Archive for the ‘in-search-of-dr-livingston’ Tag

In Search Of… Dr. Livingston (1980)   3 comments

Content warning: 19th-century colonialism, pop culture as history, headhunting, meta-interface tricks, and existential body horror.

Cover of Softside magazine, September 1980.

In Search Of… Dr. Livingston appeared in the September 1980 issue of Softside magazine as a type-in for the TRS-80, pages 26 to 29, credited as by

  • Carl Russell
  • Karen Russell
  • Ralph Fullerton
  • Becky Fullerton

(Aside: This is the first adventure game in our chronological series with two women in the credits.)

I haven’t previously emphasized this, but the double whammy of a hardware capacity of 16K plus the need to have code that can be printed in a magazine really makes for a harsh limit. There’s not a lot of space for niceties like “verb synonyms” or “sensible responses to wrong puzzle solving attempts”. With some careful design choices (and a willingness to toss in some synonyms) it’s possible to alleviate these problems, but really, the reputation of Very Old Parser Games to be almost pathologically unable to understand player input has more to do with necessity than the designers just falling down on the job.

The complete source code, as originally printed.

At a talk at Narrascope 2019, Jess Haskins brought up the fallacy of generalizing from fictional evidence, where “you weigh evidence from something you saw or heard in a work of fiction just as strongly as something you actually experienced firsthand.”

A corollary of this might be: there is a strong tendency to create games based on pop-culture notions of places and times. This saves work on both the writer side (who can at least try to get away with less research) and the reader side (who can be assumed familiar enough with, say, King Arthur, that some aspects of the character are already built).

Pick an adventure game set in “Egypt” and you’ll probably get pyramids and tombs, and possibly see Cleopatra. This isn’t necessarily inaccurate: there are pyramids in Egypt, but a focus on old Egypt leaves out roughly 2000 years of other stuff that happened. None of those years made the pop-culture hit parade.

If an adventure game is set in Africa outside of Egypt … well, there isn’t even much pop culture to choose from, except a certain 19th-century meeting between Dr. David Livingstone and Sir Henry M. Stanley.

July, 1871: Dr. David Livingstone, British explorer and missionary, was rumored dead; he had last been heard from via a letter dated May 30th, 1869, and while he sent many more letters over the prior 6 years, they never arrived at their destination. Although not dead, he was verging close. While in Congo he witnessed a massacre of (at least) 400 Africans by Arab slavers and had to flee to the trading town of Ujiji in Tanzania. He had supplies stored there, but when he arrived he found they had been stolen.

Meanwhile, the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley was on the wrong continent. He had been sent by the New York Herald to the grand opening of the Suez Canal, and from there did a tour of the Middle East, writing a travel guide, and going as far as India. He had heard rumors of Livingstone during these travels, and decided (on his own volition) to steer to Africa (as he later explained to his employer, he was “too far from a telegraph” to notify them of the new expenses he was taking on).

After a trek of over 1000 kilometers (and around 100 porters, many either deserted or dead from tropical diseases) Stanley found Livingstone in November, and shook his hand.

Stanley: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Livingstone: “Yes. I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

There is, of course, a lot more to the event (including the fact Stanley ripped out his diary pages corresponding to this meeting and may have made the dialogue up) and if you want to fall down the rabbit hole I’d recommend Clare Pettitt’s 2007 book about the event (and the many memes that followed). For my purposes, it’s helpful just to note

a.) The meeting was, as Pettitt asserts, “one of the first international ‘celebrity’ moments in history.”

b.) Livingstone is remembered as a hero (anti-slavery crusader) and Stanley as a villain (later claimed the Congo in the name of Belgium, reportedly responsible for cruel abuses).

c.) The environment where the meeting happened was a Muslim trading town.

To start off the game proper, let me just quote a long excerpt:

YOU ARE IN A BEDROOM, WEARING PJ’S. A NIGHTSTAND SITS BETWEEN THE CLOSET AND THE BED. THE BEDCOVERS ARE TURNED DOWN.

YOU CAN SEE A TIMEWORN BOOK.

