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Planet Interactive Fiction

Wednesday, 05. October 2022

Renga in Blue

Mystery House (1982)

In 1978 the author Mitsuru Sugaya debuted one of the first videogame-themed mangas, ゲームセンターあらし (Game Center Arashi). The title character, Arashi, aimed to beat various competitors at arcade high scores. Prominent games like Space Invaders (above) and Galaxian were featured. In a later spin-off feature, the author produced a series of two volumes, Hello Microcomputer, […]

From Giant Bomb.

In 1978 the author Mitsuru Sugaya debuted one of the first videogame-themed mangas, ゲームセンターあらし (Game Center Arashi).

The title character, Arashi, aimed to beat various competitors at arcade high scores.

From the first issue.

Prominent games like Space Invaders (above) and Galaxian were featured. In a later spin-off feature, the author produced a series of two volumes, Hello Microcomputer, which taught readers both about how computers worked and how to code. The volumes sold incredibly well, over half a million copies; according to the author, some who got careers in the computer sector were inspired directly by the books.

The second volume included a section dedicated to a game called Mystery House; not the one by Roberta Williams, but the one directly inspired by her work released in 1982.

From a video by Bowl of Lentils about Mystery House.

As mentioned in my post on the first Japanese adventure we know of, Omotesando Adventure, hobbyists in Japan imported games from the US and played them with dictionaries, so they were well aware of the early Sierra works. The Hello Microcomputer issue with Mystery House even includes a section on imported games, like Time Zone. (Based on the December 1982 issue of LOGiN Magazine, the top-selling Sierra import was Softporn Adventure.)

From Yahoo! Auctions. The price of 29000 Yen is roughly comparable to the $100 the game cost in the US, which in 2022 dollars is a little over $300.

The 1982 work was originally by Tsukasa Moritani, a dentist and regular visitor to the the electronics/computer store Micro Cabin Yokkaichi.

He showed it to the owner Naoto Oyachi, who was impressed enough to work with Tsukasa to produce a publishable product.

The final work was for the Sharp MZ-80B (released in May) did well enough — spawning a sequel before the end of the year — that it was ported to multiple machines and was the basis for the general launch of Microcabin as a software company. Microcabin became one of the big Japanese game publishers, lasting all the way until the 2000s.

I am not going to play the Sharp version, although if you want to see it (and hear its rendition of the Pink Panther Theme) I’ve linked to the relevant spot in the Bowl of Lentils video. I didn’t have a choice. That version is undumped.

I at least started to try the NEC PC-6001 version, which has a translation patch to be able to play in English. (As far as why I didn’t keep going, I’ll explain in a moment.)

The Pink Panther theme also plays on this version, and it is there because this game drops the “murder” aspect and just keeps the “find the treasure in a house” aspect, making it a diamond. The original Pink Panther movie surrounded a stolen diamond.

Mind you, the game is already partially in English; while the text output is in Japanese, the parser is in English. There’s a helpful guide card that gives translations of each of the words needed. Additionally, the verbs and nouns are separated, so they get typed on separate lines (that is, you can’t type OPEN DOOR, but OPEN. followed by hitting enter, then DOOR, then enter again).

What I discovered after enough testing is that there are two very different versions of Mystery House’s gameplay. The original Sharp version (and some other versions like Fujitsu FM-7) are “traditional” in that they use compass movement commands typed on the parser. The PC-6001 version (the one I started with) and the MSX version both use arrow keys for movement (that is, the N/S/E/W on the card above don’t apply).

An interior shot of the PC-6001 version.

In all versions, the game keeps track of what direction you are facing. In the Sharp and FM-7 versions if you type W for west but aren’t facing that direction the game will simply turn you that way. If you are facing that direction then the game moves you forward. The arrow-key games on the other hand will either turn you (if you press left or right) or move you forward (if you press up).

It is possible to get go up some stairs and then type DOWN to immediately go back down and get denied. That’s because the stairs are “behind” the player — you have to turn so they are visible, then go downstairs. (You can watch a video here of this happening to a real player.) In a way, the PC-6001 and MSX versions are simplified in this sense. Stairs can only be clearly seen in facing the “correct” direction so it makes a bit more intuitive sense that you can’t go DOWN again right away.

The graphic system feels both crude and intensely complicated at the same time. There’s a limited set of object graphics that get reused to form rooms, rather like Castles of Darkness; so unlike the Sierra games, it isn’t like there’s a custom room for each location. But the game needed the logic to draw the objects correctly as if traveling through a 3-D world; Deathmaze 5000 and some related games did something similar, but in a mostly wireframe format! Despite the clear inspiration, I find any characterizations of 1982 Mystery House to be just a knockoff of 1980 Mystery House to be misplaced; it clearly is doing its own thing both in a technical sense and a gameplay sense.

Alas, the interface on the PC-6001 version was just miserable to navigate. The parser is contained on a separate screen from the main graphic window so you have to keep switching back and forth. Every time a new graphic shows up, you need to hit “space” to switch to the command typing screen, then type out what might be a valid command (see above). If instead of a typed command you need to move, you go to the same typing screen, push a direction, then push it again (for some reason?) to actually do the move. It is very easy to get lost even in a handful of rooms.

I tried very hard to make it work — I even hooked a gamepad with macros for movement to try to make things smoother — but it was just too heavily grating to deal with. I finally decided to switch to the slightly more colorful FM-7 version. All commands are on the same screen as the graphics, and I found it genuinely easier to type W to turn rather than hope the janky arrow keys worked. Even though the direction commands are “overloaded” with them either turning or moving forward based on context, I never got confused moving around. (Based on the footage of the Sharp version, the FM-7 version is more authentic to the original anyway.)

That means, yes, I intentionally dropped playing the English version of the game to switch to Japanese! There really isn’t much Japanese to deal with and everything being graphical means you can puzzle out the action on screen. The only part I got confused is when I tried to climb a ladder and died, but — well, we’ll get to that.

(On the screen above, going “east” means “forward”. The compass in the upper right fortunately is enough to keep things straight.)

Exploring around the ground floor, I found a safe (from MOVE PAINTING) which was locked, a candle in a RACK, and a match in a RACK.

RACK is a weird word — I want to use cabinet. The player in the video I linked earlier also tried to use CABINET first. I had one eye on the instruction card while I was playing, though, so I knew which nouns worked.

Poking around the second floor eventually yielded a key sitting on a chair (via SEARCH CHAIR) and a key sitting in a flower vase (via SEARCH VASE).

This is a “two-square wide” room, so you can step forward to get closer to the flower vase, then SEARCH VASE to find a key inside.

Going north one step.

Once I got the hang of the game’s setup it felt a little like the movement in a dungeon-crawler like Wizardry. Since Wizardry had already been imported, I wonder if it was also an influence.

The keys let me open the safe (which contained a hammer) but make no other progress. However, I hadn’t tried MOVE on anything other than the painting, so I went on a MOVE spree (and was told NO! a lot, the game writes it in English) before finding a movable table.

This leads down a dark ladder where you can die without a light source. Of course, I already had a match and candle so I could normally easily resolve the puzzle, but it took a couple tries to realize the game wasn’t keeping track of the candle as a “long term light source” like Adventure or its clones — it was an object that needed to be activated while on the ladder itself. If you light before going down it doesn’t work.

The second key I had goes to this “rack” and yields up some oil. This let me USE OIL on a cabinet, I mean, rack that was being finicky upstairs and find a new secret area.

The “attic floor” was very small and the only thing I could find (inside a rack which required a hammer to bust open) was a pick (like the kind you mine with) and a ladder that means death.

(I found out after the fact the Japanese indicates that you get up to the roof and fall. This is similar to a death from the original Mystery House.)

There’s a genuinely clever moment here, although I needed to check a walkthrough (by the ever-helpful くしかつ Kushikatsu) to figure it out. The ladder can be moved, and the spot behind the ladder is holding a secret (which is what the pick is for).

This leads to a new area with a key (just laying out on another chair) but where I was otherwise stumped. I had to do something clever with a fireplace but I needed the walkthrough again. You can light the fireplace.

Ah-ha! But where does this code go? It turns out: back to the dark basement. Remember that rack with the oil? It can be moved.

USE PICK then works here.

One last trick: 4665 doesn’t work. You need to type in the number backwards.

I admit I was originally skeptical this was just going to be a find-the-key hunt in the end — there are, after all, only a small number of verbs and graphical elements. However, the slight twists like the passage in the rack, the passage behind the ladder, and the code in the fireplace elevated the game up into having something approaching a real plot, even if you were just trying to find a diamond. I mean, er, gold.

(This video walkthrough of the PC-6001 version definitely gets a diamond. The Pink Panther music also doesn’t make sense without the original Sharp version having a diamond. For some reason the FM-7 changed the treasure to gold.)

I will at least plead for anyone else who writes about this game: yes, Dr. Moritani clearly was inspired my the Roberta Williams Mystery House. However, discarding it as just a knock-off (and just a stepping stone to the game people really want to talk about, The Portopia Serial Murder Case) really doesn’t make sense; the navigation is truly novel, the puzzles go in a completely different direction, and the graphics are built off of repeating elements meant to be viewed in a 3-D setting.

I should also add there was almost certainly inspiration from one other game. In some cases if do something the game doesn’t understand (usually referring to an item that isn’t in your current “view”), you get the cryptic message “Nothing to mean.” This is a very unususal and unique message, and it appears in only one other game: Omotesando Adventure. Clearly Dr. Moritani had played more than one adventure, including Omotesando, so we have a true continuity of game influences.

There are also two sequels to Mystery House (one which came quite quickly on the heels of this one) but while I wanted to play Omotesando and this game close together, I’m going to give a longer pause before hitting Mystery House II. Never fear, there’s plenty of interesting territory out there to explore, including my next game, which I can only describe as “incredibly enigmatic”.

Tuesday, 04. October 2022

Zarf Updates

Recent puzzly games: we love The Witness

And now, a round of puzzle games that made me think about The Witness!(It's a change from thinking about Myst, right?)TaijiThe LookerLinelithKredolisTaijiby Matthew VanDevander -- game siteMore or less a fan sequel to The Witness. It's not a straight-line copy though. The designer doesn't share Jon Blow's taste for philosophical screeds, for a start -- fine by me. Taiji also drops Witness's first-p
And now, a round of puzzle games that made me think about The Witness!
(It's a change from thinking about Myst, right?)
  • Taiji
  • The Looker
  • Linelith
  • Kredolis

Taiji

More or less a fan sequel to The Witness. It's not a straight-line copy though. The designer doesn't share Jon Blow's taste for philosophical screeds, for a start -- fine by me. Taiji also drops Witness's first-person-obscura viewpoint in favor of a top-down not-even-orthographic sprite landscape. Imagine if Final Fantasy 5 were rendering The Witness's fauve-architectural ruined gardenscape.
(That's some strong pixel art, come to think. Taiji carries off the style of a high-poly first-person game in a completely different medium. I bet that was harder than it looks.)
But you don't care about the visuals; you want to know puzzles. The puzzles are really good! It's the familiar business of panels scattered across the island. Each panel is a grid; you have to light up specific squares in the grid in accordance with The Rules. Figure out what the little symbols mean, you're golden. Until the corner cases and the combinations creep up on you.
I said it wasn't a straight-line copy of The Witness. (And not just because you're not drawing lines, ha ha.) Taiji is more willing to move off the grid. More secrets; more puzzle stuff hidden in the landscape. More moving platforms. More tricks that you'll only discover by poking around every corner and trying wild ideas just because.
On the down side, Taiji asks you to try a lot of wild ideas. New mechanics aren't always introduced very clearly. Sometimes it throws you a panel with a new symbol, and what the hey? You just have to guess what the designer is thinking. (The Witness generally introduced ideas with very constrained grids that led you step by step. Not here, not always.) The rules are always guessable -- I was able to figure them out -- but I spent some time staring blankly first.
On the up side, once you've guessed, you can't rest on your laurels. You run into a panel where your idea doesn't work! You almost understood the rule, but now you have to dig deeper. Over and over, the game forces you to refine your theories.
(This idea has come up in a lot of my favorite puzzle games, hasn't it? The complex rule which seems simple at first, but then there's more to it. Baba is You did it. Monster's Expedition did it with superb elan. I suppose it's not a new idea -- DROD, or remember Oxyd? -- but it's been having a moment recently.)
I had to ask for hints on a couple of puzzles because some of the wild ideas were just too wild for me. And I did not try to complete all the (multiple layers of) bonus puzzles. But I had a good time solving. Lots to discover; much puzzle goodness.

The Looker

I can't talk about Witness fan games without mentioning this one. It's a short sharp parody. (The Pyst of The Witness, and how many people are going to get that reference?)
There are some puzzles, but it's mostly taking the piss, and it does a great job of that. I laughed a lot.

Linelith

Sort of a micro-Witness-like. It's part of an anthology called CosmOS 9, but Linelith was my favorite.
It's 2D, but it's got the Witness trope of drawing lines on panels. With a rule. And some symbols. And the rule has more to it than you might think! Short but sneaky.

Kredolis

A bit of a ringer in this list. This has the Witness visual style -- an island, sunny and Mediterranean; not so much detail but lots of color. Big sense of place.
But Kredolis harks all the way back to Myst and Riven, skipping past the puzzly cousin-line of The Witness. No panels, no iterated mechanic. It's pure environmental puzzles. On an island.
The puzzles are not Myst-league, however. It's a pleasant assortment, but they're not thematically connected to anything and it doesn't get particularly deep. It's more the kind of grab-bag of puzzles you'd find in a web escape game. Think Myst Island rather than, say, Stoneship or Channelwood.
That's fine, of course. You can enjoy the hedge mazes and giant machines and tram rides for the Myst homage that they are. And the plot, which is, well, an homage to any dozen 1990s Myst-likes about puzzles in Atlantis.
My only complaint is that some of the puzzles feel a bit underclued or just not completely thought through. I found myself saying "Is this what the designer was thinking? ...I guess it was."
(Same reaction I mentioned above in Taiji, in fact. Except Taiji used that to introduce entire series of puzzles plumbing a mechanic, whereas Kredolis is all one-offs.)

Monday, 03. October 2022

Gold Machine

Agency, Empathy, and the Call of the Other in AMFV

A Mind Forever Voyaging and the need for a broad conception of the “interactive fiction” designation. Framework for an Intertextual Model of Interactive Fiction As the ever-helpful Jimmy Maher has pointed out, Infocom did not coin the term “interactive fiction.” That honor goes to Robert Lafore, whose games were published by Scott Adams’s Adventure International. [R

A Mind Forever Voyaging and the need for a broad conception of the “interactive fiction” designation.

Framework for an Intertextual Model of Interactive Fiction

As the ever-helpful Jimmy Maher has pointed out, Infocom did not coin the term “interactive fiction.” That honor goes to Robert Lafore, whose games were published by Scott Adams’s Adventure International. This marketing language was first spied in magazine advertisements:

Traditionally, literature has been a one-way medium. The information flow was from the novel to the reader, period. Interactive fiction changes this by permitting the reader to participate in the story itself.

