Assignment 45, A Harry Flynn Adventure (1981)   17 comments

You may remember Victor T. Albino as the author of Mount St. Helens, probably the first “stateless” CYOA game designed for computer.

He didn’t stop writing there; in an article for 80 Micro in December 1981 he gave the source code to his game Assignment 45, depicting the adventures of one Harry Flynn, a special agent of United Earth Command. Yes, we’re in the Future.

I admit finding the article oddly vague (the word “flowcharting” shows up quite a bit) but it’s interesting in that most people of the era would not expect a Choose Your Own Adventure in the context of learning to write an “adventure” for computer.

After the, ah, dramatic pauses in the opening above, you are informed of trouble in the “Siran System” as “Abar Callease, Ruler of Sira” has had his daughter kidnapped.

HIS POLITICAL ENEMIES ARE BLAMING EARTH AND DEMAND WAR. CALLEASE HAS ASKED FOR OUR HELP.

You/Harry have a “MAKO JET SLED” for travel, with a “TWIN LASER CANNON, SHIELD GENERATOR, AND FORWARD SCANNERS”. You also have a MEAD CELL (“Matter Energy Amplification Diode”) which brings makes invisible things visible and can direct your thoughts into a “SMALL FORCE BEAM”.

You start your search at the last known whereabouts of the princess.

THE CARGO DOOR OPENED DEPOSITING THE MAKO ON THE SANDY GROUND. HARRY GOT IN. THE ENGINES WHINED, THEN SCREAMED AS THE SLED LIFTED A METER OFF THE LAND AND SHOT FORWARD.

You find a cluster of huts and a force field which is an “electronic barrier”.

Well, indeed. What should you/Harry do?

That question is posed to you, the reader. Yes, I’m doing this one blog play-along style like we did way back with Spelunker. Post votes in the comments, and I will update periodically, and once enough plot has passed, I’ll make a new post. (This isn’t a long game, so I suspect only two more posts after this one will do it.)

I will go by majority-rule on a choice if there’s a clear winner, or pick randomly if there’s a tie. If you/Harry die I’ll rewind to the previous choice. If you want people to vote with you, try justifying your answer rather than just giving your number. Good luck!

Posted July 20, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Demon’s Forge: Finished!   6 comments

At the end, this game raised all sorts of questions about what it means to study digital history.

MS-DOS cover, via Mobygames.

I had left off last time … I mean two times ago … with a killer rabbit.

Unfortunately, the method of getting by was a bit absurd. The vial I used for anti-poison could be refilled at the well (I had discovered that myself, at least) but what I did not find is that GIVE WATER is the right command to get past. (The parser also does its one of only two times using a secondary prompt. “TO WHAT?” to which you need to reply RABBIT.)

I mean, meat-eaters need to drink too, but I’m still baffled as to the general intent here on the puzzle. The puzzle was doubly frustrating in that on one of my runs the rabbit didn’t let me get *any* commands in and I had to restart; after restarting and apparently nothing changing, I got enough moves in to GIVE WATER. This might have been bad luck (some sort of RNG triggering the rabbit to attack that I wasn’t able to reset) or there may have been something genuinely different that incited the rabbit to immediately attack rather than wait (that is, the parallel universe problem, except I still don’t know what the difference between the two games was, then).

After the mess that was the rabbit puzzle I scooped up the wand and was able to use it to burn through another door via USE WAND. (Not WAVE, the game doesn’t understand that.)

Fortunately, I was able to use my blanket and SMOTHER FIRE, which is the only time in the game I came up with an unusual verb and it worked first try. From inside I grabbed an axe that I used to get by a “maze” via SMASH MIRRORS.

I originally tried mapping it by dropping objects and so forth, but I realized pretty quickly I was being sent in random directions so I knew the maze had a “gimmick.”

This led me up to the area with the library and the long useless hall I talked about in my last post.

Since last time, I found a carrot in a garden, after struggling with a guess-the-noun puzzle (you have to dig GROUND or DIRT specifically).

However, the real interesting action happens in a “room of staves”…

…and an “intersection of the elements”. Each direction in the elemental area goes to a room seemingly dedicated to a classical element (a hopper in a mine, a torch on a wall, a well with water, and a glass room with a bottle).

The statue blocks your way, and the business with the staves needs to be worked out. After taking the first stave from the statue room, it turns into a shovel. I realized (after some genuinely edifying thought) that the four staves and the elemental area are connected, and I needed to somehow fulfill the shovel’s destiny in the room with the hopper.

Dropping the shovel? No luck. Trying to DIG there? Also no luck (the game seemingly doesn’t understand the word). Typing commands like HIT MYSELF WITH SHOVEL and SERIOUSLY WHAT into the parser, definitely no luck, but maybe some psychic gratification.

Again I had to run to hints; I found out I missed a room. Unlike my old nemesis Whoops I Didn’t Try North Here Even Though It’s Literally in the Room Description, I’d say this case is most definitely not my fault.

Do you see RUNGS on the wall there? I most certainly do not. At least CLIMB WALL works even if someone doesn’t grab the particular noun “rungs”, but notice there isn’t even a hole in the ceiling to climb into. (This graphic got a new render in later versions of Demon’s Forge, but I’ll be getting to those versions at the end of this post.)

So, climbing up goes to a den with a pendant and boots. The boots cause you to float near the ceiling, and LOOK PENDANT indicates it says DIG WHERE X’S AREN’T. (It only does this if you’re holding the pendant, though!)

Going back to the statue room, I realized the ceiling was X-free, so WEAR BOOTS plus DIG CEILING gave me some dirt. I then toted the dirt over to the hopper, did FILL HOPPER, and finally got results: YOU FILL THE HOPPER WITH THE DIRT AND IT ROLLS OFF. This teleported me back to the stave room where I found the second staff was glowing.