? OPEN CLOSET
YOU CAN SEE A TIMEWORK BOOK, A FADED RED KNAPSACK, A PAIR OF HIKING BOOTS.

? GET KNAPSACK
‘TIS DONE.

? GET BOOTS
YOUR FEET ARE NOW SNUG IN A PAIR OF HIKING BOOTS.

? GET BOOK
‘TIS DONE.

? GO BED
YOU ARE LYING IN A WARM SOFT BED.

? READ BOOK
AFRICA – LAND OF THE UNKNOWN BY R. U. REDDE

? OPEN BOOK
THE BOOK FALLS OPEN TO AN UNDERLINED PASSAGE.

? READ PASSAGE
… PLORER NODDED OFF TO SLEEP, HIS THOUGHTS BEGAN TO DRIFT T …

? DRIFT
YOU ARE DRIFTING IN A ROWBOAT ON A LAKE.
THERE IS A BEACH ON THE EASTERN SHORELINE.

YOU CAN SEE A TINY GREY MOUSE.

Some points to make: 1.) things start feeling like a “story within a story” and that you are entering a dream; however, if you don’t put on the hiking boots before using “DRIFT” to go to Africa you die. 2.) the whole “OPEN BOOK” ⟶ “READ PASSAGE” ⟶ “DRIFT” sequence I was able to get fairly quickly from experience, but I could easily see someone getting stuck here. It’s as if the authors had a choreographed set of moves in mind, but such sequences are very dangerous in modern games with an abundance of text and synonyms to work with; here the minimality is so stringent it’d be easy for the game to fall off the rails.

Upon arriving in Africa, there’s a fairly wide-open map, and it’s a really, really bad one.

Click for a larger version of the map.

Again, there is the old-IF tendency to have exits that go EAST one way go NORTH the other. Not great, not worse than elsewhere.

However, this game applies a trick that so far I had only seen in Adventure variants: sometimes a particular direction has more than one possible destination, and that destination will be picked at random. Even worse, sometimes a direction that states you can’t go that direction will actually, sometimes, let you go that direction. This is an actual gameplay transcript:

? N
YOU WON’T GET ANYWHERE GOING THAT DIRECTION.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
THAT DIRECTION IS SEALED OFF.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
YOU WON’T GET ANYWHERE GOING THAT DIRECTION.

? N
YOU WON’T GET ANYWHERE GOING THAT DIRECTION.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
THAT DIRECTION IS SEALED OFF.

? N
YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY.

? N
YOU WON’T GET ANYWHERE GOING THAT DIRECTION.

? N
THAT DIRECTION IS SEALED OFF.

? N
YOU ARE AT THE EDGE OF A JUNGLE.
GRASSLANDS EXTEND TO THE EAST AND SOUTH.

Because of this issue, part of mapping the game involved testing each invalid exit many, many times just in case the random number generator was acting up.

Early on someone throws a spear at you.

A NATIVE THROWS A SPEAR AT YOU.
HE MISSES AND RUNS OFF.

The spear is useful for killing an alligator later (except you don’t really need to enter the room with the alligator, nor is there any need to kill it). The spear is in reality more of an obstacle, because if you carry it one of the two villages in the game, this happens:

YOU ARE IN A NATIVE VILLAGE.
THERE ARE SEVERAL CAMPFIRES ABOUT.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.
SUDDENLY, A VOLLEY OF SPEARS FLIES OVER YOUR HEAD; AN OBVIOUS WARNING!
YOU HAD BETTER LEAVE, FAST.

This marks the fourth adventure game we’ve seen where a weapon is mostly useless and can get you into trouble. (Other instances: Burial Ground Adventure, Pyramid of Doom, Lost Dutchman’s Gold.) I think this is enough to say we have a genuine pattern here; the idea of using your brains, wits, and navigation skills as opposed to just applying force perhaps was an intentional attempt to distance the genre from CRPGs and other games of a more violent nature. (In this specific case, perhaps the authors were trying to say something about colonialism.)

If you enter the village without a spear, you get someone wanting to trade instead.