The computer sets the scene with a fictional situation, which you read from the terminal. Then you become a character in the story: when it’s your turn to speak, you type in your response. The dialog of the other characters, and even the plot, will depend on what you say.

With only a few additions, Lafore’s basic definition would remain applicable for two decades. When Infocom began using the term, four years later, it was also in the service of marketing. While their language was more effusive than Lafore’s, the specifics were largely unchanged.

GET INSIDE A STORY.
GET ONE FROM INFOCOM!
It’s like waking up inside a story! Load Infocom’s interactive fiction into your computer and discover yourself at the center of a world jam-packed with surprising twists, unique characters, and original logical, often hilarious puzzles.

For the first time, you’re more than a passive reader. You can talk to the story, typing in full English sentences. And the story talks right back, communicating entirely in vividly descriptive prose. What’s more, you can actually shape the story’s course of events through your choice of actions. And you have hundreds of alternatives at every step. In fact, there’s so much you can see and do, your adventure can last for weeks and even months…

…Then find out what it’s like to get inside a story. Get one from Infocom. Because with Infocom’s interactive fiction, there’s room for you on every disk.

This essay invites readers to consider the promises made by companies like Adventure International and Infocom. What did they offer potential customers? In the first place, they promised text: text input and text output. In other words: they promised an interface. If you’ve been reading Gold Machine for long, you’re already familiar with Infocom’s interface. It was built on their groundbreaking parser technology, which could handle such natural language features as compound predicates and indirect objects. Up until 2012 or so, definitions of interactive fiction focused (sometimes exclusively) on text inputs and outputs.

Interior of Infocom's "passport" catalog, which was designed to look and feel like a united states passport. On the displayed pages, besides featuring form fields like "name" "sex" and "address," also has marketing language promising to grant the owner entry into "a whole new universe."
Interior of Infocom’s “Passport” Catalog. Retrieved from MoCAGH

However, Infocom’s ad copy does not emphasize the mechanical nature of their games. It focuses instead on subjective experiences of play. Infocom promised experiences of freedom, agency, and a wide possibility space of outcomes. They promised to make customers the center of a constructed fiction (as a reminder, this critical study does not consider fiction to be the same thing as plot). In other words: Infocom promised to simulate subjective experiences. It’s aims were phenomenological.

Forty years later, what is meant by Interactive Fiction? Just asking the question might be looking for trouble. In at least one online venue, conversations about definitions of IF are graced by preemptive reminders from forum moderators: be civil. While, leading up to 2012, there was a rich amount of published and community-maintained content regarding the nature of IF, much of it assumes (if it did not explicitly state) that interactive fiction is another word for “text adventure”—that is, a game with a parser interface. Nick Montfort added to that definition a “simulated world” (“Preface,” Twisty Little Passages). I call this model the cuckoo clock definition of IF—it is largely defined by its clockwork, its machinery, its interfaces. And, of course, by the figures that emerge from it. Note that his is not a critique of Montfort. At that time, his definition was the best and most succinct characterization of IF as it then was.

I call this model the cuckoo clock definition of IF—it is largely defined by its clockwork, its machinery, its interfaces. And, of course, by the figures that emerge from it.

However, looking back at Infocom’s marketing materials, it seems that the parser technology, which is only briefly mentioned, is a means to the higher objectives of immersion, agency, and simulated subjectivity. In other words, text interfaces were, at the time, the best way to reach those goals. What other computer technologies available to Will Crowther could have simulated the experience of exploring Bedquilt Cave? While I am open to correction, I cannot think of a competing approach in 1975 that could match Crowther’s achievements. A model of interactive fiction that emphasizes simulated, agentic experience rather than mechanical elements is one that is grounded in phenomenology. That design goal, baked into the earliest, well-known examples of interactive fiction, is the thread that remains after 2012’s fragmentation of platforms, subject matter, and audience.

It is also the thread that rightfully places IF in conversation not only with games and gaming history but with matters of ongoing cultural and social interest. While emphasizing specific interfaces (both then and now) has a tendency to isolate IF, interactive fiction’s capacity for simulated subjectivity makes it, without question, a part of the world.

More on Human Experience and common Objectives of Interactive Fiction

As Jason Dyer has pointed out, simulation was not the sole objective of ADVENT. Rather, it synthesized fantastic and simulated elements:

A long held-belief about Crowther’s Adventure was that it was designed as a “cave simulation” and it was Woods who came along added magic and treasures and turned it from interactive simulation into interactive fiction.

We know, from the hard work of Dennis Jerz locating the original source (before Don Woods started modifying it) that this is not the case: the original Adventure included puzzles, treasures, and fantasy. (Dyer, “Observations about Crowther’s Original Adventure 1985]”)

It’s important, here, to identify two types of simulation at work in ADVENT, interactive fiction’s foundational text. There is, in the first case, the simulated geography of Kentucky’s Bedquilt Cave. While Adventure, from its very beginning, was a work of fantasy, it was also a product of painstaking, real-world exploration and documentation. Many—perhaps most notably Graham Nelson—have remarked that because the geography of Advent was based upon Will Crowther’s own experiences caving, it is the “best” of the well-known, early IF games (Zork, Adventureland, and the like). While this type of simulated element undoubtedly does make a game’s world more credible, it is ultimately a different sort of simulation that concerns this study.

This second case—that of simulated subjectivity—is an end in itself, though it clearly benefits from the kind of narrative veracity afforded by ADVENT‘s geography. What is intended or meant by the term “simulated subjectivity?” In Crowther’s case, it began, yes, with his own joy of caving. In this case, though, experiences of the real were mingled with the fantastic to create something entirely new:

Back in 1975 a programmer and spelunker named Will Crowther had just gotten divorced. Missing his children and feeling somewhat at loose ends generally, he started to write a game in his spare time with the vague idea that he could share it with his two daughters, who now lived with their mother and whom he missed desperately. The game, which he named Adventure, combined his three biggest interests at the time: programming, caving, and playing a new tabletop game called Dungeons and Dragons.

How so? Well, the player would explore a geography loosely based on the Bedquilt branch of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, a place Crowther had spent years laboriously exploring and mapping; she would encounter treasures and creatures drawn from D&D in the process; and to win she would have to solve intricate puzzles while always maintaining close attention to detail, just like a programmer. Crowther had just invented the world’s first text adventure, in the process prototyping much that remains with the form to this day. (Jimmy Maher, “Will Crowther’s Adventure, Part 1”)

What can thinking of Adventure in terms of estranged familial relationships reveal? Is it meaningful that the first influential interactive fiction game was an attempt to close the distance between a father and his absent children? So far as I can tell, Crowther’s earliest, high-level design goal of ADVENT was sharing things that he loved with people he loved. In other words: Crowther wanted to simulate for his daughters a subjective experience of joy.

This image shows cropped detail from a map that was part of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure called "In Search of the Unknown." It's an overhead map of a complex and irregular system of caves.
Detail from the Dungeon Master’s map for TSR Module B1 In Search of the Unknown

Narrative perspective and the Foundational Subjectivity of Interactive Fiction

Some reader might remark—rather dryly—that Zork reflects no such intent. Its tone is sardonic, and the experience of being, for instance, “fluoresced” in Zork II hardly feels loving. Sadly, this study sees subjectivity generally as a defining trait of interactive fiction, it is not by nature a loving subjectivity. Having broadened our scope, what are the implications of protagonist-as-subject in Zork and its descendents?

Zork would solidify ADVENT’s practice of using a second person voice. The “you” addressed by its narrator is the protagonist: “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.” Those Zork players of old (1980) would have been all but certainly sitting at a desk someplace, and nowhere near an open field or a boarded door. You—not the you, some other you—stand someplace, do something, receive this or that sensory data. This storytelling tactic would have been familiar to Crowther as well as to Zork‘s Dave Lebling—Dungeons & Dragons players—but there are important distinctions that set apart the D&D “you” from the “you” of interactive fiction.

You—not the you, some other you—stand someplace, do something, receive this or that sensory data. This storytelling tactic would have been familiar to Crowther as well as to Zork‘s Dave Lebling.

Existentially speaking (as opposed to the usages in the fields of social and cultural studies), the capital-O “Other” is a separate, free subjectivity. The Other is, then, a person separate from ourselves with a separate experience of life. They see the world through their own eyes, as it were. Attempting to put oneself in the shoes of an Other is what we commonly called empathy. To do so requires that we recognize that, in Jacques Derrida’s formulation, “every other (one) is every (bit) other [tout autres est tout autres]” (Derrida, The Gift of Death). We do not know what the life of the Other is like, but through empathy we can try to share in their subjective experience. The question to ask, with regard to various narratives and narrative games that make use of second-person perspective is this: is the “you” an extension of the player? Or is it an Other that requires a simulated subjectivity?

While people enjoy tabletop role-playing games in all sorts of ways with all sorts of characters, I will assert—welcoming correction, as always—that the quintessential role-playing experience in Dungeons & Dragons is an improvisational extension of the player’s own subjectivity. The player creates a character—it cannot be wholly Other because it rises from their own imagination. Moreover, the player and their character enjoy almost limitless freedom. While the rules of the game may govern success, a player may attempt any act that human language can characterize. This role-playing “you” is ultimately defined by the player’s imaginative powers and not by the qualities of an external Subject or Other. Even when players are committed to role-playing as a fixed, external character, the boundaries of play are internal and not external.

A black and white drawing from an old Dungeons and Dragons rulebook. It shows four characters (a paladin, a fighter, a wizard, and a thief) standing at a table covered with treasure.
Image from the 1st-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons player’s manual

Interactive fiction, by way of its rather strict boundaries, must engage with the Other. There are hard, programmatic limitations to what the “you” of interactive fiction can do. Certainly, the protagonist of Infidel can leave the pyramid, but he can never go home. There is only one beginning, middle, and ending to Infidel. The act of leaving is not an act of character agency, it is merely the player’s decision to quit playing. The character can only do what he is destined to do. The player might imagine that Enchanter’s protagonist could conspire with Krill to defeat the Circle of Enchanters, but in practice that character can do no such thing. At a fundamental, programmatic level, the “you” of those old text adventures was by nature an Other rather than an imaginative extension of the player’s own subjectivity. Even in games whose protagonists were self-inserts, they remained Other by nature of their construction.

There is only one beginning, middle, and ending to Infidel. The act of leaving is not an act of character agency, it is merely the player’s decision to quit playing.

A Mind Forever Voyaging, on the other hand, would go even further to simulate the subjectivity of the Other, defining through its browsie the personal history, life goals, and subjectivity of its protagonist, Perry Simm. While other Infocom games would feature characters defined by their narratives (Border Zone, Sherlock, Seastalker, Arthur, Shogun, Journey, Plundered Hearts, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), AMFV is unique in that its gameplay consists almost entirely of the simulated experiences of Perry Simm as a consciousness separate from our own. We are, more than once, invited to empathize with Perry, to share in his lived experience. Through A Mind Forever Voyaging, it seems clear that the defining, necessary trait of interactive fiction is its capacity for simulating subjectivity and the experiences of the Other. In this sense, it is a bridge between the parser games of the commercial era of interactive fiction and the post-howling dogs choice games that emphasize empathy and the lived experiences of the existential Other in a way that no other Infocom game can.

Note: Naturally, this essay cannot summarize the diverse fields of tabletop role-playing games and interactive fiction. Instead, the goal is to consider the origins, as well as the median experiences, of these modes of storytelling in hopes of determining a defining, signature quality of Interactive Fiction that has persisted from 1975 to today. In doing so, we can uncover the qualities of A Mind Forever Voyaging that make it a genre-defining work whose influence is felt even now.

You and Me: The Scott Adams Exception

Since we are talking about such a large number of games that it would not be practical—if possible—to count, there will be exceptions. Rather than view them as arguments against our thesis, it is more profitable to see what they have to teach us. In Infocom’s Suspended, for instance, the protagonist’s lack of differentiating personality or subjectivity is a fascinating subversion. Without the player’s expectation of simulated experience, Suspended‘s hook would be far less sharp.

The classic games of Scott Adams pose questions of their own. As a reminder, they generally did not use second person perspective in the same way that most parser games do. At the command prompt of Adventureland, for instance, the game asks:

Tell me what to do?

Adams games are, after a fashion, metafictions. The “you” that the game addresses is the player—not the protagonist—themself. The narrator talks to the player about game mechanics and reports the facts of the game world. Those early Adams games do not feature a continuous stream of text, where the narration and player commands scroll together, in-line, up and off of the screen. Instead, they feature a split-screen interface.

A screenshot of the Apple II version of Scott Adams's Adventureland. It is a black screen with large, blocky text. The top quarter of the screen is divided by a dotted line. Above it is a static display of the room description. Below it is a section that contains player input and respoinses from the game.
Screengrab from an Apple II version of Adventureland.

It’s interesting to note that, despite the precedent set by ADVENT and Zork, Adventureland goes out of its way—even going so far as to implement a more talkative command prompt—to stave off the kind of subjectivity discussed so far. As we might note from the narrator’s occasional wisecracks—“occasional” because jokes require precious memory—that narrator is not us. They are not a stand-in for our own consciousness, and we are not meant to see ourselves in them.

Writers have not been kind to the prose of those Adventure International games over the years, and while it is easy to see why, such criticisms seem beside the point. I think Jimmy Maher is right when he states:

It’s not really fair to judge Adventureland‘s text by literary standards, since every “the” and “a” use precious memory (and thus were often dropped entirely). Still, Adams does at times achieve a sort of minimalist poetry.

Considering that, in 1979, Adventureland‘s most visible relatives were mainframe games, one has to admit that the exercise of fitting a text game on a 16K computer would be, in fact, like writing in a highly constrained poetic form: a sonnet or a haiku, for instance. I view the Adams games as successful implementations of the form of the text adventure as opposed to lesser attempts at its rhetoric. They brought pleasure to many and remain technically impressive, even if first-person narrative ultimately fell off as a strategy early in the development of IF as a medium. There is little more to say beyond recognizing that ultimately the approach does not sway this study’s argument one way or another.

Meanwhile, Over on Steam

If we subscribe to the core idea of interactive fiction as a simulated subjectivity, then it is possible to follow a thread that leads from ADVENT through A Mind Forever Voyaging to contemporary games like Computerfriend and New Year’s Eve, 2019. Games as different as Starcross, Make it Good, and Bee call players to become “you,” to become an Other, and we can answer that call. This is an idea of interactive fiction that can persist while technologies, aesthetic values, and audiences shift through the years. Certainly, there will be works of interactive fiction that do not suit this definition. Very well, so they don’t fit. There can be no edge cases without a center, and such exceptions only make themselves—and the genre in total—more interesting by virtue of their trespasses.

Certainly, there will be works of interactive fiction that do not suit this definition. Very well, so they don’t fit.