The second staff had a message MY DEATH IS YOUR LIFE so I went and burned it at the torch. The staff poofed away and I went back to the statue room again. Second element down, two more to go.

The third staff need a drop in the well, giving me a message

TO AVOID ETERNAL STRIFE
YOU MUST GIVE THE BREATH OF LIFE
DO THIS DEED FIRST
PAY NOTHING ELSE HEED
OR THESE WORDS MAY BE
THE LAST THAT YOU READ

and following the advice of the poem, before I touched the fourth staff I went down to get the bottle and filled it with AIR. (If you don’t do that, taking the fourth staff kills you.)

The statue asked me to drop the fourth staff again and then I could proceed. The last section of the game is much tighter and less red-herring prone.

The section starts with a dropoff where you need to toss a pillow first, otherwise you die from the fall.

The most outrageous puzzle — the one I remembered from many years back — is right over a bridge.

If you are carrying any inventory past 1 item and try to cross the bridge, you die. The problem is the other side has a silver, gold, and platinum sphere, and you need all three. How do you take them back without dying? The bridge won’t let you make multiple trips, and just trying to throw them from one bridge to the other ends up not working.

The image is a bit mangled, this is another thing fixed on later editions.

I’m not going to spoil it here, because I’m curious if anyone can come up with the answer. Feel free to guess in the comments. Remember, there’s three spheres that need to be carried over a collapsing bridge. I will say I don’t think the physics technically make any sense, but at least the puzzle is memorable.

Moving on, I ran into a sign that was too far away to see.

I, fortunately, had kept a carrot from the garden in the previous section, and due to the long-standing mythology about carrots doing magical things for eyesight, I was able to read the sign.

WITHIN THE FORGE ANARAKULL GOES
TO TEST THE METTLE OF HIS FOES
TO PIT HIS CLAWS AGAINST COLD STEEL
SPIN WISE THE GLOBES INTO A WHEEL

THE SAGE CONFERS A SECRET RHYME
IF HE CAN BUT FIND THE TIME

OF SWORD AND SPEAR–THEY HARMETH NOT
NOR AGELESS COLD OR TIMELESS ROT
BUT BALLS OF VALUE SHIRK HIS HOLD
WHEN HURLED WITH POWER…SLIGHT TO BOLD

I immediately knew the last line meant I needed to throw the spheres I had already obtained in some order, but I still had yet to find the demon — I was being stymied by a locked door.

I needed hints again, and found out I was stung by a parser issue with long-reaching effects. You see, I knew from attempting and failing a few times that CLOSE just gave me an error message (for example, at the chest of the start of the game, I could OPEN but not CLOSE it). So I assumed CLOSE was off the verb list. Not so. It just happens to only work in one place.

In this place, and this place only, you can CLOSE DOOR, which reveals a new room!

The room had the key I sought after, so I was able to break into the demon’s room.

Following the poem, I threw SILVER, GOLD, and PLATINUM spheres in that order (“SLIGHT TO BOLD”) and was victorious!

THE DEMON’S THRONE SLIDES ASIDE REVEALING A DIM CAVERN THAT WINDS ITS WAY TO THE SURFACE. YOU STEP INTO THE BRIGHT SUNLIGHT AND ARE IMMEDIATELY ARRESTED BY GUARDS.

THEY BRING YOU BEFORE THE KING, WHO RETURNS YOUR ORIGINAL WEAPONS AND CLOTHING. ‘WELL DONE ,CHAMPION. BY RETURNING FROM THE DEMON’S FORGE YOU HAVE REGAINED YOUR FREEDOM.’

This is followed by “credits”.

I know Mike Cranford did art, I don’t know if they all did, or if some of the people listed are playtesters or had some other role. It’s interesting Brian Fargo isn’t here even though his name is on the cover.

Demon’s Forge (1981) has an enormous number of parser issues. There are likely some I’m forgetting, but

  • There’s a costume early you need to LOOK to search, and an assassin later you need to SEARCH. When the wrong word is used it isn’t an error, just nothing remarkable is found.
  • CLOSE doesn’t work earlier in the game, and gives an error message that makes it seem like the word is not recognized, except it is essential for a puzzle near the end.
  • There’s some hunt-the-noun going on, like with DIG GROUND in the garden (DIG being another verb that throws off error messages) and the rungs in the guard room.
  • The wand seems to react only to the command USE.
  • There’s a part (the bridge) where you need to drop off all your inventory but you have to drop each item individually.
  • There’s a red gem you have to refer to as RED even though there is only one gem in the game.

Here’s the thing: in the later (1987) DOS edition, nearly all the problems above are resolved. DROP ALL and even DROP EVERYTHING are understood. CLOSE works like it is supposed to. EXAMINE and LOOK are mapped as synonyms (alas, not SEARCH, although if you try to EXAMINE the assassin, it says his pocket “looks full”, so at least there’s an indicator you need a different verb).

The red herrings also had some alleviation in the DOS port. One room full of empty boxes (and wasted time on my part) was cut entirely; the closet is still around but the game just asks “what are you doing in the closet?” rather than keeping mum; the old man at the end of a passage suggests you read some books rather than coming back later (more clearly a joke, given the nature of the library, which skips trekking back and forth the enormous corridor to see if the man says anything different later).

While the points individually may seem small, they added up to wasted time; the sort of thing that seems small on the author end but enormous on the player end. I would say a fair third of the game (for me) was eaten up by strange parser oddities. Even when the parser was acting correctly, I didn’t trust it enough to know if a particular action was the wrong one (the shovel and ore hopper come to mind — I tried many, many actions while there, and I wasn’t able to interpret the parser’s discouragement as letting me know I was on the wrong track).

