Archive for the ‘fortress-at-times-end’ Tag

The Fortress at Times-End (1981)   9 comments

The Fortress was both ancient and new; in the valley of Time-Stands-Still time was not. The sun froze at midday, for there was no night. The battlefields were strewn with freshly slain soldiers of two forgotten armies. Death hovered above the Fortress at Time’s End, and chuckled at the cosmic joke. The dead could not die, because to do so would be to advance in time a kitten’s breath, an instant – and, of course, that could not happen because time was frozen.

This is a direct continuation of Revenge of Balrog, so if you’ve arrived here without reading about that game, you should go there first.

The publisher Bob Lidill (of the Programmer’s Guild, who we’ve seen most of the library of now) also published tabletop roleplaying supplements under the name Rider Fantasy Creations. According to this interview, briefly in 1981 he “inadvertently” owned the character Grimtooth due to a paperwork mix-up. Grimtooth is familiar amongst tabletop-RPG aficionados as the fictional author of Grimtooth’s Traps.

The traps are not tied to any particular system so the books are still used by GMs who are hungry for blood and/or comedy.

Another one of the Programmer’s Guild games — Gauntlet of Death, by Charles Forsythe — was loosely based on Grimtooth. We’ve skipped over it because it isn’t really an adventure game, but here’s a screenshot anyway:

Top down view, you’re the “+” sign.

This is all pertinent for both Revenge of Balrog but especially its follow-up. Fortress at Times-End is trap-heavy in a classic dungeon crawl sort of way that makes me think Don and Freda Boner were also familiar with the ways of Grimtooth.

From The Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures.

The game also has a bizarre opening where I was stuck for a good half-hour. You start outside the castle with a closed drawbridge, and the knife, hat, and sword from the previous game in your inventory.

A screenshot of frustration.

I was ready to start perusing source code when I realized I hadn’t tried the meta-commands “HELP” or “HINT”. Deciding I needed to see if there was in-game help first, I tried HELP, which opened the drawbridge.

We’ve had games where HELP/HINT give information that’s been essential (Bilingual Adventure and Alien Egg spring to mind) but this is what normally is a command to the computer with no in-game reference being delivered as sort of a magic word. (SAY HELP incidentally does nothing even though the verb SAY is understood.)

Not far in is a “portrait of Bnai T’ Loth, the Red Warlock of Death” followed by your hat vanishing and your sword turning into a “long pipe”.

The hat shows up not long after in a “hat rack”, followed by a chest of gold which is (of course) a trap.

Progress continues one-way into a wine cellar, and, oddly, a confrontation with the Balrog, who doesn’t do anything and I assume you’re supposed to just skip by.

FIGHT BALROG: “Try something else”

This is followed by yet another trap where the walls are closing in, and the game helpfully says you need to LEAVE an item behind to survive (it’s the long pipe that your sword magically turned into).

Immediately after there’s a very standard maze where all the rooms have helpfully been marked with various torture devices, with the catch that the maze is timed; you die after a set number of turns inside. This is one of the most uninteresting game timers I’ve run across, because there’s no way to “hurry it up” exploring — the connections are all random so there’s no strategic choices where you might suss out the right way to go, you just get lucky or you don’t.

For a timed event to have drama, I have to feel I have failed somehow if I missed the timer (like the ending of Domes of Kilgari). Here it’s more like I’m forced to roll two dice and get double-sixes in a set number of rolls — so what if I didn’t get lucky?

After the maze, I found a key and fumbled my way up to a small “second floor” area with a dining room, living room, library (the book case has a sword, for when a book deserves a really bad review), a dining room, a kitchen, and a breakfast room. The dining room is the most interesting place, but also a trap:

The table doesn’t otherwise react when you drop the wine bottle, and after that only EAT FEAST seems to work. Dropping the bottle anywhere other than the feast just causes the bottle to explode. Dropping the bottle at the feast, leaving, and coming back leads to no reaction that I can find (although I acknowledge I might need to play around with this more).

I’m not sure why I’m being resistant to hints on this one; I suppose the author-vs-player dynamic here is a little more pronounced and I want to win. Also, the bonus feeling of I got past the completely obscure opening, surely I can beat this one. So while my readers like to look in source code ahead of me, if you do, please leave any comments in ROT13; I’m going to keep hacking a bit longer.

