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CIA Adventure (1980)   4 comments

After all the complications of Quarterstaff, it’s a relief to jump back into a simple 1980 TRS-80 game. In this case, one published on the “tape magazine” CLOAD. (They called themselves “the first magazine to be written for computers … If you are a TRS-80, you can read it.”) If you remember Spider Mountain Adventure, that made it on a 1979 edition of CLOAD.

This seems to be one of only two games by Hugh Lampert (the other one, Medieval Adventure, is also from 1980) and given the game was meant to fit on part of one side of a tape, I didn’t have high expectations.

I was pleasantly surprised. Not in a “this is an undiscovered masterpiece” way — I won’t even disagree with IFDB’s current score of one-and-a-half out of five stars — but playing with some general expectations built in, it’s better than the usual tape game.

I could go on a long theory tangent here. Let’s put it in a footnote.

The general expectations are:

1. You’ll need to fish for verbs. This is definitely the year for guess-a-verb, far more so than previous years (which had a lot of either mainframe games which had enough capacity to be flexible, Greg Hassett games that were simplistic enough to not need many verbs, or Scott Adams games that generally well behaved about synonyms with the rare exception). For instance, the game starts in front of a tall office building where >ENTER BUILDING is not understood (you have to GO BUILDING). I just consider figuring out the “verb frame” to be part of the game, and keep a running list of verbs that work to aid with puzzles.

2. Verisimilitude is very light. As the excerpt above indicates, you play a government agent looking for a stolen ruby. You might expect an evil villian complex to be crawling with minions, but other than a door man that throws you out of the building at the very start (you need to drop your CIA badge outside, and then it’s ok; no, really, that’s it) there’s a grand total of one guard to deal with. You break into the president’s office and even the center of a basement lair without a single alarm bell. Everyone is out on vacation, I imagine.

3. Like Scott Adams games (which this one emulates in layout) there aren’t really “room descriptions”, just room names where the items in the room are meant to convey the sense of atmosphere.

This is not a gather-the-treasures game. You know there’s a ruby, and even have a good idea early on where the ruby is – the previously mentioned single guard is next to a heavy door on the top floor of the building – so you just have to get to it. This makes the game feel like it has an arc, and I even formulated a couple plans on the way (not all of them worked; I tried to get all the items a janitor might have as a disguise, but the guard still threw me out).

The game hence passed the “feeling like a plot rather than solving an arbitrary sequence of puzzles” bar, which is something even modern games can struggle with.

The sequence of events, roughly: 1. break into the president’s room, and find out a secret word which 2. allows you to go into a secret basement, where you find some helpful items which 3. lead to you finding a videotape which gives an important code finishing at 4. being able to get by the guard, reclaim the ruby, and use a stolen device to escape to safety.

Despite the verb issues I managed to finish in a few hours without even bending towards a hint sheet. This online version emulates the TRS-80 if you want to give it a try.

One caveat is that there is no danger for most of the game until the endgame. There’s no save game feature so death in the endgame means restarting and playing all the way back through. You can think of it as the stakes being higher, I guess?

The Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures used this picture to illustrate the source code. It has absolutely nothing to do with the game.


Parser games at this time were still grappling with the idea of “who are you typing these commands to?” Scott Adams games have an “I”, as in “I can’t go in that direction”. Oddly, though, there was still the feeling “you” were in the game, even when the character had other established context (like how The Count starts in media res and only implies what happens in the missing time). As a directional chart, it’s (you, giving command) -> (to computer “narrator” who establishes it as doable) -> (sending action to character inside story, who may or may not be “you”).

With CIA Adventure you’ve got a “partner” with you, essentially an unseen second character who by happenstance only understands two word commands. It’s a little unclear if you’re “talking in a headset” or literally walking along with them. I would lean to the headset idea, but the game constantly uses “we” as a pronoun, and there’s also one notebook and one video addressed to “you” by name (you enter your name at the start of the game for this purpose).

Certain non-English text adventures expose this problem by requiring a tense for verbs. I’ve seen first person, imperative, and third person all as defaults, depending on the language and era. Some of this might have been cultural expectations, and some might have just been historical inertia settling on the tense of whatever games kicked off the genre in that language.

I personally have always thought of the command prompt as a sort of dungeon master; the game stops while I communicate my intentions, with an implicit “I want to…” before the command (or if it’s a named character, “Frank wants to…” or whatnot). This doesn’t parse with something like >DON’T PANIC from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but that game was pretty unique from both a parser and character perspective.

Posted June 9, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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