Archive for the ‘breckenridge-caper-of-1798’ Tag

The Breckenridge Caper of 1798 (1982)   1 comment

The simulation occurs in the era when Napoleon is just beginning to emerge as the power in France. Acting as Ezekiel Breckenridge, a spy in His Majesty’s Service, it is your task to offset the intensity of these chaotic times in order to secure the interests of king and country.

— From the manual

The Apple II started to become an educational powerhouse quite early, especially when MECC (the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation, they of Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand) started to go all-in on the platform. But of course, there were more companies other than MECC trying to get on the action, like Spinnaker, a highly professionalized company founded strategically and based on venture capital; we’ll eventually get to them and their involvement with “Bookware”.

Superior Software (also located in Minnesota like MECC), despite targeting the same market, is not in the same category: it was the solo effort of Stephen Cabrinety, who was 16 years old at the time. His company came out with three “simulation” games.

Softalk, December 1983.

Legendary Conflict and Quest for the Scarlet Letter both seem to be genuinely enough on the simulation side that I won’t be playing them; The Breckenridge Caper, on the other hand, despite also being described as a simulation, is clearly an adventure game, with a map to explore, items to find, places to search, and puzzles to solve.

Via the Museum for Computer Adventure Games. I think a Simulation would be easier to sell in this case than an Adventure; “simulation” was a common word amongst history educators at the time, as classroom simulations became popular starting in the 1970s; having a Revolutionary War classroom game, for instance, where has half the class start as Revolutionaries and half start as Loyalists.

By 1798, while Napoleon was ambitious but hadn’t yet declared himself First Consul (1802) or Emperor (1804). He went on a campaign in Egypt — disrupting the British who used it as a route to India — and the game seems to be set right when Napoleon is still en route from France to Egypt.

A French diplomat described as a “Robespierre idealist” has made contact with the British and claims information about French military movements; your job is to meet the diplomat and obtain what he has.

The entire game is set on a pair of long streets in the city of Portsmouth, where the diplomat is supposed to make an appearance. The geography is on a circle, as you can go either LEFT (L) or RIGHT (R), and if you move enough times you loop back to where you start. There’s one side street reachable via an ALLEY (A). Most locations are by a building where you can then type ENTER and go inside; the buildings then either have everything happen in prompts, with no physical location, or have an room described by the game (where you can pick up items or SEARCH). If you study the map I have some exits marked by “x”; those are the ones that aren’t “real rooms” in the sense of an adventure game.

A portion of the overall map, the starting room is marked in green. This was taken while my gameplay was in progress, and the rooms marked in the corners are the one I’ve already used SEARCH on.

While the game actions are clearly adventure-related — you’re keeping an eye on time and hunger, but both are adventure standards — it is curious how it still feels slightly adventure-adjacent. Almost as if in an alternate universe with no Crowther/Woods Adventure, simulations would be another route to eventually develop adventure games (maybe without compass directions?)

Some places just sell things; you can get food or a place to stay at night, for instance. Some places are intended to allow you to grab items, either right out in the open or after a SEARCH.

Two items you can find are a RAZOR (at a barber shop) and a ROPE (at some stables) which can help find off some robbers who attack if you try to wander around at night; you can, however, simply avoid the night altogether.

The initial goal is to figure out what the diplomat looks like. The game isn’t fully clear on the plot here but it seems that the diplomat has already been in town long enough for a few people to notice; one way to find him is via a clothing shop where the diplomat has bought a disguise.

However, the clerk needs to be bribed in order to talk; you can go to a silversmith and buy something silver for 100 pence that will make the clerk happy.

Much simpler is to go in a coffeehouse; with coffee and a newspaper, you find information in a newspaper that identifies what the diplomat looks like.

Either way, the next task is tracking the diplomat down. The easiest thing is to simply run across him randomly; while checking the disk file later, I found content indicating there’s a magic scroll somewhere (!?) that can also be used to locate him.

The password bit is curious — there’s a couple places in the game where you can find phrases. You can donate at a church to get MAY GOD DELIVER THY SOUL. You can give money to an almanac maker to get AVARICE IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL.

As seen earlier, searching in some shipyards gets TIP THE TREE OF EVENTS AND SHAPE THE FUTURE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD. The actual phrase comes from searching at a newspaper and searching and finding a plaque: PRIDE IS CHIEF DETERRENT TO PROGRESS.

Typing that phrase (in whole, and without a period mark) is the password. It is unclear why a random plaque in a location the diplomat just arrived at would also be a password, and why we as the spy who was supposed to make contact never was told about it but — let’s just move on.

The problem with moving on is: I don’t know what to do here. This essentially is the end of the game already. I tried killing enough time that the “48 hours” we have runs out, and if that happens you lose. You can also get game over in other creative ways, like being recruited to the navy.

It could be as simple as declaring we’re finished but with a command I’m not understanding? In any case, I checked the file after and saw the winning message was

THREE CHEERS FOR A HERO OF THE WORLD! YOUR EFFICIENCY IN PERFORMING YOUR ASSIGNMENT HAS ALLOWED BRITISH NAVAL FORCES TO BLOCKADE CAIRO HARBOR AND THUS DEFEAT THE FRENCH ARMY COMMANDED BY THE ‘CORSICAN MONSTER’.

Which is good enough for me.

The game somewhat oversells its educational value; the instructions claim the need for SOME KNOWLEDGE OF EUROPEAN HISTORY AND ENGLISH LITERATURE. Perhaps I’m missing something in one of those two items in order to trigger the end game, but really, the setting was very loose on accuracy. Still, importantly, the setting felt different, and the “simulation” orientation led to some aspects (like optional encounters and puzzles) that were unusual for adventures at the time. This is another case, like Nellan is Thirsty, where innovation is triggered by aiming for a different audience than is normal.

Cabrinety unfortunately died young: of cancer in 1995. He still well-remembered, though, because he had been building a computer collection since 1975 and founded the Computer History Institute for the Preservation of Software in 1989, essentially the first of its kind. His collection now resides at Stanford.

It’s taken more than a decade to comb through the 800 or so file-size boxes of games and other software (another 150-odd mini-fridge-size boxes of hardware remain), but processing of the Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection in the History of Microcomputing at Stanford is now nearly complete. Eric Kaltman, who has been chiefly responsible for cataloging the collection, says the value of the assemblage is that it reflects not only “things that existed,” but “how people interacted with them.”

In addition to realia such as the Odyssey “brown box” (the very first video game console) or the Pong home-version game controller, early computer magazines—at one point Cabrinety subscribed to 60 different publications, according to his sister—reveal “perceptions of the media at the time, where people thought computers were going.” The intervening years have seen video games and interactive entertainment emerge as a dominant expression of culture, Kaltman says. “It’s good to be able to show a history and track a lineage, see trends emerge.”

And, thanks to Cabrinety’s foresight, we can.

Posted March 3, 2023 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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