at the end.

Look, a Zork reference! Unless I’m forgetting something, this is the first commercial game we’ve seen where one has appeared.

I suppose if there was a longer windup, this would bother me, but the game is relatively short and clearly focused on just escape. The rough sequence of puzzles is

1.) Find a lamp and a sword clearly codged from Zork, and go down into a gaol.

Parser Oddity #1: The command GET doesn’t work, so GET LAMP is impossible. You have to TAKE LAMP instead.

Parser Oddity #2: The lamp is hard to turn on: LIGHT, ACTIVATE, and SWITCH don’t work. The right command is from the instructions: TURNON, all one word.

Once the room is lit, you see a skeleton there you can destroy.

Parser Oddity #3: ATTACK SKELETON and KILL SKELETON don’t work; you have to SWING SWORD, which shatters the skeleton into pieces.

2.) Find some runes and try to read them; the game, short on details, says YOU HAVEN’T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET. There aren’t many other objects to play with, but there is a cupcake from elsewhere in the castle.

Parser Oddity #4:The CUPCAKE can only be referred to it as a CAKE. I automatically left the room and went back in once I realized I was having noun trouble to see the “short name” and plowed on through rather than lingering. This is a little like seasoned adventure players ignoring clearly gauche design decisions that non-acolytes baffle over; consider, for example, a player with many saved games and a reflexive ability to rewind time vs. a player who keeps only one save file.

Eat the cupcake by typing (sigh) EAT CAKE and you get an “Elvish feeling” which is sufficient to read the runic script.

SPEAK AND THEN ENTER.

This is a cute variation on the usual puzzle: the right command is SAY AND.

This opens a “potion room” by a vault with a door that is too heavy to open. A helpful potion sits nearby. Drinking the potion gives you strength and you can OPEN VAULT. The vault is empty except for a note mentioning a secret under a mattress.

3.) The king’s chambers have a mattress, where looking underneath reveals an amulet. Typing INSERT AMULET (indicated by the note, and it has to be exactly that) opens a room the chamber of the king’s mistress and a hungry-looking bird. Feeding the bird (with birdseed from elsewhere) gets a magic word. The magic word then opens up another room to a wizard’s tower, with a spellbook.

(It’s incidentally possible to solve #3 early without the note, albeit with more verb trouble on using the amulet, making getting into the vault anticlimactic.)

4.) Trying to type READ BOOK in most places just indicates it is being read in the wrong place. I found my way back to the vault, which had a suspicious looking portrait, and READ BOOK led to…

…my getting very stuck.

Parser Oddity #5: Just like Alien Egg, this game features the occasional vague message when something doesn’t work, like SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY, but in most cases with Castle, it isn’t hard to puzzle out what’s going on. Except: on this puzzle in particular, I’m still not even sure how the player character would know they are in the right room. It’s like the computer-narrator is composed of two entities, one for straight narrative, one for meta-narrative error messages given in ALL CAPS. The meta-messages aren’t even intended to be read as “in-game-universe”, I guess, except the messages reflect acts that usually are narrated in-universe, like noting a particular exit is closed? I might be overthinking this one.

This is the only point I needed to reach for hints. The book requires the lamp be turned off (TURNOFF LAMP). Then the book reveals the word XANADU in fiery letters.

The key then opens the front door to the castle and leads to escape.

The game doesn’t “end” here; you just have to assume the victory and quit the game on your own.

You might think the parser oddities would hurt the game more; writing them out, they look pretty bad (and the CUPCAKE isn’t the only object with noun trouble). It really helped that the target was easy rather than hard difficulty; rather than being stuck and mired in place and getting pushed repeatedly with the same puzzle and constantly wondering if the parser was the trouble, I was able to skate through.

Posted September 8, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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