As a last hill to get over, though, it is necessary to examine the wide—and quite publicly visible—use of the term “interactive fiction” on the Steam gaming storefront. It’s a user tag, which might lead us to respond, noses aloft, that the general populace cannot appreciate interactive fiction in the way that we do. They lack our sophistication, seeing as they neither read nor write 4,000-word essays about the definitions of our terms. Perhaps, we might say, it is best just to ignore such people.

A screenshot of the Steam store, featuring many colorful images representing different video games. They are a visual depiction of the games listed in this article.
A screen grab from the Steam Store based on a search for “Interactive Fiction”

That would be obnoxious, of course, even for a know-it-all like me. I’d rather reconcile my usage with Steam’s user community. Isn’t a call to imagine oneself as an Other ultimately a call to reconcile one’s conceptions with those of another? One cannot get into the spirit of this essay by setting oneself apart. Let’s take a moment to examine twelve titles that Steam’s storefront identifies as popular, well-reviewed games frequently tagged as “interactive fiction”:

  • Happiness Double Room
  • To Be a King
  • Our Life
  • Sally Face: Episode One
  • The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow
  • Robin Morning Wood Adventure
  • Paper Bride 3
  • Heavy Rain
  • Immortality
  • I Was a Teenage Exocolonist
  • The Walking Dead: The Definitive Telltale Series
  • Corpse Factory

Sadly, there isn’t time to play these games presently, though a future study might take a closer look at them. For now, we can examine their promotional text and trailers for some key features:

  • In nine of the twelve titles, the player assumes control of a specific, defined character.
  • Three of the games are erotic, and another is a romance, two classifications new to this study that intuitively suggest a relationship to the subjective. Perhaps this topic could be explored further at a future date.
  • One title is a visual novel, another genre that warrants special attention. I feel that visual novels are clearly interactive fiction, but that must be a subject for another day.
  • There is a general tendency to emphasize multiple endings, which simultaneously affirms player agency while possibly destabilizing the concept of a fixed other.
  • The games that do not feature a fixed and well-defined protagonist—an Other that can serve as an object of empathy—are role playing games. Role playing games, which in some (not all) cases allow the player to define the protagonist—seem separate but closely related to interactive fiction, as in the Dungeons & Dragons discussion above.

Despite widespread misgivings over general use of the “interactive fiction” descriptor on Steam, preliminary investigation suggests that use of the term could lead to productive discussion, despite the games’ prominent use of graphics and other characteristics widely considered disqualifying.

Interactive Fiction, Intertextuality, and the Empathetic Other

I have participated in online conversations in which it has been suggested that the interactive fiction games of the 1980s, while interesting as historical curiosities, are evolutionary dead-ends that have no influence on the wider gaming landscape of either the past or today. Last week, I argued for a model of influence that is more a web than it is a bloodline. Works and artists participate in a culture that is analog, not digital, and influence can be indirect and elusive.

This study calls readers to reconsider their conceptions of influence and additionally reevaluate their own ideas of “interactive fiction.” While we could go on shrugging, as if to say that we can’t define it, but that we know it when we see it, that would do little for our ongoing efforts to discuss it as art. It would also present a missed opportunity to celebrate interactive fiction’s ability to do something that we seem to need more today than ever: call us to empathy, call us to share in the gaze of the Other.

A Mind Forever Voyaging is, of course, a crucial pivot point in this history of games, teaching a number of invaluable lessons. In the first place, it is the only Infocom game that, with its near total absence of puzzles or mechanical challenges, is almost exclusively concerned with empathy for the Other. In this sense, it connects those early text adventures with the expressionistic choice games that emerged in the early tens. Its structure also asks us to consider what interactive fiction can be in the absence of puzzles. Because A Mind Forever Voyaging is interactive fiction, we know that we must look elsewhere for the unifying thread that connects 1975 to now. Without AMFV, how might we have known?

What could be more modern, more immediate, than Perry Simm’s inability to console his wife?

What could be more modern, more immediate, than Perry Simm’s inability to console his wife? Or than the deterioration of his relationship with his son? He does not need to speak of his horror when the armed thugs of the immigration police kick in his door. It is our horror, too. We are called to feel it, and it is A MInd Forever Voyaging‘s lasting triumph that we must answer its call. While we all have our favorites in the Infocom canon, perhaps we might be convinced that, of all their interactive fiction, AMFV is the most “interactive fiction” of them all.

Our Work Is Never Done

This is only a beginning. Where do gamebooks fit in? If an author took a gamebook and digitized it in twine, we would call it interactive fiction. It seems that the book would be, too. What is the best critical approach to interactive forms of traditional media?

How about agency? There is a wide variety of capacities for the player to achieve different outcomes in IF. While visual novels tend to offer few choices, they do generally feature many endings. Zork has countless choices, but only two endings: death and victory (the many deaths are treated the same way). What is the relationship between agency and empathy in interactive fiction?

There is clearly more to say on the subject of empathy-centered IF, but our study of AMFV must continue. Stay tuned for an assessment of the political critique at the center of A Mind Forever Voyaging. I’ll examine critical responses to it over the years before volunteering my own take. Don’t miss it! As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

The post Agency, Empathy, and the Call of the Other in AMFV appeared first on Gold Machine.


Renga in Blue

Arrow of Death Part 2: A Cloud of Evil Smoke

I have completed the game, and my prior posts are needed for this one to make sense. I didn’t have too much farther to go; my stuckness could partly be traced to a deceptive parser message. But it’s more interesting to approach how I got out of trouble first. There was, to recap, an animated […]

I have completed the game, and my prior posts are needed for this one to make sense.

From World of Spectrum. As nifty as Murder at Awesome Hall sounds it is just a clone of the board game Clue.

I didn’t have too much farther to go; my stuckness could partly be traced to a deceptive parser message. But it’s more interesting to approach how I got out of trouble first.

There was, to recap, an animated skeleton guarding a trail. The skeleton didn’t actively attack but wouldn’t let me by, and my attempts to KILL were null and void.

My verb list again.

Adventure games can sometimes be the inverse of RPGs. In RPGs, the the player typically attains more and more objects and capabilities which make it easier to get out of trouble (this is why part 2 of a roguelike is often easier than part 1). With adventures, the player often attains a large object list which eventually gets narrowed down to a shorter one, making puzzles easier to solve; less objects to test as solutions to puzzles. There are enough murderously hard endgames this is not a hard and fast rule, but even grand-champion-hardest-of-all-time Quondam followed this pattern.

The same thing can happen with verbs. Specialty verbs in particular often are invoked only once; for example, while we could FLY with a kite, the kite becomes a “broken kite” and it becomes extremely unlikely FLY gets invoked again.

Here is the list of verbs with every verb crossed out I used at least once:

Some are obviously still potentially useful, like GO and SEARCH, and some I’ve already used more than once, like DIG. The thing to focus on is that there’s liable to be a use for all the verbs at some point in the game (at least in an old-school one).

It is possible in this era to have “placeholder verbs” which do nothing anywhere and are intended to give a more pleasing response than “I don’t understand”; HELP: “There is no help for you in this game.” More modern games have quite a few of these, like the famous “Violence isn’t the answer to this one” response to ATTACK. It can be helpful and satisfying to get this kind of response; the ability to even pretend to do some common act makes the world’s mimesis a little shoddier. With very old games having tight memory requirements, though, they often didn’t have space to waste on placeholder verbs.

SMASH, however, felt all the world like a placeholder verb. It gives the response “Vandal!” which really gets across the message “smashing things isn’t part of the game”. However, glancing at the special verb list, and glancing at the verbs that haven’t been crossed out, SMASH is a really tempting verb to try on the skeleton. I could swear I had already tried it without success (in fact I probably did, more on that in a second) but then I found, voila:

As I said, I thought I had tried it before, so I reloaded an old saved game and tested SMASH again only to find the “Vandal!” message come up. Not only does this come across as a “placeholder” it suggests the skeleton is part of that.

After some testing I realized the difference the second time is I was carrying a LARGE ROCK I didn’t have before. What the parser really should have done is say something like “I don’t have anything that will help with that”. Even the standard “Sorry” would have conveyed a similar spirit.

(The game in general is pretty bad about objects held being used without letting the player know they were used. the fluffy shrub from two posts ago being a good example. Once I picked up a CLOAK and wore it for the rest of the game — it otherwise wasn’t too useful to have. I assume it had an effect somewhere but I still don’t know where!)

Anyway, to circle back: if you’re ever stuck in an old-school adventure, especially near the endgame, try not just to list the verbs but the verbs that haven’t been used yet.

The rest of the game was straightforward. I found a MOUND on the trail that the shovel was able to dig out and get a hole. Inside the hole I found a passage blocked by a large boulder, and it was dynamite’s time to shine.

This leads to some stairs and an “Impenetrable” veil.

Just past the veil is an organ with some sheet music, and playing the music removes the veil. (I’d complain about the puzzle being too easy, but it was still a satisfying act.)

And then there is XERDON.

Just to be clear, he hasn’t seen you yet in the image above: if he sees you, you die. For example, if you try to get out your bow and arrow and use them in the same room XERDON is in.

Fortunately, it takes only a few more steps to go around a back route and find an “arrow slit” where XERDON is visible.

One SHOOT XERDON and it is all over.

This marks the first Howarth game I’ve managed to beat without hints. I don’t think this is due to my increased skillset as much as slightly more reasonable puzzles; despite the presence of quite a bit of magic there isn’t anything where the game asks you to do something completely arbitrary. I think the only exception might be the “smooth stone” where rubbing it summons a beggar, but the smoothness is meant to be a hint, and I did come across RUB quite naturally and quickly so the hint apparently worked.

Despite the presence of a light source with a timer, the author resisted temptation in making the timer run out quickly; I did forget to turn it off for a while and got low on oil, but the entire last part of the game needs no light so it didn’t matter anyway.

While it is possible for one of these games to be too simplistic to be fun, the winning key seems to be to allow for dense systems (like the interconnected navigation) but lean intuitive on the actual resolution to problems. Really (other than the parser issue from this post) I mainly had issues with visualizing; how big is a column of fire? Is a locked grate placed such that tying rope and having a mule pull on it even make sense? Is a “grotesque creature” with no other description something I could reasonably take down with a sword? I had to assume all the possibilities and run through each one.

Howarth stayed on a steady clip; we’ve got two more games for 1982 alone. But for now, we’re going to swerve back to Japan; we recently saw their first adventure game, but their first graphical adventure game ended up being much more important. And then, we’re going to approach one of the most mysterious games I’ve ever written about for this blog, one with a 1982 date yet where it only has been able to be completed as of two months ago.

Sunday, 02. October 2022

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2022 Has Begun

I know there’s a significant amount of crossover, but not everyone reading this will have heard yet, so IFComp 2022 Games Are Out being the interactive fiction competition that has run since 1995. 71 selections this time around. Only 21 of them parser, but I’m guessing some of the energy for that went over to […]

I know there’s a significant amount of crossover, but not everyone reading this will have heard yet, so

IFComp 2022 Games Are Out

being the interactive fiction competition that has run since 1995.

71 selections this time around. Only 21 of them parser, but I’m guessing some of the energy for that went over to ParserComp 2022 which finished not too long ago.

Still too many to finish them all, but remember, to vote, you only need to have played five of them!

Cover art from four of the games.


Wade's Important Astrolab

IFComp 2022 review: Nose Bleed by Stanley W Baxton

Nose Bleed by Stanley W Baxton, is a clicking-choice-based story with graphic elaboration – ostensibly about social anxiety – that elicited a combination of visceral nausea and hysterical laughter from me; a pretty strong combination for a ten-minute (to play) game. I don't think the first game I've tried in any previous year's Interactive Fiction Competition has made me feel ill so quickly, s

Nose Bleed by Stanley W Baxton, is a clicking-choice-based story with graphic elaboration – ostensibly about social anxiety – that elicited a combination of visceral nausea and hysterical laughter from me; a pretty strong combination for a ten-minute (to play) game. I don't think the first game I've tried in any previous year's Interactive Fiction Competition has made me feel ill so quickly, so after a fashion, this was a good start.

I'd say that if nose bleeds, or blood coming out of your body in general, either in prose or as animated spatter on the screen, or from the cover image below, are likely to make you ill, then both this game and my review are likely to make you ill ill. You have been warned.

Nose Bleed cover image

The player-narrator of Nose Bleed works in an office. They're meant to be doing something with spreadsheets but they feel barely capable. The details of the work, or indeed of anything but the narrator's flustered mental space, and later, their spectacular nose bleeds, are omitted by the game. Their headspace and the negative self-talk going on in there are the main event. I am not a psychiatrist, but I have been incapacitatedly socially phobic (two-and-a-half decades ago – treated over years, ultimately left behind) and this looks to be the psychological terrain of this game. Also, the content warning says "social anxiety". In the protagonist's distorted mindset, they expect to be negatively evaluated by others all the time. The narration is a spiral of feeling incompetent, incapable, distressed, depressed, and wanting to flee situations.

When the PC's nose starts to bleed during the work day, it comes in like a metaphor for their anxiety. It starts, it can't be stopped, it seems uncontrollable, others can see it and evaluate them negatively as a result. The bleeding gets worse. The PC is invited to an event they can't get out of, and the blood  keeps-a-coming. Choices about what to do next are made by dragging words on the screen to nouns that light up. The actions tend to be basic ones that are either ineffectual (rub nose) or fobbed off upon selection by the protagonist's own self-defeating brain (apologise).

What makes Nose Bleed so nauseating is the way the blood is animated on screen. The paper-white backdrop is stained first by a single streak, then as spots that appear, and finally as an unstoppable animated splatter that follows the cursor about. Coupled with selectable prose options like "Lick" (the blood off your lip) the effect of all this was to begin to induce in my arms that strange weakness that precedes blood-related nausea for me. And then I began to laugh. The whole thing was reaching the intensity of a skit where a patient sits in a waiting room while geysering blood. Or of the most spectacular nose bleed I ever experienced second-hand as an adolescent, where I was in a car with two sisters, and one of them started jetting from the nose in time with the pumping from her heart. The streamers of blood would hit me whenever the car turned a corner. As much blood gets all over the prose in Nose Bleed. It piles up on the on-screen choices and nothing can stop it. The PC doesn't even try basic techniques I'm aware of like pinching the nose while tilting the head back, though they do come up with the head tilt alone.

Nose Bleed's finale has a kind of twisting escalation that reminded me of a David Cronenberg film or two. I'm not sure what meaning I ascribe to the very last event in the game, but I'll give it time to percolate. The game's overall design is excellent, moving quickly from banal office work and equally banal thoughts, via the start of a typical nose bleed, through the discomfort of being unable to stop the bleed, to an eventual wittily programmed and (to me, hilarious) graphical geyser. I kept thinking as I played, "Surely, it stops here," but I was repeatedly wrong.

If all that animated blood is in danger of having an eclipsing effect, I could say that having all one's thoughts eclipsed by one panicky thing is like social phobia, after all. In Nose Bleed, the blood literally gets in between you and the interface.

