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Six Micro Stories (1980)   5 comments

It’s been a while since we’ve visited Robert Lafore (Local Call for Death, Two Heads of the Coin) so just as a reminder, he:

a.) coined the term “interactive fiction” (trademarked it, even, when publishing with Adventure International? although that apparently didn’t stick)

b.) wrote “conversational parser” games which looked for keywords, like Eliza; Two Heads of the Coin was a “pure conversation” game while Local Call for Death included a scene with a world model

From a Radio Shack catalog, via Ira Goldklang’s.

This was sold as #1 in the Interactive Fiction series, but given Six Micro Stories was advertised as an “introduction to the world of Interactive Fiction” it’s possible this was as situation like Mission: Asteroid where game #0 was written after games #1 and #2 (or in Lafore’s case, game #1 being written after games #2 and #3). It’s also possible this is a collation of earlier experiments by the author, or maybe he had some of the scenarios already written and added three more. Unless some other evidence surfaces I don’t think it’s worth the energy to speculate; just note the internal copyright here is 1980 and the copyright on the other two games is 1979, although they didn’t start getting sold overall until 1980.

The structure for the six parts is to

give some prompt that the player responds to
with a back-and-forth with from one to four or five sentences
and then the micro-game ends.

There’s a “starter program” where you pick a gender and name (I went with MALE and being named “BOBA FETT”) and then it goes through the six stories in a prescribed order stating

WE HOPE YOU ARE READY TO BECOME A FICTIONAL CHARACTER!!

The Fatal Admission casts the player as an American spy in the Third Reich, who is posing as Colonel Braun, a “decorated Luftwaffe air ace”.

In history, there is no Admiral Kurtz. There is a Colonel Kurtz from the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, suggesting Robert Lafore plucked the name from the movie.

After saying YES or NO, the story continues:

TELL ME–I UNDERSTAND YOU ARE WITH THE 57TH FLIGHT WING IN DUSSELDORF. DO YOU HAPPEN TO KNOW THERE A CAPTAIN EIDERDOWN? HE IS AN OLD SCHOOL COMRADE.

(AGAIN HE FIXES YOU WITH HIS ICY GAZE. WHY IS HE ASKING YOU THIS? IS IT SOME SORT OF TRAP? YOU WISH YOU HAD VOLUNTEERED FOR SOMETHING SAFER, LIKE SUBMARINES.)

It seemed glaringly obvious that the story was going for the “ha-HA, there is no Captain Eiderdown, you are a spy!” kind of twist, so my first time through I just tried to say NO, I DON’T.

ADMIRAL KURTZ: NOT SURPRISING, SINCE THERE IS NO SUCH PERSON. BUT THERE IS ALSO NO 57TH FLIGHT WING, IN DUSSELDORF OR ANYWHERE ELSE. YET YOU, COLONEL, LET ME SUGGEST THAT THERE WAS!!

Er, I did? The result of my NO was being dragged off and executed.

The game wants you to more specifically deny the premise of the question.

I admit the turn of story here seemed so implausible I thought of saying NO, but I ran with YES and indeed became a courier for many top-secret documents that were able to be fed directly to the Americans, and Mr. Fett was able to retire to in glory after the war ended.

Upon further contemplation, the story really doesn’t make sense — the main character here would definitely know what flight wing they were with as part of their cover story, so not only is their unawareness of what trap is being set absurd, but Admiral Kurtz’s use of trickery related to the flight wing as the one and only method of determining if he’s talking to a spy just went over the top.

The story did have the virtue of understanding essentially everything that it needed to, parser-wise. I suspect there’s a way to deny the 57th Flight Wing exists and have the computer not understand, but I wasn’t able to find it.

Following grim war with infatuation, we have Encounter in the Park. If you are using a female character, the game informs you that this particular story only works with male perspective, so you are temporarily named HENRY. (“PERHAPS YOU CAN PRACTICE YOUR ROLE-REVERSAL ABILITIES.”) The game also neglects to mention that Henry/whoever is of hetero orientation:

YOU ARE STROLLING THROUGH GOLDEN GATE PARK IN SAN FRANCISCO ONE SUNNY AFTERNOON WHEN A LADY ON ROLLER-SKATES GLIDES PAST YOU ON THE SIDEWALK. HER EYES HAVE A PERCEPTIVE LOOK TO THEM, WITH PERHAPS A TOUCH OF ARROGANCE.

SHE IS WEARING SHORTS AND HAS LONG BROWN LEGS AND HONEY-COLORED HAIR DOWN TO HER WAIST. SHE IS IN EVERY WAY YOUR IDEAL. YOU GAZE AFTER HER IN DUMBFOUNDED ADMIRATION.

This does not describe my ideal, and no doubt it isn’t the ideal of many readers, but the premise is to roleplay.