So: would it have been better if I had played the later version? I haven’t always been picky — I played Zork II in a later edition, for instance, because I knew Jimmy Maher had already tried the first edition, and the same goes for Adventureland. There are some definite upsides to seeing the first version; when Data Driven Gamer tried out Sokoban he insisted on the very first edition for FM-7 computers, and discovered in the process how half the levels required “digging” out rooms in a way no later edition kept.

On the other hand, I’m not here just to document history, but to document the act and psychology of playing games and solving puzzles, and explore how to improve puzzle-solving from the user end and not just the author end. If I only wanted to know what Fargo and his D&D playing friends were up to in 1981, the version I played was fine; if I wanted to experiment with optimal puzzle-solving, the later (and more fair) version would have been a better setting. On top of that, from what I gather the later version was more widespread than earlier ones; if I’m trying to document what other players might have thought of a particular game, an obscure edition none of them saw is likely not the best test.

Further reading: Ahab at Data Driven Gamer also played Demon’s Forge (the 1981 one, of course) and he calls it the worst adventure game he’s ever played. I have played worse, but such are the perils of playing All the Adventures. However, I think it’s fair to say while it still isn’t a good game (there’s still the only-briefly-seen skinny man and the water-drinking rabbit), the 1987 DOS version is much better. If nothing else, it’s interesting in a comparative sense as far as how much a bad parser hurts a game.

(A brief warning: in addition to the 1987 DOS port, there is a 1987 Apple II edition also published by Mastertronic. It seems to be identical to a 1983 Apple II edition published by Boone, but I haven’t studied either. Perhaps a future historian can take a crack; I can tell you that CLOSE doesn’t work on the chest in either version.)

Posted July 17, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Demon’s Forge: 78 Books   Leave a comment

I’m going to pick up with the narrative again on my next post. I wanted to point out an unusual moment later in Demon’s Forge where you come upon a library.

Most adventure games struggle with libraries. They typically either let you read only one book (feels unrealistic) multiple ones chosen at random (generally bad game design) or have some sort of index where you have to look up a particular book to find it. One other option is to simply go ahead and implement a bajillion books, but that’s pretty rare. Even Myst, a game not afraid to infodump from books, had its library previously set ablaze to limit the amount of material.

Demon’s Forge gives a specific and relatively realistic number (78) and if you try to READ BOOK, it gives you a helpful syntax:

HOW ABOUT TELLING ME WHICH BOOK. LIKE READ 23.

On my merry way I did READ 1, READ 2, READ 3, and so forth, told each time THERE WAS NOTHING INTERESTING.

The only change happened at READ 51.

IT’S A STORY OF A MAN WHO WASTED HIS LIFE AWAY READING BOOKS IN THE LIBRARY.

Cheeky! This reflects the game’s generally giving out gobs of red-herring rooms. I can’t confirm yet how many are really red herrings, but there’s already been two labs (one with an empty vat) that have been useless, and while this waterfall room looks like it ought to have something, it’s potentially truly here just for a joke:

Although perhaps you can “become a king” later.

The ratio of useful to useless rooms in the latter part of the game so far has been something like 3 to 20. It’s honestly a bit unusual for this time frame, where computer games have space at a premium. Even the mainframe games of the era, while not conserving space, generally used giant-open area as a structural conceit rather than a joke (see: Haunt, Warp).

There’s additionally a giant corridor composed of many rooms (including the arch above) with an old man at the end who tells you to “come back later”. I peeked at some hints and, apparently, there is no “later”.

Posted July 16, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Demon’s Forge: Omnivores and Carnivores   1 comment

A brief side jaunt into history before starting on the Demon’s Forge proper:

In the book Stay Awhile and Listen, Brian Fargo discussed his early efforts to sell the game. He put one ad in Softalk that cost $2500, 50% of his budget, then would call retailers and tell them he was trying to find a copy of Demon’s Forge and asked if they had it.

They said, “No,” and I said, “Oh, I just saw it in Soft Talk. It looks good. They said, “We’ll look into it.”

Brian would then get an order from the retailer a few minutes later on his other line. Computer guerilla marketing, 1982 style.

He would go on to found Interplay one year later with Jay Patel, Troy Worrell, and Rebecca Heineman (known in those days as Bill Heineman).

(I’d show you the ad, but page 31 which supposedly has it in the Internet Archive scan is missing.)

Last time one of my frustrations was a “skinny man” who ran by but I never saw again. I tried setting out the ration as a “trap” but none of my shenanigans worked, so I broke down and looked it up: you have to FOLLOW MAN the moment you see him, and if you miss doing that you have already lost the game. Once you do that, you can find a previously hidden room:

I was right about the rations, at least: he’ll give you a rod in exchange. This immediately suggested a solution to another problem I had, which was a statue beak grabbing on my hand. One rod application later, and I had a red gem.

If you then GET GEM the game asks you to use RED as the noun instead. I suspect there are multiple gems and the game is trying the hacky way of preventing nameclash.

I then hit some dumb luck. Since I was stuck, I went through my standard list of verbs to see which ones the game understands. As a guinea pig, I used a chest (one that previously held a blanket and pillow) and ran through all the combinations: KICK CHEST, BURN CHEST, FEEL CHEST, etc. This was purely to check for error messages (the message is different when the game doesn’t know the verb at all versus the verb didn’t do anything) and was startled when MOVE CHEST revealed a previously hidden item.