Saturday, 01. October 2022

Interactive Fiction – Far Far Futures

IFComp 2022 Reviews – 1st Batch

Puzzle Game Edition It’s time for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. I don’t know if I’ll end up reviewing many …Continue reading →
Puzzle Game Edition It’s time for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. I don’t know if I’ll end up reviewing many …

Continue reading


IFComp News

Welcome to the 28th Annual IFComp!

♦2022 IFComp Logo, by Dani / @kiwiseeeds  We’re glad you’re here. If this is your first time joining us, welcome! If you’re already familiar with us, welcome back! Either way, we hope you have a great time and enjoy exploring some of the over seventy new games we have for you this year.What’s next? Check out the games, now live at ifcomp.org You have until November 15, 2021 at 11:59pm Easter
2022 IFComp Logo, by Dani / @kiwiseeeds

 
We’re glad you’re here. If this is your first time joining us, welcome! If you’re already familiar with us, welcome back! Either way, we hope you have a great time and enjoy exploring some of the over seventy new games we have for you this year.


What’s next? 
  • Check out the games, now live at ifcomp.org 
  • You have until November 15, 2021 at 11:59pm Eastern to vote. 
  • You only have to play & rate 5 games to be a judge*! (Yep, just five!)

    * We would love to expand the number of judges! You can help!
    Talk about the competition on social media, and encourage others to check out all these new games. Consider playing with a friend or family member who is new to interactive fiction, talk about the games together, and encourage them to vote as well. Thanks! 

What’s New?


We decided to keep things stable this year, for the most part. No new rules, no major site overhauls. On the technical side, we did add support for online play of TADS games, and made some Parchment updates — including dark mode for those of you who love that.

We have some great feedback from last year that we are still working on, and we welcome more ideas. We will do a post-competition survey to capture your ideas for improving the competition in future, so if you have thoughts about improvements, please watch for the survey in November.

Any questions? Email us at [email protected]

Thank you in advance for judging!
—Jacqueline Ashwell, October 2022


Renga in Blue

Arrow of Death Part 2: The Fire-Walker

(Continued directly from my last post.) I managed to resolve the column of fire summoned at the tapestry above, but before getting to that, I made the Arrow of Death. I mentioned a “grotesque creature” at a “guard room” (with no guards). Experimenting around I tried to just KILL CREATURE and somehow got a key […]

(Continued directly from my last post.)

I managed to resolve the column of fire summoned at the tapestry above, but before getting to that, I made the Arrow of Death.

I mentioned a “grotesque creature” at a “guard room” (with no guards). Experimenting around I tried to just KILL CREATURE and somehow got a key out of the process. This is one spot where I think difficulty visualizing what the author really meant hurt things; I didn’t know if it was a giant creature or a small creature, one that was strong or weak. I really don’t know what happened at all or where the key even came from.

This is a common downside with the Scott Adams database system.

Moving on, I took the key up to a previously locked door in the kite/dead guard area (another loop over previously found terrain). This led to a storeroom with cheese and bread. I then took the bread over to the starving mule and made a friend.

The mule was now following me. Since I was on a hot streak I went to visit the prisoner trapped behind a grating, and it immediately occurred to me the rope might be helpful.

I was then able to get the mule to move and yank the grating off, letting me visit the prisoner, who turned out to be a helpful person indeed. He’s mentioned in Arrow of Death Part 1, so I’m first going to give the old Part 1 screenshot, then a new one:

I needed the strength weed again to wake the fletcher up. This was a pretty satisfying object re-use since the first time was to just get stronger turning a wheel, whereas here it is help someone in much worse shape, yet both cases “getting stronger” is appropriate.

One nice side effect is that turned three inventory objects representing the Arrow into one Magical Arrow object.

I was now out of things to do, so I went back to the tapestry and contemplated the column of fire. I realized I was visualizing it wrong: I was thinking of it something small, like the candle. If it was instead something large, I could try entering it, and since the tapestry hints at fire-walking:

Voila! This leads to a new outdoor area and (I think) puts the game back on a linearity path. Oh well.

Near where you exit is a hut with a pipe and tobacco, and in the other direction there is a lake with a boat.

Getting on the boat and picking up some oars, I tried ROW BOAT and got swallowed up by a whale. A whale on a lake. Sure?

The tobacco and pipe presented an immediate solution, so I filled the pipe and tried to SMOKE it twice, causing me to get spit up onto the shore.

This is yet another area in the linear journey, where you can snag a dynamite with a fuse, a large rock, and a mysterious small smooth stone from a cairn.

There’s a shovel, too, which is how you are able to dig up the dynamite. The earlier flintstone was dug up by hand, but the ground is too hard in this area to dig without a shovel.

After significant experimentation I realized I could RUB the stone to cause a beggar to appear (the one from the last game?) I then did GIVE STONE and the beggar handed me off a magic bow, which is handy since I didn’t want to be stabbing the bad guy with an arrow by hand.

And here I am stuck. Back at the shore there’s an “animated skeleton” near a trail which tries to block if you GO TRAIL. Trying to KILL or SMASH or the like doen’t work. Dropping the dynamite there, lighting the fuse, and running away doesn’t work — or at least it causes the dynamite to explode, but nothing to happen to the skeleton. I worry I’ve missed an item somewhere but I feel like I’ve searched the prior areas fairly thoroughly. (That “machinery” I was worried about last time I believe was just a hint as to the effect of the wheel — it was intended to move the large stone to dam up the river, allowing me to go into the mud.)

You’re welcome to take guesses as to what to do next in the comments, but if you know the answer (from playing previously) please hold off for now. This game has been relatively fair and I’d love to be able to beat it otherwise hint-free (not counting any clever reader theories in the comments).

Friday, 30. September 2022

Choice of Games LLC

Now you can buy our logo on t-shirts, mugs, and a clock!

For years, people have been asking how to buy a Choice of Games t-shirt. And now, you can! Just visit our new store on RedBubble: https://www.redbubble.com/people/choiceofgames/explore We offer two colors, black and white, with and without our “Choice of Games” wordmark. (Be careful not to buy a black-on-black or white-on-white product, unless that’s what you really wanna do.) Red

For years, people have been asking how to buy a Choice of Games t-shirt. And now, you can!

Just visit our new store on RedBubble: https://www.redbubble.com/people/choiceofgames/explore

We offer two colors, black and white, with and without our “Choice of Games” wordmark. (Be careful not to buy a black-on-black or white-on-white product, unless that’s what you really wanna do.)

RedBubble makes it easy for us to upload variations of our logo and sell all sorts of things. We have shirts, hoodies, mugs, stickers, phone cases, pillows, tote bags, mugs, pins, and magnets.

In our logo-only design, they even allow us to sell a … clock?! If you wind up buying one of these, post a photo on our forum!


Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

End of September Link Assortment

Events The SF Bay IF Meetup will convene again on October 1. This will be a hybrid event, so you can attend in person if you’re in the area, or online if you aren’t. IF Comp games are also scheduled to become available tomorrow, October 1. This annual competition has been running now for nearly … Continue reading "End of September Link Assortment"

Events

The SF Bay IF Meetup will convene again on October 1. This will be a hybrid event, so you can attend in person if you’re in the area, or online if you aren’t.

IF Comp games are also scheduled to become available tomorrow, October 1. This annual competition has been running now for nearly three decades, and continues to showcase interesting new work in the field. Judging is open to anyone able to submit scores on at least five games.

In a change of rules, authors may participate in rating other games, as long as they refrain from rating their own submissions.

October 9 is the next Seattle IF Meetup, which will again be held via Discord.

October 11, Dan Hett is running a free introduction to writing interactive fiction in Stockport (outside Manchester). Hett’s IF Closed Hands was nominated in 2022 for an IGF narrative award.

Roguelike Celebration is coming up October 22-23, and will be running online: this is often a great place for talks about procedurally generated content. Not all of it is necessarily narrative-heavy, but typically at least some is interesting to interactive story folks.

Articles and Talks

Here’s a Guardian article that does a deep dive on the Discworld MUD.

Meanwhile, GDC has published Jon Ingold’s talk on the detective mechanics on Overboard! – if you missed Jon’s presentation to the London IF Meetup, you might like to watch this instead.

Joey Jones has an academic article forthcoming on how IF authors manage the complexity of their work, and a preprint verison is available free online.


Renga in Blue

Arrow of Death Part 2 (1982)

Despite this being a direct plot continuation of Brian Howarth’s Arrow of Death Part 1 (which featured here last year) this marks a transition point in his work. Specifically, his first three games in his Mysterious Adventures line were originally done for TRS-80 only. All further parts (picking up in 1982) were written using the […]

Despite this being a direct plot continuation of Brian Howarth’s Arrow of Death Part 1 (which featured here last year) this marks a transition point in his work.

From Mobygames.

Specifically, his first three games in his Mysterious Adventures line were originally done for TRS-80 only. All further parts (picking up in 1982) were written using the Scott Adams database format, matched exactly enough that the same interpreter can be used to play Scott Adams and Mysterious Adventure games. Essentially, this meant removing “room descriptions” and relying on room names and items (and later, graphics) to create the environment. While it seems something of a loss the portability was part of what led Mysterious Adventures to be successful in the first place. The TRS-80 never lit the UK market on fire.

As far as how this happened: based on a note in this interview, Howarth had seen an article by Mike Woodroffe of Adventuresoft asking for programmers to port the Scott Adams games over to British computers.

Quoting the interview:

A non-programmer friend of mine was very keen to be part of creating adventures and had come across an editor that could compile/create and interpreter that could digest Scott Adams’ adventure data files. It became clear to us that if I could adapt my code to be able to interpret the Scott Adams data files, we would also be able to use the editor to allow non-programmers to write our own adventure data files, then package them up into my new engine and supply Molimerx with their voracious demand. My code was pretty compatible to the way the Scott’s code worked and only required some massaging to be compatible.

So the adventure series was now expanding nicely, but apart from the TRS80 platform, Molimerx only wanted me to port the code to IBM PC. He had no interest in any of the flood of new machines that were starting to saturate the market in the UK at the time. My new targets for porting the engine were machines such as Atari 400/800, Sinclair Spectrum, BBC Computer, Commodore 64, Oric Atmos (seemed like a new machine appeared in the UK each month). From this, I became so embroiled in porting that forward motion on creating new titles ground to a halt.

Something feels a little off to me here — supposedly Howarth’s attention on the Scott Adams format came from Woodroffe’s article, but the actual block quote seems to imply “a non-programmer friend of mine” had “come across an editor” (I would guess The Adventure System). My best reconciliation of the two stories is that Howarth learned about The Adventure System first, saw the Scott Adams format was well-documented, then saw the Woodroffe article, then used his memory of the documentation to be able to make Scott Adams ports.

Also, what does Howarth means about his code being adaptable? If he’s referring to the first three TRS-80 games in the old format, they are rather different and using the database required a complete ground-up rewrite of not just the game system itself but the games themselves. Scott Adams also said (without being specific) that “my recollection of a few of the items may be a bit different” so I suspect there might be some fudging of the sequence of events (perhaps unintentionally, we’re talking about events in 1982). Gareth Pitchford’s run-down of events comes with receipts but I’m still not confident on how things really happened.

Nevertheless, all we’re really worried about in the end is the game itself; to continue from Part 1 I’m going to stick with the ZX Spectrum.

A weirdly existential opening.

To recap, several games ago we found a golden baton, but in Arrow of Death Part 1 we found the baton to be corrupted by some sort of distant evil named Zerdon. In order to defeat Zerdon we needed to get the parts intended to form the Arrow of Death. We successfully found all the parts before the story cut off but had yet to make the arrow.

I wonder what the people who started with Wordier Part 1 thought when they got to this game.

You start out at the edge of the marsh things left off on last time, next to a plain and a chasm. The area appears to be empty for a shrub which is a “bundle of fluffy leaves”, and trying to DIG at the plain (unprovoked, I just had my tingly Adventurer Sense going) reveals a FLINTSTONE. There’s also a “narrow gorge” with “water at the bottom” yet I think this part may be meant just as scenery.

The chasm (see above) can be JUMPed into although it’s a one way trip. This suggests a linear structure but the game subverts that later; still, for a little while only one or two puzzles are presented at a time.

You land near a rope bridge; if you try to cross it a bird flies overhead and drops an iron helmet (which you can retrieve on a lower ledge). The lower ledge is also next to a crevice with a lamp.

Going past the rope bridge leads to a “straggly weed” you can pick up, and then an “iron grille” with “machinery”, which I have yet to be able to do anything useful.

My guess, based on my inventory (which includes a sword from the last game, as well as the pieces of the Arrow) was that I’m supposed to use the leaves and weed somehow to make a fire that connects with the grille? No verb I’ve thrown at the items gets recognized, neither MAKE FIRE nor MAKE SPARK work, so I may just be barking up the wrong tree.

(It took me later in my playthrough before I tried it, but I might as well spoil now what the weed is really useful for is eating; it increases your strength, rather like in Katakombs.)

Going back to the rope bridge, the room is described as having “ropes holding the bridge up”. You can cut the ropes and die. I originally thought perhaps this was a trap or gag, and if this was Acheton that’d be the case, but it doesn’t quite fit in with the Howarth style: once he switches from minimalist to ultra-minimalist, everything is important.

I didn’t find out until much later that if you’re not holding the fluffy shrub, this maneuver kills you; the shrub acts like a pillow.

It turns out this lands the player in a hub of sorts, although it isn’t obvious at first. Here’s the map as it looks on the first pass:

There is a locked door that blocks one route and a “heavy door” that blocks another. Otherwise, there’s a dead guard that can be searched for a uniform, a “wheel” that can be turned (next to a guard; you should disguise yourself with the uniform first)…

…and a “heavy kite” by a platform and the place where the dead guard with the uniform was.

If you wear the iron helmet from the bird you can safely JUMP while holding the kite and float down to the start of the game.

So that means the structure is (so far):

Area 1 -> Area 2 -> Area 3 -> Loop back to Area 1

It took me a little while to realize that the wheel turning is what makes the loop useful. By turning the wheel, you shut off a source of water in a gorge, leaving only mud that can be jumped into.

Searching the mud yields a lever that can be pulled, yielding a passage to a new area I haven’t fully reckoned with yet. There’s a dungeon with a prisoner locked behind a grating:

A “grotesque animal” at a “guard room”:

There’s no guard mentioned in the room, so it is strange the illustration shows a guard rather than the grotesque creature.

A “starving mule” at an “underground stable”:

Feeding the mule some of the strength weed doesn’t work.

And a “temple” with a “tapestry”:

There’s a button hiding behind the tapestry. Pressing it reveals an altar. Looking at the altar reveals a candle. Lighting the candle summons a “column of flame”. Once the column of flame is summoned you can PRAY, and the game claims “Something happened!”

What that something is, I don’t know; this is as far as I’ve gotten. I will say this has been more enjoyable that Part 1, not so much in the puzzles, but in the map. In addition to all the things found in the new area, there’s a bolted door. The bolted door leads back to the wheel/kite area!

Area 1 -> Area 2 -> Area 3 -> Loop back to Area 1 -> Area 4 with Area 3

To be clear with a map:

Red = 1, Orange = 2, Yellow = 3, Green = 4. Green connects back up with Yellow.