AT THE CORNER JUST AHEAD OF YOU SHE HITS A SLIPPERY SPOT AND FALLS — GRACEFULLY ENOUGH, BUT SHE DROPS THE BOOKS SHE HAS BEEN CARRYING. IT IS THE OPPORTUNITY YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR, PERHAPS THE OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME. YOU SPRING FORWARD AND RETRIEVE HER BOOKS AS SHE PICKS HERSELF UP. YOU NOTICE THAT ONE OF THE BOOKS IS “COUPLES” BY JOHN UPDIKE.

(Unlike Admiral Kurtz, this is an actual Updike book.)

BOBA: DO YOU LIKE THE UPDIKE BOOK?

THE LADY: I LIKE HIS WORK A LOT.
BUT YOU KNOW WHAT I LIKE BETTER? “PHANTOM MARRIAGE,” BY GASTON DUPERIE. HAVE YOU READ IT?

This is a trick, just like the last story. If you say YES: “YOU DID? I MADE UP THE WHOLE THING. YOU CERTAINLY ARE A GULLIBLE TYPE, AREN’T YOU. WELL, I’VE GOT TO GO — I’M TEACHING A CLASS IN NUCLEAR PHYSICS. BYE!”

Saying NO continues the conversation:

BOBA: NO

THE LADY: TOO BAD. DO YOU LIKE SPY STORIES, THEN?

If you say “YES” to liking spy stories, she runs off in a huff and your main character goes off and joins a Zen Buddhist monastery, which seems like an overreaction. Also, this is probably referring to John Le Carre novels, which were excellent in the 1970s, so this lady clearly doesn’t deserve Henry/Boba/Whoever.

BOBA: NO

THE LADY: WELL, THAT’S SOMETHING, I GUESS.

If you don’t offend the lady past this point, she invites you to ice cream, and eventually, you end up on the beach with her on Bali in “COSMIC BLISS”. OK then.

I admit to never having all that stellar a playthrough, although the source code is an interesting read. This micro-game (and most of the others, really) seem highly sensitive to individual experience; it’s possible to type full sentences and having a pleasing conversation and finale, and it’s possible to have something weird and stunted that nevertheless leads to “cosmic bliss”.

I think the main issue isn’t strictly the Eliza system of finding keywords and pretending they reflect the entire sentence, but that the conversations in Six Micro Stories are all high-stakes and short. With the investigation sequence of Local Call for Death, if you make a deduction the game doesn’t understand, it doesn’t feel like you’ve broken an entire story; you can try again, and if you’re having trouble with phrasing, Lord Colin will often suggest something to help out. Here, the main character can be murdered via parser failure.

Perhaps, as a general principle: if communication failure in a story is possible, the story must be of the kind that gives a little slack.

I’m not going to spoil the exact details of the remaining stories, but just to summarize:

The Big Deal casts the player in negotiations to sell their company, but their company is secretly near-bankrupt. A lot of the conversation involves numbers (which the parser can grok just fine) and there’s even a “secret ending”, so I found it the most successful of the stories.

The Empty World involves a doomed 747 plane. You might not even get a chance to type a sentence on this one; if you type enough characters you get “interrupted” and the plane crashes.

In The Unexpected Question, the player’s Ph.D depends on them successfully communicating what art is.

NOW, WE HAVE DECIDED THAT YOU ARE NO DOUBT ADEQUATE IN COMPUTER SCIENCE, SO WE ARE NOT EVEN GOING TO QUESTION YOU IN THAT FIELD. HOWEVER, WE DO REQUIRE THAT OUR GRADUATES BE WELL-ROUNDED. WE ARE THEREFORE GOING TO POSE TO YOU A SIMPLE QUESTION FROM THE LIBERAL ARTS. YOUR ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION ALONE WILL DETERMINE YOUR SUCCESS OR FAILURE IN THIS EXAM. PLEASE RESTRICT YOUR ANSWER TO TWO LINES.

DR ZEROUGH: HERE IS THE QUESTION: WHAT IS ART?
ANSWER CAREFULLY, MR FETT.

Out of all the games, I found this one to be filled with the most non-sequiturs in terms of what I typed versus what the game actually thought I typed. After a few honest tries (and failures), I managed to pass the exam with more-or-less gibberish.

Finally, The Guilty Look has the player surreptitiously returning a piece of stolen silver and being caught in the act. I was never able to get a bad ending on this story.

The easiest way to play these is online (via this link; if you click on the “speaker” icon at the bottom you can turn off the disk sounds), but note that you’re started in the middle of the sequence (at The Empty World). As this is the sort of game where playthroughs can vary wildly, I’d really like to hear some stories. Did Encounter in the Park come across naturalistically? Did anyone have an actual sensible discussion of art? Is there a way to communicate, well, just about anything in The Guilty Look?

Posted September 16, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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