I was able to toss the bag of ashes into the brazier I mentioned last time and summoned a fire elemental named Joe. (If you don’t have the red gem, the fire elemental kills you instead of becomes your friend.)

The fire elemental burned a hole in the double doors I was stuck on, revealing an assassin with a poisoned crossbow. When I attempted to attack I died. Here I needed hints again: I had done SEARCH COSTUME (the one from the start of the game) but not LOOK COSTUME, which revealed a VIAL. The vial turned out to be an anti-poison agent, so I was able to get through.

I was fortunately alert enough to try both LOOK ASSASSIN and SEARCH ASSASSIN; even though LOOK was what found the vial in the costume, SEARCH is the proper verb here (grrr) and that netted me a chime.

The elemental has a second use, of drying up the water in a well (which burns it out; alas, poor Joe).

Ringing the chime opens the door and sends the player into a “trick room”.

Fortunately not hard: you just need to GO LEFT and then GO RIGHT repeatedly until reaching the exit. (The room image above gets repeated once, so I could see someone getting tripped up and going left again, but I was following the instructions literally and kept going right until reaching a room with a sign that said STOP.)

The “carniverous” rabbit is where I’m stuck now. It follows me around and eventually bites me after a few turns. In addition to the wand and hat in the magic room I still have the costume, I’ve filled the formerly anti-poison vial with water, and I additionally have the blanket, red gem, pillow, and chime. The adjacent rooms don’t seem to have anything helpful but I haven’t done much experimentation yet.

(Since I know someone will mention it: I did try getting the rabbit to go into the hat, but haven’t had much luck with any verbs I’ve tried. I freely admit that may still be the solution and I just need to express it properly.)

Posted July 15, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Demon’s Forge (1981)   10 comments

Brawling with the king’s guards is a crime punishable by death. But in considering your prior service as a mercenary in his pay, the king has decided to be lenient. In lieu of death sentence, you have been banished to the dungeon network infamously titled the Demon’s Forge.

You reason that you may as well have been executed. The dungeon has an exit as well as an entrance, but none of the many prisoners sent into it in the past century have left the labyrinth alive. It is little wonder, for they were required to embark without weapons or armor, or even the clothes on their back.

— From the manual

Brian Fargo is a developer still at work today with a long track record of games, including being a designer on Wasteland (1988) and executive producer of Torment: Tides of Numenera (2017). He started his career in high school collaboration with Michael Cranford on a game called Labyrinth of Martagon which “probably sold five copies” but unfortunately seems to have otherwise have vanished (I don’t even know if it is an RPG or adventure according to Andrew Plotkin reporting from a Bard’s Tale postmortem, it was an adventure game). His first game that got “real” distribution came the same year, and was a humble text-adventure-with-graphics for the Apple II.

The cover from the 1981 version.

The cover above I don’t believe has anything to do with the game itself. (Saber Software was Fargo’s creation, so this was still his choice of art.) As the manual’s opening implies, your goal is simply to escape a dungeon; the manual also hints at “a demon of horrible prowess and deadly cunning” named Anarakull who I’m guessing we’ll meet at the end.

I’m going to try taking my time here, because I bought this one back when you could get a new copy! While 1981 was far too early for me, it got republished in the late 80s for DOS by Mastertronic and I snagged that version and played all the way through; I recall needing hints from Kim Schuette’s book but I otherwise don’t remember much except for one (admittedly interesting) puzzle near the end.

I’m playing the original Apple II version which starts you with just “rations”, but I should note the DOS one states you are also carrying your “birthday suit”. I had never heard the term at the time so I spent a while confusedly trying to drop the birthday suit or otherwise interact with it.

I’m stuck fairly early. I found a blanket and pillow, a skinny man running by …

… a statue with a beak with something inside (but trying to reach in gets your hand stuck) …

… and a locked set of doors.

Other than a lab with an empty vat, a brazier, and what appears to be an empty closet. I don’t have access to much, but I’ve only just started playing around.

One last comment on the closet before I close out, though. This is one of those post Hi-Res Adventure games that sometimes describes things in text, and sometimes describes things visually. For example, in the room with the skinny man earlier, the banner is considered an item even though it is only in the picture. Exits are also only given in the visuals; or at least mostly given in the visuals, because it appears the game requires you test some things out randomly. Here’s a brazier …

… but not visible in the brazier picture is an exit to the NORTH, which has the closet.

I assume that’s a “shelf” in the picture but that noun isn’t recognized by the game.

This isn’t nearly as crazy as the map in Goblins, though — everything is rectilinear and only NORTH/SOUTH/EAST/WEST are allowed, not NE/SE/SW/NW. Still, I need to keep up remembering to try random directions as my playing goes forward.

Posted July 14, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Alien Adventure (Zett, 1981)   6 comments

In space, no one can hear you scream.

Peter Kirsch only did three of the Softside Adventures of the Month in 1981 (we recently played the first installment circa June 1981, Arabian Adventure). While Kirsch wrote quite a few through the span of the series, he didn’t do all of them, and that includes the July 1981 installment by Alan J. Zett. It continues the “codge liberally off a movie” theme.

Ripley from the movie, holding a flamethrower.

It’s got two innovations, one very intentional, one potentially accidental.

The accidental innovation is that because it is based on a movie with a female lead, it’s essentially the first adventure with a defined female lead (the loophole being no explicit mention is made in the game itself).

Adventures with defined characters are still rare in this era. They’ve mostly been ciphers for the player to inhabit; even if there’s a backstory, it’s been handwavy enough to allow the player to “be” in the universe.