This kind of unexpected map interconnection I’ve found to be one of the most satisfying element of adventure games (or really, any games). It does make things slightly more complicated on the linearity front; when you know a particular obstacle will never again be seen, that restricts what objects might be helpful to that obstacle quite seriously, whereas if an obstacle can be returned to much later, it potentially opens up any object in the game. This is the type of tradeoff I’m willing to make for the feeling of a world with more depth than it has at first appearances.

The most curious thing is that the part that I had to skip while still baffled — the mysterious grille with machinery — is the only part I can’t return to. While you can go from Area 1 back to Area 2 by jumping down again, the bridge is destroyed so there’s no way to get across to where the grille is. The fortunate thing is that this isn’t Hezarin; the move count is low enough it won’t be hard to repeat everything, if that turns out to be necessary because of some clever trick missed earlier.

For once, I’m not “stuck”, just “stopped”, but historically I’ve hit a wall with Howarth before, so we’ll see how far this goes.

My verb list, for reference. Orange are verbs recognized by the game. It’s a fairly generous spread; the “cut rope while holding it” maneuver I figured out much more quickly from knowing that HOLD was a possible verb.

Thursday, 29. September 2022

Choice of Games LLC

Four more of our games, now FREE!

Fall is here! And so here are some more free games. With love from Choice of Games, enjoy! This week, we’re adding Death Collector, The ORPHEUS Ruse, Demon Mark: A Russian Saga, and Treasure Seekers of Lady Luck to our list for free games: these games are now free to win in the Choice of Games omnibus app for iOS and Android, and free on our website. Remember to click the top button in the Ch

Fall is here! And so here are some more free games. With love from Choice of Games, enjoy!

This week, we’re adding Death Collector, The ORPHEUS Ruse, Demon Mark: A Russian Saga, and Treasure Seekers of Lady Luck to our list for free games: these games are now free to win in the Choice of Games omnibus app for iOS and Android, and free on our website.

Remember to click the top button in the Choice of Games app to access the game for free, or choose the bottom button to pay to turn off ads and support our authors.


Renga in Blue

Argonath Adventure: Finished!

I should’ve known. The pattern: I write about some halfway-dodgy program, abandon it, and assume I’m done. My readers take it up as a challenge and finish the thing anyway (Chou’s Alien Adventure being a prime example). Here, I felt satisfied with what I had seen with Argonath Adventure, but Redhighlander had to go and […]

From the official Irn Bru Facebook page.

I should’ve known.

The pattern: I write about some halfway-dodgy program, abandon it, and assume I’m done.

The date here differs from the other one in the source of June 19th. I would guess the date here is when this particular room was made, as opposed to the code being started.

My readers take it up as a challenge and finish the thing anyway (Chou’s Alien Adventure being a prime example).

Here, I felt satisfied with what I had seen with Argonath Adventure, but Redhighlander had to go and make it to victory, so I was obliged to give it another try.

The full map, the room is orange being ones I didn’t visit before.

To be fair, I probably should have given it another spin. I often overlook USE as a verb (being so non-specific) and I only figured out how to pick up the Irn Bru at the end of my last session. The way is blocked by some spiderwebs, and while I’m unclear what contribution this particular beverage might provide (is there lore about it being a powerful acid?), here’s the result:

This leads down to a small area with two kitchens, a “monster” that is hungry, and a computer where you are supposed to INSERT a DISC (which I had already from elsewhere).

Of the two kitchens, one of them has a red lever that deposits you in a volcano.

The other has a blue lever that gives you food.

You can take biscuits from elsewhere and feed them to a monster at a jet engine. I’m unclear what purpose this serves, but the monster goes away once USE BISCUITS happens.

Moving over to the computer, you can INSERT DISC to get teleported to a room with a key.

The key then lets you go south from the “Neon Sign” room I gave a screenshot of earlier, and make it to the exit.

The final screen suggests a sort of second game concurrent with the first one, where you try to kill the various monsters for score before escaping. FIGHT alone works, you can’t type the name of the monster, but it doesn’t matter, because this mechanic really does seem to be broken: you just die, even if you fortify yourself first by sleeping and eating.

I admit to finding the “optional objective” here which is almost entirely separate from the main game intriguing, even if it is entirely broken. The closest comparison I can think of from pre-1982 games is Lugi, with a randomly generated map and had tasks like “gather money” which could lend points but didn’t affect the actual element of escape. With platformers and the like, the interface can usually convey that Collectible X is there for points and a shiny medal; with adventure games, it is never clear to the player when one element really is separate, as there just might be a clue or hidden item that requires the right amount of progress.

Is this really the first Scottish text adventure? Well, there’s still not absolute verification of Danny Browne’s identity (but who else who insert a casual Irn Bru reference?) and of course there’s plenty of games on the 1982 list I have yet to examine, but whatever the circumstances, this has a high likelihood of being in the first handful of text adventures from the country.

Wednesday, 28. September 2022

Renga in Blue

Argonath Adventure / The Lazurite Factor / Memory Alpha (1982)

We’re going to try something a little different today and work through the complete works of Danny Browne. No, not the reggae music producer. I’m meaning a possibly-Scottish probably-teenager, notable if for nothing else we have yet to have a game hailing from Scotland. I’m guessing, based on factors you’ll see in a moment, Danny […]

We’re going to try something a little different today and work through the complete works of Danny Browne. No, not the reggae music producer. I’m meaning a possibly-Scottish probably-teenager, notable if for nothing else we have yet to have a game hailing from Scotland.

Look at how happy everyone is with their TRS-80. Via UNT Digital Library in a 1981 pamphlet.

I’m guessing, based on factors you’ll see in a moment, Danny was a student who tried his hand at writing adventure games starting in June 1982 and ending in November 1982. I have been unable to locate any ads or reprints of his games in magazines, and based on certain other aspects I highly suspect this is a set of “private games” (like The Smurf Adventure a few games ago), ones written by the author as personal projects but not intended for wide distribution.

Rather helpfully for doing an anthology post, Danny put months (and in two cases exact days) in which he wrote his games.

Acids (May)

Argonath Adventure (June 19th)

The Lazurite Factor (September 3rd)

Memory Alpha (November)

So without further ado:

Acids

The million-selling David Ahl book BASIC Computer Games (first printing: July 1973) included a game called Animal (original by Arthur Luehrmann at Dartmouth), where the player thinks of an animal and the computer tries to guess it with yes/no questions. There’s a stub of questions to start (DOES IT SWIM? IS IT A BIRD?) and then when the computer gets “stumped” the player is meant to give both the animal they were thinking and question that will work to narrow things down to that animal. It isn’t really a game as much as a proto-expert system, of the kind where a doctor can put in responses to a computer’s queries and have a diagnosis get narrowed down. It’s also close to GROW which was used to write an adventure game, except that GROW was not restricted to yes/no responses.

According to Kevin Smith who interviewed Luehrmann recently, the original Dartmouth version of Animal included a swearing filter because college students are predictable.

Techholtz did the modified version of the game for DEC.

Acid is the same game but for acids.

This is not remotely an adventure game, but I mention it since our biographical material on Danny Browne is non-existent. It is dated as May 1982 which suggests he was a student who wrote this potentially thinking in terms of a chemistry class? (Based on the games that are to follow, probably not a teacher.)

The other important bit of context we can glean from Acid is that based on the source code, and despite the easy accessibility of Ahl’s re-print of the game, it seems to have been made from scratch (at least, it doesn’t match any of the versions I’ve looked at).

(As an aside, Arthur Luehrmann is one of the important oft-overlooked people in game history; he was a physics professor who was an early embracer of computer graphics and wrote the game POTSHOT which is one of the earliest “artillery games”; think Scorched Earth or GORILLAS.BAS.)

Argonath Adventure

The file on this game had some corruption, I think due to the presence of non-standard ASCII characters. It only munges up the title screen but the upshot is that instead of my regular emulator I used the online one at willus.com.

I wish I could give what the objective is, but I haven’t been able to finish and I’m not 100% sure the game is finishable. You’re on some sort of alien planet and there’s a spot where you “escape” but past that I am unclear.

Rather unusually, the player is dropped in their initial room at random; the “opening room” shown above is one of many. I’m not sure if this was intentional on an artifact of the game being a work in progress, because there is an apparent “opening room”.

However, unless you get the lucky random start, the only way to reach the room is through the command FART. Yes, FART has returned to us, for the fourth time. Here, it teleports between a handful of rooms (a different set than the starting one) including the surface of the planet. Once going in any direction, the player is locked in the complex.

The blocked exit at the far lower left asks for a key, and the room above it mentions a web blocking the passage.

There are wandering enemies at intervals. They appear randomly in any room. There’s some mention of combat mechanics in the source but they don’t seem to work, and while FIGHT is a verb the game doesn’t understand when I try to use it. They end up not mattering insofar as you can just leave a room as one appears and come back and they will be gone (or at least, there will be a new re-roll with possibly a different monster).

It’s not worth being harsh evaluating the monster system here as game writers in general didn’t know what to do with monsters. The Crowther/Woods dwarves present a “logistical puzzle” in having to carry around an axe, and the slight bit of randomness (in terms of missing axe throws) keeps things from being too monotonous, but it was hard to expand on that concept and keep within an “adventure framework” (no stats, no complicated RPG tactics). Zork’s thief simply scaled in terms of your overall point score (that is, as you gathered more treasure, you gathered more experience so the thief became easier to fight and you were more likely to win) but even as late an Infocom game as Arthur didn’t improve on that (there’s a knight with a similar mechanic).

The game has three objects: a disc, some biscuits, and a bottle of “Irn Bru”. (The last is a Scottish soft drink which at least strongly suggests the author was not American.)

A note regarding Scotland: Spectrum’s main factory (under license from Timex) was in Dundee, and according to David Cowen (of Grand Theft Auto fame), not much attention was paid to loss prevention, meaning “everyone worked there just kinda walked out with a bag full of Spectrums”, causing a large ecosystem of computer clubs. So we would in fact expect quite a few text adventures to come out of Scotland, but written for the ZX Spectrum, not the TRS-80.

I checked the source later, you have to type “TAKE IRN BRU” as a whole and not worry about restricting to two words.

It’s faintly possible the game is finishable but even with source-diving left me puzzled, and I’ve drained the majority of the content juice anyway. The winning message from the source code is

You are the first person ever to get out alive.

The Lazurite Factor

This one’s unfortunately completely unplayable; there’s strings of broken ASCII characters all throughout the text. It seems to be fairly similar to the previous game, so I just pulled up a few pieces of source code to talk about the changes.

The Lazurite factor
By Danny Browne
3rd Sept 1982
For Futura Industries Computer Division

Again, monsters appear at random, exactly the same set as last time, suggesting that there was cutting and pasting involved.

” An orc ” , ” A goblin ” , ” An esgaroth ” , ” A large furry creature ” , ” A troll ” , ” A biggish red eyed animal ” , ” A minotaur ” , ” A bogey man ”

There’s a good chunk of “auto-message” verbs; that is, the game “understands” the verb but also does not do anything with it, so for example, trying to break anything just says “it refuses to break.” Swearing possibilities are included.

6320 READ L4$ CVS “EAT” + GOSUB ” It’s inedible. ” : INPUT p
6325 READ L4$ CVS “BITE” + GOSUB ” You broke your tooth. ” : INPUT p
6330 READ L4$ CVS “LICK” + GOSUB ” Don’t be disgusting. ” : INPUT p
6335 READ L5$ CVS “BREAK” + GOSUB ” It refuses to break. ” : INPUT p
6345 READ L5$ CVS “SMASH” + GOSUB ” Nothing happens to it. ” : INPUT p

There are five items, including a ROM CARTRIDGE which looks to be the overall objective.

4000 READ ZZ CVS LE + GOSUB ” There is a bottle of lemonade in the middle of the room. ”
4010 READ ZZ CVS BL + GOSUB ” There is a blue disc lying in a folder. ”
4020 READ ZZ CVS RD MKD$ RD CVI + GOSUB ” There is a red disc lying against the wall. ”
4030 READ ZZ CVS WH + GOSUB ” There is a white disc lying on the floor. ”
4040 READ ZZ CVS RO + GOSUB ” An inconspicous ROM CARTRIDGE lies on the floor. “

The blue disc is used to open a bridge path, and the white disc is used to open a safe (with the rom cartridge).

3020 IFI$ CVS “BLUE DISC” MKD$ BL$ CVS I$ + GOSUB ” A bridge swung across the chasm. ” : BL$ CVS ” ” : CH CVS : INPUT [
3070 READ I$ CVS “WHITE DISC” ANDWH$ CVS I$ + GOSUB ” The safe opened. ” : RD CVS : WH$ CVS ” ” : INPUT USING

Regarding the ending, I’m wondering if I’ve missed some tech joke here, because the finale text suggests the cartridge is worth millions.

2220 VARPTR : GOSUB ” You have escaped with the valuable rom cartridge! You are RICH! ” : GOSUB ” By the way,will you lend me a few million? “

It is faintly possible the game is recoverable, since the textual errors seem to at least have consistent patterns, but for now let’s move on to the last game:

Memory Alpha

Memory Alpha had no garbled text, and I was able to run it with my regular emulator.

I played for a while, found it fairly broken still (including two crashes at random points) and did some searching around until I realized this was nearly the same game as Conquest of Memory Alpha, which I just wrote about. (To be clear: yes, I played Danny Browne’s version first.) It looks like Danny tried to modify the game to his own design but stopped halfway through. It may have been just to try to study the source code rather than make a game, or it could be the difficulty was such he wanted to hack it to see what the inside of Memory Alpha was like.

The arrows have been added in. If you try to blow the tank at the entrance up with a grenade the game crashes.

So, my apologies there wasn’t some delicious nugget of lost gaming history this time, just some experiments of a mysterious coder who will not appear again. In a sense, though, this gives a swath of what I can only imagine occurred with regularity: people in the early 80s who were interested in adventure games, but not quite capable of coding one all the way through, yet still fascinated enough to keep trying.

Tuesday, 27. September 2022

Renga in Blue

Conquest of Memory Alpha (1982)

80 Microcomputing, the TRS-80 publication we’ve visited several times before, had an “Annual Games Issue” in August of 1982. The general theme was type-ins of games, including today’s selection, Conquest of Memory Alpha by L. L. Myers, with biographical info at the end of his type-in being the only information about the individual we have: […]

80 Microcomputing, the TRS-80 publication we’ve visited several times before, had an “Annual Games Issue” in August of 1982.

The general theme was type-ins of games, including today’s selection, Conquest of Memory Alpha by L. L. Myers, with biographical info at the end of his type-in being the only information about the individual we have:

L. L. Myers serves aboard a nuclear submarine in the US Navy.

Goose Creek, which the author gives as an address, has a Naval Weapons Station base.

