Archive for the ‘deathship’ Tag

Deathship (1980)   20 comments

Or, including the subtitle, DEATHSHIP, AN ADVENTURE TYPE GAME.

“It’s a cruise ship — but it ain’t the Love Boat and survival is far from certain.” COMPUTE! magazine, November/December 1980. The ad has a space between “Death” and “ship” here but this wasn’t an era for title consistency.

When learning techniques of a creative art, the typical method is to look a works generally agreed to be good (“masterpieces”, perhaps) and work out what techniques made them high quality in the first place.

An alternate, less common method is to look at bad things — awful even — and extract negative lessons. Antitechniques, if you will.

Deathship by Rodger Olsen is the first of six games from 1980 published by Aardvark, originally for the Ohio Scientific Computer. We’ve already seen one of the games, Trek Adventure.

The Ohio Scientific had a standard loadout of 8K of memory at a time most computers were working with 16K. This is important in that any programs had to be twice as stringent about tight code. (For reference, most home computer games for All the Adventures have used at least 16K. The tiny ADV.CAVES was 8K. The smallest we’ve seen has been Haunted House which used a two-sided tape with 4K on each side.)

With Trek Adventure, this had visible effects (including a parser that only took the first two letters of each word), but the game managed to cover for any tech issues well enough I only noticed the 8K issue halfway through the game.

This is not the case with Deathship; the parser is so pared down it’s one of the most infuriating I’ve ever experienced.

Here’s the main problem: when a parser command is successful, there is no prompt stating so, nor any other indication as to what the game did. When I typed GET MESSAGE the game did, in fact, pick up the message, but the blank response led me to think GET didn’t work so I tried TAKE instead.

This carries on to any action that causes change in the world. Open a cabinet, and there might be something inside, but the game isn’t going to tell you! In these cases I couldn’t even find a way to get the room description again; I had to leave the room and come back.

I AM IN A LIFE BOAT
I SEE
*EMERGENCY LOCKER
OBVIOUS EXITS ARE
NORTH

TELL ME WHAT TO DO
? OPEN LOCKER

TELL ME WHAT TO DO
? GO NORTH
I AM IN AFT DECK
I SEE
*LIFEBOAT *SWIMMING POOL
OBVIOUS EXITS ARE
NORTH
UP

TELL ME WHAT TO DO
? GO LIFEBOAT
I AM IN A LIFE BOAT
I SEE
*FLASHLIGHT *OPEN LOCKER
OBVIOUS EXITS ARE
NORTH

This is already a colossal headache, but most actions that don’t work give a blank prompt as well. Unrecognized verb? Blank prompt. Tried to take an item that wasn’t in the room? Blank prompt.

Okay. Breathe. Let’s summarize the plot. After GET MESSAGE / READ MESSAGE done in the proper order at the start:

ABANDONING SHIP-NO CHANCE OF FINDING BOMB BY 9:00

This is essentially a repeat of the Trek Adventure plot; you’re left on an abandoned ship headed for disaster and have to fix the problem. If you want to make sense of it, imagine you were taking a nap somewhere and didn’t notice the entire crew going off-board, and the action starts right when you’ve wandered into the radio room trying to work out what’s going on.

First, you can go north to the bow and climb down the anchor chain; this lets you slip in a porthole to the bilge and hold. In the hold is a crate that you can take back to the bow and use to get high enough to reach the mast, and a rope.

You can then tie the rope to the midship deck railing to climb to the captain’s cabin, and get a key which unlocks the brig and reveals an axe.

The structure makes this all feel dynamic; on the map, the “hallway” gets passed through multiple times through this process. The first time involves just finding two locked doors, although you can peek in the north door to find out what’s there. The second time, the player enters from the south (which lets you leave the previously-locked door open). On the third pass, the player enters from the north (leaving that door open as well).

The finale is then at the hold with a heavy locked and hinged door. And … I wish I could describe the rest, but here I’m very stuck, and the parser isn’t doing itself any favors, and there’s always the strong possibility of a bug. I know from browsing the source code that the bomb is in the engine room just past the heavy door, but the style of BASIC is very hard to read.

I’m happy to invoke my “give every game a strong effort” rule and skip the ending. If someone wants to take a crack (and I’m very understanding if you don’t) there is a C64 version online. Otherwise, I’m moving on to safer territory.