With All the Adventures we’ve had well-defined male leads with Alderbaran III, Will O’ the Wisp, and G.F.S. Sorceress and a few more minor implied male leads like Dr. Livingston using the pronoun “he” on what might be describing the player character. (For more discussion, there’s a forum thread here that mentions another potential game with a female lead; that one’s about five away on my queue so you’ll get to decide for yourself if it counts soon.)

The intentional innovation is difficulty levels.

We did see some difficulty levels in Lugi which affected the overall time allotted to finish the game, and we’ve had “self-selected” difficulty with optional points in games like Acheton, but the difficulty here is more elaborate and changes three separate things (I’ll get into details when they come up).

The pod has a cat in it. (From the movie, Ripley and the ship’s cat survive, so this is a direct movie reference.)

Exploring the ship, I found a plethora of items including a flamethrower and a tracker. And here we get to our first (and perhaps most important) difference between difficulty levels:

At higher difficulty levels, the Alien will appear randomly, and you need to use a flamethrower on it. On beginner difficulty the Alien does not appear at all (except in egg form later) so you can ignore the flamethrower.

This affects the feel of the game significantly; there’s an added layer of tension, and of course, the flamethrower fills a position in your inventory. (The maximum is five objects.)

To escape, all you need to do is find a power pack that goes in the escape shuttle where you can CONNECT PACK, then PULL LEVER.

I brought the cat along, which is the source of the 10 points.

To get more, you have to grab treasures from the planet. Getting on the planet requires taking a spacesuit, struggling with verbs for a while trying to wear it, and then realizing you can EXAMINE SUIT first and find the command SUIT UP is given explicitly.

The suit has 80 turns of air at difficulty 1, 160 turns at difficulty 2, and 240 turns at difficulty 3.

After wearing the suit and opening the airlock comes the most evil part of the game. There’s a platform outside that lets you JUMP DOWN to explore, but you find out later this gets you stuck — there’s no way back up to the platform. The appropriate action is to EXAMINE PLATFORM (even though it isn’t described as an object)…

…and then the button will cause the platform to lower and raise itself. This is a softlock of maximum annoyance; examining something in the description is not the norm for this game or games in general at the time and this is the kind of softlock where it’s not obvious you’re in a softlock even once you run into it — I assumed for a long time there was an extra puzzle from the planet that would allow getting back up to the planet. Argh!

On the planet, you can DIG HOLE to get to a DIAMOND, and then DIG HOLE while in the hole to get an ALIEN TELEPORTER; both are treasures, although the teleporter doesn’t work. To get out you needed to have previously known to drop a WINCH AND ROPE (an item from back in the ship) and CONNECT ROPE because otherwise, you’re too deep to get out.

This isn’t quite as evil as it could be, because there’s another hole later. You find an alien ship with an open airlock, some slimy corridors, a skeleton, and a RARE JEWEL.

You get stuck if you GO HOLE, but at least this one feels telegraphed. The right actions are to DROP WINCH, CONNECT ROPE, and GO HOLE.

Messing with the egg is unwise; a small alien pops out and gets you.

With the treasures in hand, you can escape … although you’ll still be a little short on points. To get full marks, you need to take FUEL and OXYGEN with you on the shuttle, and blow up the planet on your way out.

(I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure. Also, this is from the sequel many years later, not the original Alien movie, but it works just as well.)

Back on the ship, there’s a reactor with a helpful button that blows everything up, although I’m unclear why the ship would have such a button in the first place.

25 moves for advanced difficulty, 50 for intermediate, 75 for beginner.

Assuming you have all the treasures and have set things to explode, you can get the full 100 points.

As the move count indicates, my final screenshot was taken on beginner difficulty; after finding all the differences above I found them too annoying to deal with on a final run.

I really was rooting for this one — the atmosphere was generally terrific, the tiered difficulty was interesting, and I did get at least some of the buzz of being in the Alien universe. Unfortunately, while I’ve blitzed by them in this explanation, the softlocks (the deep hole and the platform) ended up dominating my gameplay. With this game (and many in general from this era) it’s like each person was mastering different elements of design, while leaving flaws with other elements, but the mastered and flawed parts are slightly different for each game. Because adventure games were so new, there wasn’t enough knowledge and cross-referencing to collate what was being learned in a collective way.

Just to give an impression of my posting schedule, coming up I have (in some order):

1. an update on Alkemstone, since there’s been a surge of interest lately for reasons I’ll get into

2. a return to Star Trek: 25th Anniversary where I finish the second half of the game

3. Brian Fargo’s first game (you might know him better as the designer of the classic CRPG Wasteland)

Posted July 13, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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It Takes a Thief (1981)   2 comments

We’re back to delightfully obscure territory here, with another game not mentioned on any of my usual sources. I found it amidst a giant stack of TRS-80 disks from Gary Hammond with contents given by index card (thankfully transferred to an Excel spreadsheet).

It Takes a Thief originally looked too short to be an adventure game — less than 8K of space, when most adventures hit at least 12K — but since there were other adventure games on the list, I checked it anyway and hit gold.

The game was even good enough to give a year and author name on the first line of code: Copyright 1981 Randy Dobkin.

There’s no intro text, but the premise is clear enough: you’re trying to break into a house and take their stuff, armed with a flashlight and pistol.

Games where the protagonist is depicted straightforwardly as a criminal are rare for this era (although Burglar’s Adventure is another one we’ll see from 1981). However, the premise works as a logical way to stay within the Treasure Hunt tradition since many of the other Treasure Hunt games (raiding a pyramid, say) also involve thief protagonists, just they don’t get acknowledged as such.

If you hang out in this location longer than one turn the neighbor calls the police.

To get inside the house you first need to break in the front door; you find keys under the doormat, but trying to then just use them leads to disaster.