The majority of the text, rather than being devoted to technical details (although they do get slipped in at the end), gives background for the story. The short version is that Buck Starton is kidnapped by aliens and forced to land a ship on Algar V to search for Memory Alpha which contains “the total collection of human knowledge”. For the long version, I have done a dramatic reading:

(Click here if the in-line player doesn’t work, and no, I’m not sure why I went through the work to do this. It does feel a little like honoring the effort of writing the story, even if I’m being somewhat extreme in the delivery. But also, I have trouble mentally “capturing” this large a chunk of game lore without reckoning with it directly somehow.)

Unfortunately, the game does not live up to the drama. This is only marginally-kind-of an adventure game, and definitely not an RPG even though it keeps track of XP. The closest comparison I can think of is Klondike Solitaire.

Mind you, depending on how you play Klondike the chance of winning can vary from 5% to something like … 30%? (mathematicians don’t really know) and the same thing applies here, but I had to do some source diving to come up with a strategy.

You start at the upper right corner of the map.

There’s one glitch where you can exit to the east side and reappear to the west side. Otherwise this is a straight grid structure.

In order to travel anywhere, you need to light a torch. Then, you start moving around the “outer ring” of the map, which has repetitive location names; every room in a 2 by 6 chunk at the top, for instance, is called “The Red Hills”. Along the bottom you get “The Blue Hills”; on the right you get a “Large Bleak Plain”.

Somewhere on the map, randomly, is a plastic card. You need that plastic card to get into Memory Alpha (the center red marked portion, of 4 by 4 rooms).

While you are looking for the card, you get followed by ROBOT GUARDS, BARBARIANS, and RATS, the first two who will try to hurt you. At one point you’ll need to kill and eat a rat, so that you can avoid dying of hunger halfway through the mission. This act incidentally comes with an entirely random chance of getting diseased, and if you get the disease and die, even though the game tries to “reincarnate” you there’s a bug which just sends it in a loop:

The guards and barbarians have relatively interesting behavior; the guards will actively try to follow you, and the barbarians will occasionally also move around, and both will attack at random. If you kill a barbarian (using SHOOT LASER, although you have a limited number of shots) they will give a war cry and summon another one that you will encounter in the next room. Something similar seems to happen with robot guards but I never noticed any increase in enemy amount.

Assuming you find the card at all — and you might not, since according to the BASIC source there is a 9/100 chance the card may appear inside Memory Alpha making it literally impossible to get — you need to make your way to the front door, and contend with the robot tank there. You have a grenade that has to be used (THROW GRENADE AT TANK) otherwise the tank will vaporize you trying to escape. However, the grenade only sometimes goes off. You get a second chance if you miss, but not a third chance. Missing is entirely at random.

Once inside (USE CARD, PULL LEVER), you can make your way to the northwest corner and pick up a DATA WAFER, but in all likelihood you’ve already burned too many moves searching for the cards and will run out of torch light before you can escape. If your torch is dead you simply can’t move; the game is softlocked (or at least, you can hang out until you starve to death).

This screen is before I discovered you could eat the rats.

So, to recap, getting through the game (the “regular” way) requires

a.) killing and eating a rat and hoping you don’t get diseased.

b.) randomly finding a plastic card, which may not even be available, and hoping you find it fast enough

c.) killing a tank with a grenade (and hoping it works, as you only have one grenade; you can try to skip this step but I found I took enough damage looking for the card this never worked out)

d.) grab the wafer and then make it all the way to the start without your torch light running out — hope you didn’t spend too long looking for the card!

I did manage to work out an alternative strategy. By poking at source I realized you can throw the grenade at the doors leading inside Memory Alpha instead of bothering with a card at all. That means you will get hit by the robot tank as you escape (since you can’t destroy it) but since you skip the pesky “hunt around for a card” portion of the game you will have enough health to, er, tank it.

So that means the procedure becomes

a.) kill and eat a rat still

b.) go straight for the doors and throw a grenade, hoping it goes off correctly (you still might die randomly here)

c.) grab the wafer and make it to the start

You still have a chance of dying at this moment. If a robot guard is in the location with you it has a chance of taking a last shot and killing you.

Keeping the backstory in mind, that we are working unwillingly for an alien menace, it looks like we just doomed the human race.

I confess this is slight enough of an adventure I would have been fully willing to discard it, but I do have an entry coming up where this exact game is relevant, so I needed to cover it first.

I will say at least the game was interesting in the sense of being different gameplay; as I said, it doesn’t really fall into either adventure or RPG categories. Even simulation is pushing it. But devising a strategy that optimizes the gauntlet of RNG was at least vaguely satisfying.

The author clearly had some ambitions in terms of trying to “simulate a story” as opposed to dropping a bunch of superfluous puzzles in the player’s path. I do find a game where on some playthroughs you are required to fail by mere random chance kind of intriguing, but only in a meta art-gallery sense; it’s more fun to talk about than to play.

Monday, 26. September 2022

Gold Machine

Initial Groundwork for a Reading of A Mind Forever Voyaging

Forever is a long time. Because I Wanted to Perhaps I, Drew Cook, have already hinted over these past 76 posts and roughly 182,000 words that I might treat A Mind Forever Voyaging differently. Perhaps those of you who have come all this way with Gold Machine have seen and read enough to intuit that […] The post Initial Groundwork for a Reading of A Mind Forever Voyaging appeared first on Gold

Forever is a long time.

Because I Wanted to

Perhaps I, Drew Cook, have already hinted over these past 76 posts and roughly 182,000 words that I might treat A Mind Forever Voyaging differently. Perhaps those of you who have come all this way with Gold Machine have seen and read enough to intuit that I might treat A Mind Forever Voyaging differently. Whatever our reasons, many of us, you and I together, had a feeling that there might be something different about this game. There was and yet is something about it, isn’t there?

Regular readers might also recognize that there are a number of philosophical threads that I have spun but have not yet tied off. Looking all the way back to Enchanter, for instance, there was the as-yet unsettled mater of characterization when the player—not just the author—can define the protagonist by their actions. I’ve frequently referred here to well-meaning authors who have, in one way or another, asserted that “actually, interactive fiction was never really fiction.” These commentators all came, it must be admitted, quite close to an important truth about time, plot, and causation in agentic media. These features didn’t work in the same way that they did in traditional storytelling, and sometimes agency worked directly against their implementation. Rather than take swipes at those critics on semantic grounds, we should, at this midway point—A Mind Forever Voyaging was the 17th of 33 total Infocom games—honor their intent. Yes, audience agency absolutely was a problem for authors in the then-nascent genre of interactive storytelling. Gold Machine has been concerned with this challenge from its very beginning, but it is time to go further.

After five years and 16 games, A Mind Forever Voyaging would be built upon Infocom’s first major architectural revision: the *.Z4 specification, then branded as “Interactive Fiction Plus.” AMFV would not have been possible without the new technology. Its more generous story file size limit (a whopping 256K) was completely utilized. There was not a single Kilobyte left over—Author Steve Meretzky allegedly trimmed individual words to come in under the limit. This unprecedented and generous ceiling—double the size permissible by the original *.Z3 standard—made it possible for Meretzky to portray an imagined city in America’s great plains with a large in-game map not just once but five times over the spans of ten, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years! In terms of marrying gameplay and technical innovations, I am comfortable asserting that A Mind Forever Voyaging is Infocom’s high water mark, and in the rarefied company of only Zork I, Deadline, and Suspended. Hence, another worthwhile avenue of exploration is the relationship between technology and interactive media. For this new sort of storyteller, technology was both opportunity and limitation.

Another question—and I have repeatedly dipped my own critical toes in these waters—is that of the role that nostalgia has played in shaping the discourse surrounding 1980s interactive fiction. It would seem, forty years later, that critique of Infocom media is almost exclusively historical as opposed to cultural. Why is so much critical real estate granted, in so many places, to Infocom’s creation myth? Any serious follower of Infocom discourse knows the story—impressive to say the least—of Marc Blank’s and Joel Berez’s invention of the Z-Machine architecture. Especially in the wake of Jimmy Maher’s own exploration of Infocom’s history, what else could anyone possibly say about it (not to mention sources like Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages)?

Certain historical subjects are exhaustible when treated purely as history. Someone eventually will collect the facts and state them so well and reasonably that the matter is, so far as content creation goes, exhausted. There is little more to say about Infocom’s history without turning a critical eye to questions of textual interpretation, of cultural analysis. Outside the realm of historical actualities—of facts—cases can be built and argued. There is no argument to be made about Berez and Blank and their Z-Machine. On the other hand, there may well be an argument to be made about the types of stories it favored and the kinds of texts it produced. So far as A Mind Forever Voyaging goes, many have made a case for dismissing Meretzky’s political critique of Reagan-era conservatism as shrill, fallacious, or unbalanced. Some of them have even gone so far as to characterize AMFV‘s apocalyptic vision of an America unmade by corporate greed, environmental destruction, racism, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia naive. Perhaps Meretzky’s argument was weakened by his failure to indulge in the “middle ground” rhetorical fallacy? In any case, it has been long enough that we might conduct investigations of our own.

This is the first, introductory essay in a series of responses to my favorite “serious” Infocom game, A Mind Forever Voyaging (I make this distinction because I love Enchanter equally). As such, it attempts to lay the groundwork for a wide, far-ranging conversation about modular storytelling, overtly political game design, the difference between lineage and influence, and the customary Gold Machine assessment of digital and physical media as a combined, single text. Finally, I will examine the ways in which the destabilizing effects of player agency serve as both challenge and opportunity in A Mind Forever Voyaging.

A photograph of a smiling white man of perhaps 40 years. He appears jubilant. The man is recognizable as Lee Atwater, the architect of the Republican Party's Southern Strategy in the late 70s and most of the 80s.
Lee Atwater: Mostly Harmless?

PREFATORY REMARKS: NARRATIVE DESIGN AND A MIND FOREVER VOYAGING

It’s only fair to concede that in those early days of parser games (and perhaps even in these more sophisticated times), the plots of Infocom games did not feature what audiences would recognize as traditional plot structures. This is likely what other critics have meant when claiming that Infocom games were “not really fiction.” It’s true: the basic gameplay loop of 1980s parser games—and many of these challenges persist today—is anathema to the most familiar modes of storytelling. Ignoring postmodern innovations, a typical story is a linear sequence of events. One event leads to later events. The narrative thread generally referred to as the “main throughline” is a causal chain. As a recognizable example, the film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (henceforth referred to as Star Wars), Princess Leia’s capture by the Empire is the first in a series of events that culminates in the destruction of the Death Star.

Each event is a certainty: there is no version of Star Wars in which, rather than board the Millenium Falcon, Luke Skywalker decides to spend an afternoon blasting womp rats in Beggar’s Canyon. The plot is fixed, and the characters are static. No matter how many times we watch, they always do the same thing. This allows we readers and critics to assess themes, characters, and plot sequence based on—returning to a previously mentioned term—the historical facts of the “text” of Star Wars. The fixed nature of action, causation, and story makes possible critical analysis based on universally agreed upon qualities. Luke watches Darth Vader kill Obi Wan Kenobi. What that means can be discussed on equal terms because the fact of its occurrence is certain.

The introduction of a certain sort of player agency is a destabilizing factor. Unlike Star Wars there is, for instance, no set causal chain for Zork I, nor is there fixed action of any sort. While there are many actions that must be performed, they need not be performed in a specific sequence. Even when there are dependencies—there are many—most are in a way unmoored. Yes, while the Adventurer must eventually exorcise the spirits from the land of the dead, there is nothing that dictates whether he will do so before or after killing the Thief. Even more destabilizing are failure cases and unmotivated actions. It is easy for a game to have an incomplete story if the player considers a fail state the ending. Perhaps the player quits after being devoured by a grue. While it may not be satisfying, such a “story” has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this way, the intended or “true” story of Zork I can be missed altogether, an outcome of the sort that a fixed narrative like Star Wars cannot offer.

An iconic scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Princess Leia, a brunette in a white robe, can be seen in the distance. She is bending down to install a secret message in white, cylindrical robot.
This is where it all begins: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

While it’s true that the few other “characters” in Zork I (Thief, cyclops, troll, bat, and spirits) are fairly simple machines that a critic can evaluate as fixed features of the text (I hope so, given my own writing about the Thief), the protagonist is not so easy to characterize. There is the question of his competence (see above) as dictated by the agentic player and reader. It is also unclear (unlikely?) that the player will only act in service to the story. An easily understood and previously discussed example is the protagonist of Sorcerer‘s ability to horse around in an amusement park instead of rescuing his friend and mentor, Belboz, who is supposedly in mortal danger. In those old Infocom games, agency was a destabilizing factor that undermined their authors’ capacity for plot, pacing, and characterization.

Rather than declare Infocom’s games failures to achieve some imagined bar of “fiction-ness,” it’s more interesting to view them (and video games generally) as disruptions to traditionally-accepted approaches to authoring and interpreting narratives. In terms of storytelling, Infocom’s most successful and sophisticated games, Trinity and A Mind Forever Voyaging, face these challenges in ways as different as they are rewarding. The answer for both AMFV‘s Steve Meretzky and Trinity‘s Brian Moriarty lies in modular narrative design, an approach that Infocom first explored in Meretzky’s (along with Douglas Adams) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the major, central questions of this series on A Mind Forever Voyaging is this: in what ways is modular narrative design an effective response to (or even a capitalization on) the destabilizing effects of audience agency?

First Thoughts on Influence in Video Games as a web rather than as a lineage

Another problem in Infocom discourse is that it assumes that—beyond a small but active fan community of contemporary text-based interactive fiction—it is an evolutionary dead end in the advancement of the video game medium. This doubtlessly reinforces the limitations of the above-mentioned nostalgic readings of Infocom games. Instead of seeing the influence of, say, Zork everywhere, we see ourselves as keepers of a forgotten faith. The truth is that Zork and Deadline are part of a 40-plus-year conversation about the problems and advantages of agency in interactive media, just as games as different as Shin Megami Tensei V and The Last of Us Part 2 are.

The idea that influence is a thing inherited—passed directly from one author or game to another—is useful but incomplete. It does not describe all types of influence, or even its most common varieties. Despite an author’s best efforts, the members of an audience will ultimately have their own their own subjective experiences with art. Their own encounters with media are influenced by what they have experienced before, artistic or otherwise. If meaning-making is a shared effort between artist and audience, then influence is not a family tree. Instead, it is something web-like or even, less determinately, something in the air: an ambiance or a far-away sound.

Gold Machine embraces the widely-accepted concept of intertextuality as a model of influence and conversation between cultural objects. 1998’s Baldur’s Gate, which in no way looks or plays like Infocom’s Deadline, nevertheless enters an already-started conversation about NPC interaction in agentic narratives. Whether or not members of the 60-person Baldur’s Gate development team played it, Deadline is already part of that pre-existing cultural context. Whether or not the people who played Baldur’s Gate also played Deadline, the cultural context of Deadline as an innovator in NPC interaction already existed in 1998. For that matter: how many reviewers of Baldur’s Gate had first played Deadline? How did such experiences affect the discourse surrounding Baldur’s Gate, even if Deadline was never mentioned?