YOU ARE IN A NATIVE VILLAGE.
THERE ARE SEVERAL CAMPFIRES ABOUT.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.
A FRIENDLY NATIVE APPROACHES WITH SOME TRINKETS.
IT APPEARS HE WANTS TO MAKE A TRADE.

If you’re too reckless with threatening the natives, or dawdling around an alligator, you die, and apparently get booted out of the game:

But wait! After a short pause:

You get resurrected back at the rowboat. This only works once, so if you die again, the death screen is no longer a fake-out.

There’s a jungle with quicksand, which used to be everywhere in the 80s.

? JUMP QUICKSAND
DO YOU REALLY EXPECT TO JUMP OVER 30 FEET?

If you’ve played Adventure before and know the rhetorical question trick, this is a funny moment, since the game decides to slip into animated graphics mode. (If not, I imagine this is just frustrating.)

? YES

The initial prompt for the game was just to find Dr. Livingstone, so I was a little confused for a while: there were treasures like a SAPPHIRE strewn about in typical-adventurer fashion. After an hour of gameplay it dawned on me there’s the usual gather-the-treasures plot on top of everything else (it is also admittedly setting appropriate to have someone swoop into 19th century Africa and take all their stuff). Once I realized treasures were a Thing I was still puzzled as to where to deposit the loot.

YOU ARE IN AN IMMENSE CAVERN. THE WALLS
ARE COVERED WITH AN IRIDESCENT GLOW.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.
A VOICE ECHOES FROM THE MOUTH OF THE CAVE . . . S W A M I

I found one room (the cave entrance two rooms west of the description above) where SWAMI worked to teleport me back to the bedroom. *That* was where the treasures went. I had still been thinking we were in the story-within-a-story frame but apparently, we were just accidentally using magic? (I suppose it’s supposed to be like SAY YOHO in Pirate Adventure where you teleport to and from London?)

The biggest research fail comes here:

YOU ARE ON THE GRASS PLAINS.
TWO SHRUNKEN HEADS DECORATE A SIGN.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.

? READ SIGN
UJIJI COUNTRY – KEEP OUT
NO HEED ‘EM, WE EAT ‘EM.

… to recap, Ujiji was just a Muslim trading town. Also, while headhunters were a thing in central and western Africa, they were never in Tanzania. (Fun bonus fact: some countries in Europe, including Croatia, had headhunting up to the 20th century.)

Also, re: the “we eat ’em” reference: again, doesn’t seem to be a thing in Tanzania, although one of the more extravagant rumors of Dr. Livingstone’s demise was that he was eaten by cannibals.

Just like the other village, the natives are friendly if you don’t have a spear.

YOU ARE IN THE UJIJI VILLAGE. A NATIVE
STANDS NEAR HOLDING A SPEAR. HE LOOKS EXCITED.

YOU CAN SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL.
SEVERAL NATIVES WAVE HELLO!

And sometimes (although he can randomly be in a couple other places) Dr. Livingstone will be “down” from this location, in a pit.

YOU ARE IN A PIT. LIGHT STREAMS IN FROM ABOVE.

Now we get to the existential body horror.

When you find Livingstone, he’s considered an object. You have to give his catchphrase to successfully take him along with you.

YOU CAN SEE DR. LIVINGSTON.

? GET LIVINGSTON
DR. LIVINGSTON?

? I PRESUME
‘TIS DONE.

If you take him back to the same location that SWAMI worked on earlier and try to teleport, you get the message

HELP

Livingstone then disappears from your inventory. You can teleport back to Africa and find him (I think positioned randomly?) but it’s clear that the original method of teleporting won’t work.

The original DRIFT word turns out to be the solution; in the rowboat way back at the beginning of the game DRIFT sends you back to the bedroom with Livingstone. I have no idea why this method works to transport Livingstone and not the other way.

If the original “HELP” message didn’t weird you out enough, consider we are entering what appears to be a world in a book, taking treasures from it, including a live person, and then depositing them at “home” outside the world of the book/story/dream.

OK, that game pushed even my patience. By way of apology, here’s an actual good game set in Africa from a dev team in Cameroon. (Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan; it’s on Steam.)

Posted July 9, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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