R R R I N G !
The alarm went off!
I’ve been caught.
The police are taking me away.

You can climb onto the roof of the house and find an alarm. The alarm is not described as a normal object you can take, which led me to some serious verb-hunting.

I turned out to be correct with DISARM but I wasn’t holding the keys from the doormat; the “I can’t right now” is just indicating that you don’t have the item you need.

Once inside the house, there’s the fairly standard kitchen, living room, utility room, and so forth, but unlike the standard Your House game, there are people sleeping in the bedrooms.

If you try to open the box you’re given away:

S Q E A K !
The thing needed oil!
I’ve been caught.
The police are taking me away.

There’s WD-40 elsewhere which resolves the issue. The box has a DIAMOND RING, PEARL NECKLACE, and RUBY BRACELET which seems like enough of a haul already? Indeed you can just head back to your getaway car now if you want:

I got away in my getaway car.
You got 480 out of a possible 720 points.
You have earned the rank of Filcher.

To get more you need to dig a little deeper; there’s a SAFE behind a PAINTING that requires a combination, and a file cabinet containing a paper with said combination.

That’s still not quite all the loot.

This one’s fairly elaborate and I admit I needed source code diving. The key is to use an AEROSOL CAN. The problem is if you SPRAY AEROSOL CAN you knock yourself out, but if you can protect yourself from its effect you can knock Rover out.

You have to have a COFFEE CAN and a HALLOWEEN MASK from two of the rooms in the house; and the CHARCOAL from outside where the NOSY NEIGHBOR was.

However, the only way to get by the nosy neighbor is … cold-blooded murder. As mentioned earlier, you start the game with a PISTOL, and for some random reason the house has a SILENCER, letting you achieve a DEAD NEIGHBOR.

With the COFFEE CAN, MASK, AND CHARCOAL all in your inventory at the same time, they become a GAS MASK.

What should I do? SPRAY AEROSOL CAN
Rover passes out.

This lets you steal the television and video recorder. You know, I’m going to say the owner can keep those.

Ok, the fact I could make the choice to pass on the bit where thievery goes into murder was pretty interesting. And I was fairly shocked by how well the parser worked, considering the 8K constraints. (The only other time we’ve seen something comparable in size is ADV.CAVES, which came off as truncated and incomplete; this was decidedly a full game.) I’ve dropped the source code here and you can try it out online by dropping the source into an online emulator.

Posted July 10, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Alien Adventure: A Sadistic Exercise in Not Giving Feedback   2 comments

Matt and Brian Decker poked at the source code of Chao’s Alien Adventure enough that I decided to make another try.

This was perhaps a mistake, or at least for me. For you reading this, it might be entertaining.

TRS-80 Model III, picture by Zalasem1, CC BY-SA 4.0.

AS A COPING MECHANISM FOR HOW BAD THIS GAME WAS I’M GOING TO WRITE RANDOM STUFF FOR CAPTIONS, OK?

The main thing I was missing was I needed to take the glasses (used to read the message in the opening) up to the second floor. Even trying to do so presented some difficulties.

When toting around the glasses, I tried to get the silver knife.

THE KNIFE GENTLY LEVITATES AND FLOATS OUT OF YOUR REACH.

IT COMES BACK TO REST ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM.

This apparently only happens when you’re carrying the glasses, for no clear reason at all. (The knife, incidentally, can be used to drive away the sepulavite instead of the gun, but you have to use the verb KILL instead of STAB even though both are recognized. STAB sometimes works but sometimes it randomly fails.)

ZUB ZUB ZUB ZUB

The glasses also can’t, again for no apparent reason, be carried up the escalator to the second floor. The game just says “No” if you try with no indication that the glasses are the problem. It also just says “No” if you don’t have the knife, or you haven’t visited some of the rooms (?) or if the phase of the moon is wrong and Mercury is out of alignment.

You have to THROW / GLASSES to get them up the escalator.

The glasses let you see the items at the FEED ME and DRINK ME spots upstairs.

The EAT ME spot had a hamburger. The glasses also let you spot a magic cape which (when carried) causes the aliens to be scared away, so you don’t need the gun or the knife anymore after that.

Last time I was stuck at getting overcome with thirst upon trying to get to a rescue ship. The beer was the right beverage (not the root beer, even though the game describes you drinking the root beer). However, DRINK / BEER just gets I can’t. Matt W. sleuthed out that you needed to open the beer first, but OPEN / BEER got an entirely different error message. I finally hit upon (after dying the first time and going through the whole sequence again) that you can only OPEN / CAN instead of BEER.

SOMETIMES I WORRY IF MY WRITING IS INTERESTING ENOUGH

After quenching the thirst you are overcoming by hunger, but fortunately, EAT / HAMBURGER went over correctly without any parser struggles. Then I knew (from previous source diving) that TURN ON / SHIP was the correct command, but I was told

How can I? I’m a computer, not a magician !

I KNOW EVERYTHING HURTS RIGHT NOW BUT IT’S GOING TO BE OK

A bit more poking in the source code revealed I needed to be holding the gold key; I guess it counts as a door key *and* as a key to opening the ship. It is unclear how this fits into the magician reference.

Key in hand, I gave it another try:

I can’t.

I FOUND THIS QUOTE ATTRIBUTED TO HELEN KELLER ABOUT SUFFERING BUT FOUND NO EVIDENCE SHE ACTUALLY SAID IT, WHY DON’T QUOTE BOOKS GIVE THEIR SOURCES?

I needed to also be carrying a generator. The generator is out on the open on the second floor, but sometimes when you try to pick it up it floats away like the knife earlier. I have no idea the conditions when it floats or doesn’t, but I was finally able to get the generator and come back and find that … the ship was broken.