The phenomenon of intertextuality introduces another question for the contemporary critic of A Mind Forever Voyaging: what sort of texts and games does it converse with, both before and since? While I do feel quite nostalgic about it and other Infocom games, I also believe it is a mistake to stop with history and nostalgia. AMFV is a game that has more to offer today than its historicity. What conversations did it continue or begin in 1985, and what does that mean for the players and critics of today? What other critical opportunities might embracing intertextually afford us as readers and, yes, fans?

A photograph of the cast of the RPG Persona 2: Eternal PUnishment. It includes a glamourous young fasion designer, an angsty high school student in a red jacket, a long-haired native American, a woman photographer with red and white hair, a serious man in a grey suit and red shirt, a juvenile delinquent, and cheerful reporter Maya Amano. They all look toward the viewer.
Cast for the Atlus RPG Persona 2: Eternal Punishment (2000). Given the player freedoms available in many RPG’s, the balance between agency and narrative is an important consideration.

Concluding Remarks regarding a Critical and Intertextual Reading of AMFV

As this essay’s title suggests, it is only the initial groundwork laid for a larger and hopefully more insightful discussion of Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging. As a highly complex and innovative game released in the exact middle of Infocom’s trajectory as a company, it serves as a fine place to snap the level line: what storytelling practices and technical innovations made AMFV possible? How did Steve Meretzky—at the peak of his storytelling powers at Infocom—manage to leverage his previous successes as a game designer to overcome the difficulties in reconciling agency and causal narrative? How have the various usages of the term “interactive fiction” operated as both genre and commercial designation, and how does the largely uncelebrated influence of A Mind Forever Voyaging persist to this day?

Finally: was Meretzky’s critique of the Reagan administration’s policies and philosophies truly as overstated and, yes, “unfair” as many critics from the Obama years have suggested? Perhaps there is something else to say in 2022. A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s suggestion that we Americans (I speak as an American) are in a more tenuous and vulnerable position than optimists of years past have asserted may not have been so “naive” after all. Looking back, it certainly seems naive to believe that appealing to the worst impulses of a nation might exact from it no price.

This is bound to be a long and bumpy journey, and Gold Machine will write more about A Mind Forever Voyaging than it has or will any other Infocom game. By the very nature of this series of essays, critical discursions and side alleys must be explored. Please indulge these brief stops along the way: I am not idling at Bozbarland, I promise.

A Note

Many of you have noted, I am sure, the recently-added Patreon button. I will not be aggressively publicizing this account, nor will I be hiding Gold Machine or Gold Microphone essays behind a paywall. This content is and will always be free. Callie and I do not plan to earn income from Patreon. That isn’t our intent. It’s just that we are spending money to provide content at the level of quality you expect: hardware for the podcast, WordPress hosting fees, etc. Since she is currently earning a graduate assistantship’s salary while I live off of a fixed disability income, even these modest costs are a hardship for us. Any amount of support would be appreciated.

Again, I won’t be harping on this weekly or monthly, and we will never paywall content that you have come to expect from us. Never. If you can’t contribute, that’s fine. You’re welcome here, and I appreciate your readership and comments. Gold Machine is a labor of love. Love of text, love of games.

Drew

The post Initial Groundwork for a Reading of A Mind Forever Voyaging appeared first on Gold Machine.

Friday, 23. September 2022

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Titanic Visions, Part 1: Sifting Through the Wreckage

Games are not made in a vacuum. This truth ought to be self-evident, but it’s often lost in histories of gaming. People like me tend to rely, perhaps a bit too much, on what I sometimes call the cataloging approach to gaming history. You all know the recipe for such articles: start with a discrete […]

Games are not made in a vacuum.

This truth ought to be self-evident, but it’s often lost in histories of gaming. People like me tend to rely, perhaps a bit too much, on what I sometimes call the cataloging approach to gaming history. You all know the recipe for such articles: start with a discrete classic (or occasionally infamous) game, add a narrative of who made it and how they did so, pour in an evaluation of its merits and demerits, and season the final concoction with a description of its place in the evolution of gaming in general. I’ve written plenty of such articles in the past, and will doubtless write plenty more of them in the future.

What such articles sometimes lose sight of, however, is a broader cultural context that’s to be found beyond the permeable borders of the gaming ghetto. The ideas and influences that are turned into games come from all over the place, being reflections of the societies that surround them and the interests of the people who make them. (For much of gaming history, these people have been mostly young white and Asian men from fairly privileged socioeconomic circumstances, which, needless to say, has had its own impact on the types of games that exist and the subjects they tackle.) Sometimes the pop culture that influences games is so blindingly obvious that we almost can become blind to it: what would digital games be today if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had never invented the tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons, or if J.R.R. Tolkien had never written The Lord of the Rings, or if George Lucas had never made Star Wars? But it’s the subtler influences that I find most interesting to ferret out — like, for instance, the way that techno-thriller author Tom Clancy’s brand of American military triumphalism fed into the combat simulations made by companies like Microprose, which at times commanded a quarter or more of the overall computer-gaming market during the 1980s and 1990s.

When I realized a decade or so ago that I had somehow stumbled into writing a broad, encompassing history of computer gaming, I promised myself that I would try to bring out connections like these whenever possible. I’m not sure that I’ve always kept that promise on an article-by-article basis, but I have always tried to keep one eye at least on the bigger picture, to give this site some credibility as a broad cultural history rather than just a catalog of neat games that appeared down through time — not that it hasn’t also been the latter, of course. In short, I’ve always wanted to understand how outside culture bleeds into the seemingly insular world of gaming, and how gaming has left its mark on the world outside its boundaries. (This last has barely begun to happen at the point in history we’ve reached now, more than ten years into this project, but rest assured that the “gamefication” of everyday life is not that far away.) There are many reasons to play old games, the most popular ones being simply because they’re fun on their own merits and because of the warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia they invoke in us folks of a certain age. But another reason, which is no less defensible, is that they give us a chance to become time travelers in a more impersonal sense, by giving us a direct pipeline to a receding past.

So, please indulge me now in a case study about how changing fashions in the way we view one of the most enduring mytho-historical tropes of modern culture impacted games. The sinking of the brand-new, “unsinkable” luxury liner the Titanic following a collision with a North Atlantic iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, is the delicious tragedy that we just can’t seem to let go of, an irresistible mixture of symbolism, theme, romance, pathos, mystery, and heroism to which we keep returning over and over. Just as many historical novels have more to tell us about the times in which they were written than the times they allegedly chronicle, the lens through which we view the Titanic has been as much a mirror we hold up to our contemporary selves as a window into the past. For example, during the unsentimental, materialist 1980s, the last full decade before our virtual online existences started to compete with our flesh-and-blood reality, the Titanic was discussed primarily as a thing, to be found, probed, and perhaps even raised above the waves once again. But then, in 1997 — an altogether dreamier, more fanciful time to be alive — a hit film reminded us why we had all fallen in love with the Titanic to begin with: because it’s such a great story, or rather collection of them, a beautiful canvas for our imaginations. My next three articles will examine these competing visions of the Titanic, and the games that were made in response to them — no fewer than ten games in all, plus one intriguing idea for a game that was never made.


The first person to propose finding and raising the Titanic from its watery grave did so barely a year after the ship had sunk. Charles Smith was a Colorado mining engineer who knew nothing about ships or the sea, but was convinced that his own area of expertise was as applicable to the problem of a seaborne salvage operation as it was to that of cracking open an elusive new seam of gold. It seems that when one goes through life with a miner’s hammer in one hand, everything looks like a suitable nail. “My object is to deliver the Titanic to its owners without further injury so that the great vessel may be rebuilt,” Smith declared. “Much of the cargo, or all of it, would be recovered. All the bodies which sank with the doomed ship have long since been embalmed by the action of the seawater, and when they are at last brought back to the surface they will be easily identifiable and prepared for reverential burial.”

Smith’s plan hinged on electromagnets, one of the trendy technological wonders of his age. He would build a massive one — possibly the most massive one ever built — sail or drag it out to the Titanic‘s last known location, turn it on, and let the sunken ship’s steel hull pull it to its bosom. With the wreck thus pinpointed on the ocean floor, he would descend in a custom-made submarine to attach hundreds more magnets to the hull, each with a rope leading back to a steam-powered winch aboard one of a dozen or so boats on the surface. When all was ready, the winches would all be activated in unison, and the 46,000-ton vessel would be slowly lifted back to the surface, then towed to a dry dock, repaired, and placed back into service. Smith estimated that the whole operation would require just $1.5 million and 162 men, and would take about three months: one month to find the wreck, one month to prepare it, and one month to raise it and tow it to safety. “It is merely a matter of magnets,” he insisted.

The plan left something to be desired in terms of basic physics, not to mention in its understanding of basic human psychology; how many passengers would really want to sail on a ship on which more than 1500 people had died in horrific circumstances? Yet it was taken bizarrely seriously in the popular press, which churned out excited headlines like “Can the Lost Titanic Be Raised?” Alas, potential investors proved less credulous: Smith managed to raise just $10,000 of the $1.5 million he said he needed. After the onset of the First World War, a more diffuse tragedy than the sinking of the Titanic but one that was many orders of magnitude more immense, he and his scheme faded back into obscurity, just another of the frivolous pipe dreams of a more innocent era.

More than half a century later, in the late 1960s, a British odd-jobber and Titanic obsessive named Doug Woolley captured headlines with a scheme that was almost as outlandish as that of Charles Smith. He would attach 200 deflated pontoons all around the Titanic‘s hull. Then they would be filled with hydrogen which would be extracted from the surrounding seawater via electrolysis, and the ship would rise majestically to the surface like the mother of all hot-air balloons. He said the whole operation would cost about £4.8 million and could be accomplished within one year.

To say that Woolley lacked qualifications in deep-sea salvage hardly begins to state the case. He was working in a pantyhose factory at the same time that he was holding press conferences about raising the Titanic. He had never personally sailed farther than the width of the English Channel, and was conducting what he insisted were groundbreaking experiments in electrolysis in his dingy flat’s bathtub. And he was rather putting the cart before the horse anyway, given that no one knew precisely where the Titanic lay; whereas Charles Smith had at least made some attempt to address that part of the problem, Woolley just took it on faith that it would turn up when he started to look around for it.

Wooley’s dream never had a chance in the real world, but the world of fiction was another matter. In 1976, the American author Clive Cussler published the third of what would become many pulpy adventure novels featuring his hero Dirk Pitt, a sort of Tom Swift for grown-ups. The novel was called Raise the Titanic!, and had a plot involving byzanium, a precious (and fictional) mineral, a radioactive power source whose potential dwarfs that of uranium or plutonium, whose only known reserves happened to be aboard the Titanic on that fateful night. Pitt and his friends concoct a plan for raising the ship — why they don’t just try to raise the byzanium in its hold is never adequately explained — that bears distinct similarities to Doug Woolley’s scheme: they will seal off the interior of the ship and pump it full of compressed air to cause it to float to the surface. This they succeed in doing, fighting off Soviet saboteurs all the while.

The novel became a bestseller, whereupon Hollywood made it into a big-budget summer movie in 1980. The scale model of the Titanic that was constructed for the film’s climactic scene of the ship breaking the ocean’s surface cost $7 million, as much as the original vessel when not adjusting for inflation. But surprisingly, even the Titanic name and a titanic budget worthy of the ship couldn’t save the film; it was savaged by critics, and turned into a box-office bomb. “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic,” quipped its producer Lew Grade later.

Although the method employed by Dirk Pitt and his friends for raising the Titanic was hopeless for a vessel of this size at this depth, it was adapted from real-world techniques already in use for raising ships that had sunk in shallower waters. For a cottage industry of shipwreck recovery had arisen after World War II. With an estimated quarter of a million or more ships having sunk since humanity first began to ply the world’s waterways, the pickings in the most popular sea lanes were rich. People made fortunes by poring over old nautical records, searching doggedly where the ships they found in them were believed to have sunk, and retrieving the gold, silver, and other valuable in their holds. The Caribbean, which had once positively teemed with Spain’s treasure-laden galleons sailing from the New World back to the Old, was particularly fertile ground.

Meanwhile others had invented the new field of maritime archaeology, with the purpose of studying and preserving the wrecks they found instead of looting them for profit. Soon every other issue of National Geographic seemed to contain some new undersea discovery, illustrated in full-color Kodachrome. For example, the Titanic‘s sister ship the Britannic, which had struck a German mine and sunk off the coast of Greece in 1916 while serving as a hospital ship, was found by the famous French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1975.

Admittedly, the boundaries between the treasure hunter and the maritime archaeologist weren’t always clear. Many of the adventurous folks who got into this racket had a little bit of both in them, along with a hefty hankering for the notoriety that would come their way if they became, say, the first person to send back pictures of the most famous of all sunken ships in the world.

The problem with the Titanic, the thing which made it so much harder to find than the likes of the Britannic, was that it had sunk in the deep water of the open ocean rather than the coastal water of the Mediterranean. The deep ocean floor is the most inaccessible geography on our planet; even today, marine scientists like to say that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the landscapes under our own planet’s oceans. That said, people did come up with various ideas for locating the Titanic from the ocean’s surface that were more or less feasible. For example, Commander John Grattan, the Royal Navy’s anointed expert in diving and submersibles, proposed scouring the ocean floor with a huge active sonar array towed behind a trawler. But such plans would be dauntingly expensive to implement. And, even if the Titanic was found from the surface, what next? Only a few submersibles in the world were capable of diving to the wreck’s depth of two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface, and they were all in the hands of the United States Navy, which wasn’t in the habit of renting them out to private treasure hunters to use for snapping pictures and collecting souvenirs.

One man, however, judged that the fame and money that would follow a credible claim of just having found the Titanic — never mind the photographs, much less any salvage operations — would be enough to make the task eminently worth taking on. “Cadillac” Jack Grimm was a flamboyant Texas oilman with a taste for exotic adventure and pseudoscience, who had already mounted expeditions in search of Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster, who had once traveled to the North Pole in the hope of proving that the Earth was hollow. His greatest achievement to date in this mold, at least if you asked him, was the recovery of a piece of Noah’s Ark from the side of Mount Ararat in Turkey — never mind that the scientific community universally scoffed at his alleged find.

In the summer of 1980, while Raise the Titanic was bombing in box offices, Grimm funded a search for the real ship that was broadly similar to the approach suggested by John Grattan: a trawler dragged behind it a sonar array which hovered a few hundred feet above the ocean floor. Over a period of more than a week, the boat methodically covered an area of about ten square miles that was judged the most likely to contain the wreck. It returned to port without a smoking gun, but its crew did create a list of fourteen sites within the search area that had sent back suspiciously regular sonar echoes, any of which could be indicative of a large human-made object like the Titanic. “I think we got that heifer corralled in a box canyon,” Grimm told the press in his usual colorful diction.