Also, let me take a moment to beg to all authors on all games anywhere for the love of all that is holy please make your interface feedback transparent. If the user succeeds in doing something, make it clear the result; if they failed, make it clear why they failed. (I could follow this up by threatening to visit them personally and make them play Deathship should they violate this rule, but nobody deserves that.)

Posted July 29, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Deathship: and the Parser of Doom   4 comments

Voltgloss (a regular to this blog) was very determined to see this one through (and gave me enough hints to finish as well), although getting to the end required plowing through four (four!) entirely different parser issues.

Last time, I was stuck in the ship’s hold, unable to reach the engine room which contained a ticking time bomb.

I AM IN THE HOLD
I SEE *HEAVY HINGED LOCKED DOOR
*A FAINT TICKING NOISE
*SIGN-ENGINE ROOM AFT
*OPEN DOOR

I had a “crate” I had already used as a step-stool to reach a high mast, but I had been unable to open the crate. I had an axe and had tried various permutations of
>HIT CRATE:

WITH WHAT?
?WITH AXE
NOTHING HAPPENED

The “WITH” has been pretty standard phrasing in two-word parsers up to this point when we’ve needed to provide a follow-up command; it turns out I needed to use just “AXE”. The interesting part, and parser issue #1, was that I had tested that exact thing, but on a second playthrough where I apparently wasn’t holding the axe. Rather than “YOU AREN’T HOLDING THE AXE” the game has “NOTHING HAPPENS” for every single response that doesn’t work. The entry box is entirely free so you could technically try to hit things with a >GOLF CLUB or >20TH CENTURY POSTMODERNISM and get the same response.

Upon opening the crate I found screwdrivers. Since the locked door is described as “hinged” I figured I needed to unscrew it, but I ran into parser issue #2: there is a flashlight that turns on with LIGHT and turns off with UNLIGHT. Because the parser only accepts the first two letters, UNSCREW couldn’t be added as a new verb. Voltgloss found the right technique was GET DOOR, which is one of those marginally-plausible phrasings that’s still unlikely anyone playing naturally would find.

Having tore the door down, I finally reached the bomb.

I AM IN ENGINE ROOM
I SEE *BOMB WIRED TO A POST

The ending puzzle is surprising elaborate and would be even a little fun were it not for parser issues #3 and #4. Parser issue #3, in particular, was that I realized a bucket full of water might be a good method of bomb defusing. There was a swimming pool with water on the top deck, but upon filing the bucket “IT’S LEAKING!!!” started appearing. There was still time to take the bucket down to the engine room and DROP WATER (hopefully on the bomb) but this was followed by another IT’S LEAKING message which suggested to me that I was going down entirely the wrong path.

Except … I wasn’t, and the game didn’t bother to make a special message along the lines of SORRY THE BUCKET IS OUT OF WATER. (Again, I needed Voltgloss’s hints to even realize this.)

In the meantime I had found a CUTTER by removing the nails holding down a radio. (Commenter Lisa logically asks what kind of radio would be held down by nails, to which I say: I have no idea. I also don’t know why the radio would be hiding a cutter.) I went to CUT BOMB and found a “wire” appeared in the description, but otherwise no change. Parser issue #4: the bomb is still “wired to a post” yet the bomb is no longer that well wired, because you can pick it up and carry it with you.

The bomb is too bulky to come all the way up the stairs to the water (you’re carrying too much, the game says) but by moving the bomb, I was able to bring it close enough that I could get another bucket of water and reach the bomb fast enough that there was still water left. After DROP WATER another turn passed, and then:

The end puzzle was a neat idea — you couldn’t bring one thing all the way from A to B, or one thing all the way from B to A, but you could meet the two things in the middle halfway. That’s far more sophisticated design than I expected, and it gives me hope that the next Aardvark game (Mars, finished between this one and Trek Adventure) keeps the interesting puzzle ideas and structure but has an improved parser.

ADD: In the comments, scaryreasoner mentions this game was later sold in a “learn how to make an adventure” pamphlet form. I think Mr. Olsen may have been slightly sheepish about selling it as a standalone game.

dshipad

Posted August 1, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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