Fortunately, there are three ships, so I tried each one until coming across the right one.

It’s hard to convey how completely bizarre and frustrating this was to play when the game kept throwing sensical and nonsensical obstacles without any notion of what was going on.

WE SHOULD REMEMBER THIS WAS JUST A TEENAGER AND IN THE DEEP EARLY YEARS OF ADVENTURE GAMES BUT I STILL GOT THE IMPRESSION THE GAME WAS INTENTIONALLY MAKING THINGS HARDER THAN THEY NEEDED TO BE JUST TO ANNOY THE PLAYER

LOOK I FOUND A DIFFERENT ACTUAL SOURCED HELEN KELLER QUOTE FROM A LETTER SHE WROTE TO CLAIRE HEINEMAN IN 1943, LET’S FINISH OFF WITH THAT

I am younger today than I was at twenty-five. Of course the furrows of suffering have been dug deeper, but so have those of understanding, sympathy, and inner happiness. Whatever age may do to my earthly shell, I shall never grow cynical or indifferent — and one cannot measure the reserve power locked up in that assurance.

Posted July 8, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Alien Adventure (Chou, 1981)   11 comments

We’ve had quite a few games by teenagers now, enough so that it’s hardly a surprise when I unearth another one: Alien Adventure is a TRS-80 game written by Thomas Chou,

SOPHOMORE 1980-81
WARREN CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL
VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI

What has been surprising so far is a lack of teenaged “voice”. Barring spelling and grammar errors; the sheer minimalism enforced by computer limits has led to relatively brisk prose. For example, in the game I just played, Interstellar War:

A missile streams out from this space ship, and misses the enemy ship!
The enemy ship returns fire with its own missile!
Your point defense laser system knocks it out of the sky just in time before it reaches you!

Compare with the stand-alone story the game was based on, that is, what the teen-aged author Roger Wilcox was like when he didn’t have to worry about character limits.

“Then what are you waiting for?? Send out an anti- missile!!”

The helmsman didn’t waste time in responding, but simply carried out the order. The small missile streaked toward its intended target, but instead of exploding when it hit, it…melted! That thing must’ve had a temperature of over three thousand degrees celsius!! As the thing continued to race toward Zelta-Dee, the commander gave the order to split it with their most powerful microwelding laser. The laser went through it as a sword through butter, but it did not split in half— instead, it reassembled into a long, narrow cylinder. Now it became obvious—yes it was matter, but in the form of a very hot liquid or gas— probably liquid. The commander made his biggest defensive order: “With the only exception being life support, divert all power to the screen!”

In Alien Adventure, Thomas Chou jettisoned some typical parser amenities (you’ll see specifics shortly) for longer text, but that resulted in a very, ah, high school sophomore kind of read.

Before the game proper even starts there’s an “intro” file which gives credit to a “Cord Coslor” in addition to Chou, asks the player PLEASE INSERT 25 CENTS and prompts the player to type the number 25, and then has a long screen before the game proper starts.

Now this reminds me of the writing of teenagers; the rambling tone, the bragging about the BASIC being machine language quality, the “SINCE YOU’RE CRYING NOW JUST FORGET IT YOU BIG BALL BABY” line and the “MWA” at the end.

The game asks your name and if you’re male or female, and then it’s off to the mission:

The game strongly hinted (in that long opening) you needed to HIT DOOR, so I was quite baffled when I HIT DOOR and the game responded “What ?”

This wasn’t an error message. The parser asks for the verb and noun separately. “Your command” is not referring to a full VERB NOUN combo, but just the verb; then it prompts “What ?” where you enter just the noun.

This was an absolute pain and I kept accidentally typing two-word commands the entire time I was playing, then having to type the noun again. An example from later in the game:

THERE IS A HEAVY DUTY FLASHLIGHT HERE.

Your command ? GET FLASHLIGHT

What ? FLASHLIGHT

(This is incidentally the approach some early Japanese adventure games used, since parsing Japanese is difficult and really only managed successfully when SystemSoft made ports of Infocom games in the 90s.)

Back to the opening: after HIT and then DOOR:

You’re dropped in a space station with lots of bodies and aliens that attack at random.

You have a gun (from the start) which you can use to teleport but not kill the aliens.

There are at least two sepulvadites; a male and female version. Remember, the game asked you to choose a gender at the start; if you are the opposite gender of the sepulvadite you are facing, you can KISS / SPULVADITE to drive it away.

They’re strictly hetero; if you try to kiss the male alien when you’re male or female alien when you’re female, you’re told “Being a member of the same sex, it (Luckily) shows no interest in you.”

Placed randomly, the first floor of the station has a silver knife, a key, a flashlight, a battery, a root beer, and glasses.

The glasses can be used to read a message on the wall.

To escape, you need to get into one of the “hidden passage” rooms using UNLOCK / DOOR followed by OPEN / DOOR while holding a key. Inside the hidden rooms are dark, so you also need a flashlight and a battery and then the commands TURN ON / FLASHLIGHT.

TURN ON I needed to dive the source code for; I was under the impression all verbs were single word commands, so I tried LIGHT (as works in most games) but no: it has to be specifically TURN ON.

Once inside the hidden passage, you can try CLIMB / ESCALATOR but sometimes it doesn’t work and the game says “No”. I don’t understand why; when this happened I would wander the station a little and come back and try again.

The second floor has three escape ships. The goal (according to the source code) is to find the correct one of the three ships, TURN ON / SHIP, and fly to victory. I’m saying “the source code” because I never quite managed it, possibly due to a bug.