From that river came Seerson — as had explorers and Adventurers before him — seeking the key that would unlock the Fortress, releasing the secrets contained within.

The Spirit-of-the-Sky hovered above the valley, as did Death, each waiting to see what would become of Seerson. These two cosmic entities eyed each other warily, while below Seerson tackled the puzzle.

The cosmic dice rolled once more…

Posted February 7, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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The Fortress at Times-End: In Which the Balrog Tries to Take Over the Computer   8 comments

I was near the end, and got to experience a quirky trick which I haven’t experienced for this project outside The Prisoner.

Before I get going, I need to share this screen from earlier in the game I skipped mentioning. Also, this is a fun reminder that “you” are not really there in many of the games of this era, there is a literal computer narrator who is choosing what to share.

The only thing I was missing was I could MOVE CASE and push aside the bookcase I got the sword from.

I’m unclear if the wine bottle needs to be dropped off or if you could have skipped picking it up in the first place, but if you’re holding it still when you try to go in the passage it explodes.

This eventually leads up to a closet which asks for a password.

Here is the Balrog sequence in full.

Hideo Kojima, the prototype version. (That link gives a pretty good description of the Psycho Mantis fight from Metal Gear Solid, where Psycho Mantis reads the actual contents of your Playstation memory card and taunts you about how many times you saved in Castlevania; also, since he can read your mind, the only way to defeat him is to unplug your controller from slot 1 and plug it into slot 2.)

Having experienced two trap-based games in a row, I’d like to zoom in on the question: what makes a satisfying trap?

Perhaps the true answer is “none at all”, but even Monkey Island had a trap (as a gag which kept the game going). But going with the premise that we’re going to have a game with traps, then what would work–

On one end is when player agency is taken away almost entirely. In Revenge of Balrog there were a fair number of rooms where going the wrong direction was death; going >WEST sending the player off a cliff. Even in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game with quite arbitrary death, when the choices are as neutral as “left or right door” I’ve always found it frustrating, even when the deaths are well described or silly. There’s nothing quite as extreme in Times-End except for the maze which kills after enough time is spent, but at least there is some player movement an action amidst the slow-moving trap.

What seems to work better is a collaborative sort of death. Revenge of Balrog had a gold nugget with a dragon where a sign warned you to beware of the dragon, and being greedy taking the nugget was enough to get fried; Times-End had a chest with gold that was less-signaled but: it was quite clear the goal was *not* to collect treasures, and the similar trap in the first part of the duology was sufficient to give warning about the second. (See also: the deaths in Journey where the player hangs themselves by their own rope so to speak.)

In between is something like the exploding wine bottle. It’s not entirely a denial of agency: the player chooses to drop the wine bottle somewhere arbitrary (blowing themselves up) or eat the feast with the wine (blowing themselves up) escape the second level without placing the wine bottle (blowing themselves up) but there’s no real clue that this would happen before it happens. I could see, written on paper, how the puzzle makes sense: you need to place an item in the right place without being overcome by distraction, but I was only able to put this together after finishing the puzzle.

Of course, the function is not just in gameplay terms, but narrative. Above is another trap from Grimtooth’s, designed for Game Masters frustrated by cautious parties who constantly open chests and doors with long poles while standing back. The idea is to take something normally safe and add an element of surprise, and functions more like a narrative twist than anything fair.

I’d argue (again, assuming you’d want to include them) that truly best traps in a game have the mix of surprise and player agency. It’s the difference between telling a joke at the player’s expense, to one where they are part of it; a sort of participatory comedy, even if the general mood is entirely grim. Here’s an example outside regular adventure games entirely to finish my thoughts off —

The platformer La-Mulana has a lot of traps, infused to the point that it seems like every other screen has one. Allow PlayingBoardGames to illustrate:

Witness: the player needs to use the whip to break open the sun at the top of a temple. The walls break; the player needs to keep hitting. The sun suddenly lurches down, dangling. The player keeps hitting, and… the sun lands on their head, and crushes them.

There is plenty of ominous warning that the sun is something heavy. But still, it’s very easy to get tricked here, and it’s surprising and comical that the sun serves as a crushing weapon. In practice, this still can be frustrating, but I personally laughed, so that’s something? Additionally, the unusual trap links to the heft of the location in the narrative, as it is the gate between one world and another (and in gameplay terms, the “Holy Grail” used to teleport around the map no longer works until an additional device is found).

Posted February 8, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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