The problem is when entering the ship room the game is programmed to make the protagonist thirsty.

While dying from thirst, the player can’t use the ship. I drank root beer which had a message indicated the effect was cured, yet the effect kept going. So I suspect there’s a bug here.

I might be missing something. There’s a room with a voice saying DRINK ME

a similar one with a voice saying EAT ME, and a moss that complains about being dry.

However, I haven’t been able to get anything useful to happen at those places, and death results in a reset with the strange non-working escalators, so I’m past my patience enough to throw in the towel here. The alien eats well tonight.

(Still, there’s always someone from my audience who is curious, so you can play the game online here or read the source code here.)

Posted July 7, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Interstellar War: Safe for Peace   6 comments

For those not versed in the ways of Star Trek, a brief supercut of technobabble from Discovery:

Starting in the Next Generation days, writers would often put “(TECH)” in their draft scripts to be later filled in by the science advisor André Bormanis. With technobabble, the audience does not need to understand the actual content of what is being said; it only needs to be conveyed that the characters have confidence in what is going on.

In interactive form, having the audience not understand how things work is significantly more of a problem. Infocom’s Starcross (1982) managed fairly well with the inclusion of realistic physics which could be sussed out by a canny player; Interstellar War’s second part of the game, on the other hand, mostly feels like “magic”.

I left off last time having teleported onto a ship orbiting above the main character’s destroyed planet, and a “treaty”. The room with the treaty also had a red button marked “limbo” and a gold button marked “fire” which did nothing. A bit of poking around yielded a computer room with a “chip shunt”, a “engine room” with an “empty drive box”, and a “vacuum oven” where it’s possible to die in colorful fashion.

You are in a plastic room beside a vacuum oven. Visible items:

Pulled-down lever. Open oven door.

Obvious exits: West

>PUSH LEVER
Ok
Through a window in the door, you see a red glow.
And the heat comes out! You’re fried!

A storage room included a magnetic bottle, field-charged tongs, a lightning rod, and a suit of hardened titanium armor.

Technobabble Moment #1: In the engine room, there’s valve which releases “fusile deuterium” from the engine; in normal circumstances this kills you, but if you’re holding the magnetic bottle, it gets contained inside. There’s no reason to suss this out other than just experiment.

You are in the engine room. Visible items:

Window into engine. Large knob & valve. Empty drive box.

Obvious exits: North

>TURN KNOB
A stream of fusile deuterium shoots out from the engine, and is instantly pulled into the magnetic bottle.

This is still pretty easy to run into accidentally, but here I was terribly stuck and had to resort to periodic checks at Dale Dobson’s walkthrough. (He himself had to check the source code for some things.)

The first thing I missed was that the titanium armor lets you go back to the sandstorm that melted the wrench from last time, and enter it. I admit a failure to visualize; I didn’t think of the sandstorm being an extra “room” it was possible to enter.

You’re right on top of a dangerous whirlpool of sand. The sand is swirling fast enough to grind anything.

Obvious exits: South

>ENTER WHIRLPOOL
You are in the sandy whirlpool. Visible items:

Piece of silicon.

Obvious exits: Up

Technobabble Moment #2: Once you have the silicon you can take it back to the vacuum oven, turn on the oven, and end up with … still the silicon, but also some transistor crystals.

>PUSH LEVER
Ok
Through a window in the door, you see a red glow.

>PULL LEVER
Ok
The glow from the oven window ceases.

>OPEN DOOR
Ok

>GO DOOR
Ok

You are in the vacuum oven. Visible items:

Piece of silicon. Transistor crystals.

Technobabble Moment #3: You can then take the two items and MIX which obtains a computer chip, which is then usable at the chip shunt. This fixes the inactive red and gold buttons. The gold button fires a missile which flies harmlessly into space, while the red button complains the engine isn’t working yet.

>PUSH GOLD
A missile streams out from this space ship, and travels harmlessly into space.

Technobabble Moment #4: To fix the engine requires dropping the bottle with fusile deuterium, getting out the lightning rod and typing THROW ROD.

>DROP BOTTLE
Ok

>THROW ROD
It flies into the air, catches a bolt, and brings it down to the bottle.

The bottle becomes a “reverse-charged bottle” in the process.

Technobabble Moment #5: Now the bottle can be inserted into the empty drive box at the engine, and the engine is now described as full of antimatter. So (begin Trek monologue here) fusile deuterium combined with lightning obtained by throwing a lightning rod should generate sufficient antimatter to run the drive, Captain! (end Trek monologue)

>PUSH RED
A tunnel of seemingly infinite length forms in front of your ship, and it is suddenly whisked into it. Stars pass by at tens of thousands of times the speed of light for a few minutes, and then the “limbo” travel draws to a close.

This flies the ship into a confrontation with the enemy! Fortunately, we have the arsenal of freedom:

>PUSH GOLD
A missile streams out from this space ship, and misses the enemy ship!
The enemy ship returns fire with its own missile!
Your point defense laser system knocks it out of the sky just in time before it reaches you!

>PUSH GOLD
A missile streams out from this space ship, and scores a direct hit!
In a soundless concussion of light, the entire enemy ship is enveloped in a thermonuclear fireball!
You’ve made the systems safe for peace! … For now.

This would have been mostly satisfying without the technobabble blitz. The usual “fix” would be to add more description to the various items so that, e.g., it’d be clear that the lightning rod was a thing you throw. I realize intent was likely to force the player to experiment; while experiment can on occasion be satisfying, the overall narrative effect was of the main character blundering into a working ship.

From the first-draft script for Voyager’s episode Parallax, season 1. You can see the use of (TECH). Image originally from an eBay auction.

Posted July 3, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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