Indeed, Grimm knew how to work the press like the master of ceremonies at a rodeo, and he poured on the juice now. He announced that he would mount a second expedition the following summer to exhaustively search each of the fourteen sites with a more sensitive sonar array, an iron-detecting magnetometer, and a camera capable of sending back grainy photographs. He arranged this time to borrow from the Coast Guard the Gyre, a cutting-edge oceanographic research vessel, and funded a documentary film that was to be hosted by Orson Welles; the film crew would sail with the second expedition in order to capture the instant of discovery. He was, he told the assembled journalists on the day he himself sailed with the Gyre, absolutely convinced that he would be known to the world as the man who had found the Titanic by the time his feet next touched dry land.

Looking for an expert to support, debunk, or qualify his showy optimism, some journalists turned to one Robert Ballard, an oceanographer and diver with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who was arguably the world’s foremost expert on deep-ocean exploration of a more scientific bent, whose greatest achievement to date had been his discovery of underwater hydrothermal vents and the unique forms of animal life that clustered around these precious oases of warmth on the bitter-cold ocean floor. The polar opposite of Grimm in temperament, the cautious Ballard said that, while Grimm’s overall approach was viable if conducted carefully and thoroughly, it would nevertheless be difficult to convince the public that he truly had found the Titanic absent high-quality, closeup photographs of the wreck. He was diplomatic enough not to add that Grimm’s earlier trafficking in mythical monsters and Biblical literalism would cause any claim he made to seem that much more dubious without overwhelming proof.

Meanwhile Grimm’s expedition set to work, contending with unstable weather that kept the Gyre‘s captain on a constant knife-edge. One by one, the crew eliminated the promising locations that had been identified the previous year. As the number of remaining possibilities dwindled, the mood onboard grew dimmer and dimmer. At last, the fourteenth and final site was crossed off the list. They had come up dry.

Or had they? On the way home, flipping in desultory fashion through the photographs that been returned to the surface, Grimm stumbled upon an image that gave him goosebumps: something that looked for all the world like a large human-made object, smoothly tapered like the wings of an airplane, rising out of the mud of the ocean floor. He was sure it must be a blade from one of the Titanic‘s 26-ton propellers.

Grimm immediately radioed the Coast Guard and asked to hang onto the Gyre for another week. But the Coast Guard refused, even when he name-dropped President Ronald Reagan, whom he claimed was a close personal friend. There was nothing for it but to continue the journey home. He was certain he had found the Titanic, but even his own team of experts, never mind outsiders, were unconvinced. They said that the blurry photograph was more likely than not just another rocky outcropping. An extraordinary claim required extraordinary proof, and this one picture was not it. Which didn’t stop Grimm’s documentary, once it was finished, from claiming it to be all but conclusive proof.

Grimm did try one more time to seal the deal. In the summer of 1983, he set off again aboard a research vessel, borrowed this time from Columbia University. But this trip was plagued by even worse weather than the last one. After several days of frantic searching for a propeller which seemed to have disappeared back into the ocean floor whence it had sprouted, 40-knot winds forced him to cut the expedition short. Grimm, who was prone to seasickness and had a deadly fear of water, decided enough was enough after this latest miserable experience. He never mounted a fourth expedition.

But the Titanic wasn’t to remain hidden much longer. For even as Jack Grimm was capturing headlines with his expeditions, Robert Ballard and his colleagues at Woods Hole were quietly developing an uncrewed deep-water sled equipped with an array of powerful searchlights and high-resolution still and video cameras, all operable by remote control from the surface. He called it the Argo, after the ship which the mythical Greek hero Jason had sailed into the unknown sea that lay beyond the Hellespont. Being not without a streak of public-relations savvy of his own, Ballard thought it would be quite a coup to use his expensive new toy to find and send back images of the Titanic, an achievement for which Grimm had obligingly primed the press’s pump.

That, at any rate, was how the story was reported in the 1980s. A more complicated and truthful version emerged years later. It seems that the United States Navy had funded much of the Argo‘s development and construction, with the understanding that it would be able to use it and its creator from time to time for its own purposes. (Ballard had longstanding relationships in the Navy, having served from 1967 to 1970 as an active-duty officer and being still a reservist.) The first favor was called in almost as soon as the Argo was ready for action. The Navy brass were very concerned about two nuclear attack submarines which had been lost in the 1960s in the North Atlantic, not far from where the Titanic had gone down. They were eager to ensure that the subs’ reactor cores had not ruptured and, just as importantly, that the Soviets hadn’t found the vessels and looted them for secrets. A search for the Titanic would make the perfect cover story for Ballard’s activities in this otherwise deserted stretch of open ocean. The Navy gave him two months to play with; if he completed his classified investigations more quickly than that, he could use the rest of his time to really search for the Titanic. As it happened, it took him slightly over a month and a half to find the two submarines and put the Navy’s mind at ease that neither was leaking radioactivity and neither had been plundered. He was left with twelve days in which to find the Titanic.

Ballard and his Argo were sailing aboard the research vessel Knorr, the workhorse of Woods Hole. That same summer, a French team under an oceanographer named Jean-Louis Michel had tried to find the Titanic using sonar, but had come up empty. This failure, combined with the failures of Jack Grimm’s expeditions, convinced Ballard that he shouldn’t be looking for a reasonably intact ship on the ocean floor; the area had been scoured so thoroughly with sonar by now that such an object would surely have been found if it existed. He believed that the ship must be far more badly damaged than had been previously assumed — in fact, that it had possibly broken into many pieces during its long plunge to the bottom. Instead of looking for a whole ship, he would look for the debris left by a sinking ship. Since sonar had no way of distinguishing small bits of human-made rubble from the natural detritus of the ocean floor, the only way to conduct such a search was visually, using the Argo‘s camera feeds. Time was short, the area to be searched was large, and this was an exhaustingly tedious way to go about it, but he would do what he could before he had to head home.

The twelve days were half up on the early morning of September 1, 1985, when, with Ballard fast asleep in his cabin, a shout went up from the Argo control room: “Wreckage!” By the time Ballard had burst into the room, the crew had zeroed in on a clearly manufactured metal object that they were certain was a boiler for the great ship’s engines. Everyone in the cramped little room burst into spontaneous cheers. But then, just as quickly, the mood turned sober. “We realized we were dancing on someone’s grave, and we were embarrassed,” remembered Ballard later. He suggested that they all observe a moment of silence. This they did, and then they got back to work.

Ballard and company carefully traced the “debris field” they had found back to each of its termini. At one end lay the front half of the ship, intact enough to still be readily recognizable for what it was; at the other end lay the rear half, so badly mangled that it looked like little more than a colossal pile of rusted metal and other junk. It was obvious what had happened: the ship’s back had broken as it plunged beneath the waves, and the two halves had separated completely from one another and finished the long fall separately, raining boilers, supports, furniture, bric-à-brac, and doubtless plenty of now-vanished human corpses from their open ends down onto the ocean floor between the two, like a gigantic busted piñata.

Needless to say, this discovery caused all but the most committed of dreamers to give up on any hopes of raising the ship. Grimm’s “propeller” lay well away from the real wreck site, proving to be nothing more than the unusual rock formation so many scientists had suspected it to be. On the other hand, it would later emerge that Grimm had towed his sonar array within 500 feet of the real ship’s bow back in 1981. Robert Ballard had been both very good and very, very lucky — a potent combination in any endeavor.

The September 3, 1985, edition of The New York Times included a small article printed near the bottom of the front page: “Wreckage of Titanic Reported Discovered 12,000 Feet Down.” It was the first trickle in what would become a torrent of media coverage. Soon the first photographs began making their way back from the North Atlantic — haunting images of a propeller (the real one this time), of a cabin porthole, of crockery and pots and a stoking port for the boilers. The killer shot captured much of the ship’s bow, its shape unmistakable to even the rankest layperson.

At this point, the story becomes for better or for worse as much a tale of mass media as exploration and discovery. Robert Ballard became more than just a run-of-the-mill celebrity; “folk hero” is a better description of his status. He returned to the wreck in the summer of 1986 with a crewed submersible called the Alvin, one of those aforementioned few vehicles in the world capable of withstanding the almost inconceivable cold and pressure that exist two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface; Ballard’s enviable connections had allowed him to borrow this unique vessel from the Navy. The photographs he came up with this time were stunning, allegories of splendid desolation fit to be framed and hung in a Romantic poet’s library. The press and the public they served couldn’t get enough. They experienced vicariously the same emotions Ballard had felt as he gazed out the window of the Alvin: “As I peered entranced through my viewport, I could easily imagine people walking down the promenade, looking out of the windows I was now looking into. Here I was on the bottom of the ocean gazing at recognizable, man-made artifacts. I was looking [at] decks along which [people] had walked, rooms in which they had slept, joked, made love.”




The wreck of the Titanic was simply inescapable for the next few years in the United States, Britain, and much of the rest of the world, the subject of newspaper and magazine articles, books, documentary films, museum exhibits, and even tourism; charter companies sold expensive junkets out to the spot in the ocean directly above the wreck. And, as with any media sensation worth its salt, there were also controversies. Jack Grimm resurfaced with a spurious legal claim, quickly dismissed by the courts, that he rather than Robert Ballard was the rightful discoverer of the wreck by virtue of having passed so close to it with his sonar array. And already in 1987 a dodgy outfit managed to mount an underwater expedition of its own to the site, damaging the wreck in the process of grabbing a handful of objects that were later unveiled in a tacky syndicated-television special. Host Telly Savalas and his panel of “experts” pawing through these precious artifacts was the twentieth-century equivalent of the amateur archaeologists of the nineteenth century blasting away at the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu with gunpowder.


The Titanic wreck site has continued to attract both earnest maritime archaeologists and shameless profiteers ever since, along with every gradient in between the two. But our interest today is in the early years of the Titanic mania spawned by the initial search for and discovery of the wreck. It’s time for us turn in that context to computer games, a very young form of media at the time Jack Grimm and Robert Ballard were making headlines, but one that was already responding to and reflecting the broader landscape of old media around it. In the case of the Titanic mania, this led to an entire sub-genre of games about the discovery of, exploration of, and in some cases the raising of the famous luxury liner. I’ll reveal upfront that none of these games is a deathless classic. Yet each is an instant of cultural history, suspended in the digital ether like the Titanic in its underwater grave.


The earliest game I know of which tackles the subject of the discovery and salvage of the Titanic predates Robert Ballard’s finding of the wreck by well over a year. Released in early 1984 in Britain only for the Sinclair Spectrum, the oddly titled Titanic: The Adventure Begins… is rather a reflection of the hype which surrounded Jack Grimm’s three expeditions. It was re-released two years later in not only the original Spectrum but a Commodore 64 version, doubtless in response to the news of Ballard’s discovery. It’s very much a product of the collective sugar rush that was the early British games industry, when just about any enterprising bedroom coder could slap a game together, pay a duplication house for a run of cassettes containing it, pay a print shop for a simple insert for the case, and sell the end result for a few quid in corner software shops all over the country.

Programmer Paul Hill, who called himself R&R Software, was clever enough to recognize that at least a third of the battle of finding the Titanic was funding the expedition. Accordingly, the first of the three radically different stages of his game involves finding a sponsor and outfitting your boat and crew, whilst keeping enough cash in reserve to pay your running costs once you head to sea. Stage two is the search for the wreck, which you conduct by sending diving teams down to promising locations identified on the NASA satellite photo you hopefully purchased during the previous stage; matters are complicated here by the icebergs that dot the ocean’s surface. Finally, stage three lets you actually explore the wreck, which in this alternate reality sits on the ocean floor conveniently intact. This stage, the most elaborate by far, is an exercise in mapping a three-level maze of almost 500 locations, looking for the game’s MacGuffin, a fortune in gold that supposedly went down with the ship.

Paul Hill’s knowledge of the realities of deep-water exploration is clearly nonexistent; the scuba divers he imagines frolicking through the wreck would have been crushed like bugs before they made it halfway down to 12,500 feet. Nor is his game any paragon of thoughtful design; much of your success or lack thereof depends on blind luck. Nevertheless, there’s a certain gonzo charm to the thing, a product of a time well before gameplay genres calcified into a set of straitjacketed expectations, when a game could do and be almost anything its programmer could dream up and dare to implement with the primitive tools at his disposal. In this sense, it’s a time capsule par excellence. I only wish I could hear the song which Paul Hill put on the tape’s flip side, an “epic rock track” by a bunch of his mates who called themselves Rare Breed. Sadly, this exposure did not lead to a record deal…

(You can download the original Spectrum version of Titanic: The Adventure Begins… from this site. Note that you’ll need a Spectrum emulator such as Fuse to run it.)


In Sinkable, his recent book-length meditation on the wreck of the Titanic and the hold it continues to exert on our imaginations, Daniel Stone writes that “the complexity of salvage can make it painfully boring. Like building an amusement park or passing a law, the process is far less interesting than the finished product. The film Raise the Titanic was a commercial flop because the title was the most breathtaking part.” Much the same might be said about many of the games featured here; an archaeological expedition to the Titanic is one of a surprisingly large number of possible game subjects which sound exciting in the abstract, but which are damnably difficult to turn into a satisfying gameplay loop once you drill down to the details. Unsurprisingly, then, those designers who came closest to making a compelling go of it were the ones who were willing to season their simulations with a degree of whimsy. The British game R.M.S. Titanic, which was also released in the United States as a budget title under the name of Titanic: The Recovery Mission, is a case in point.

Appearing in Britain in early 1986, R.M.S. Titanic technically postdates Robert Ballard’s discovery of the real ship, but was probably already in development before that point. It’s the product of a small studio who called themselves Oxford Digital Enterprises, whose one previous game was thoroughly in keeping with the highbrow expectations engendered by that name, being a four-stage journey through William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was published at the height of the bookware boom. R.M.S. Titanic, which was released for the Commodore 64 only, is by contrast all of a piece. Although you have to manage your finances and logistics much like in The Adventure Begins, you do so side-by-side with your exploration of the wreck.

All of the facets of this game are much more involved. You have half a dozen fickle backers whom you must keep mollified in order to keep the funding coming in; this you do by recovering alluring artifacts from the wreck and generating favorable press coverage. Indeed, working the press is another important part of the game. You field questions from reporters in press conferences, trying to tailor your responses to the organs they write for; the Titanic Historical Society has different priorities than Pravda.

But the heart of the game still takes place underwater, as it should. The game presumes that you have already located the wreck, and thus focuses only on your exploration of same with an uncrewed, remote-controlled submersible, which is simulated in some detail. You control its movements, set the intensity of its light, and can pick up and manipulate objects using its mechanical arm, keeping one eye always on its battery level; running out of juice under the ocean is disastrously expensive. As in The Adventure Begins, the ship here is conveniently intact, a maze of decks and rooms to be explored. Here, however, your way is blocked by lots and lots of locked doors. The game’s fanciful side comes to the fore via your method of opening them: each door is a little object-combination puzzle. For example, you might need to combine a cherry with a sundae in order to open the door that leads into an ice-cream parlor.

The game’s fiction, such as it is, has it that a previous expedition has already placed eight deflated balloons in the ship, then somehow lost track of where they are (and apparently locked all of the doors behind themselves). Your ultimate goal is to reach all of the balloons and inflate them, in order to raise the ship to the surface. As must be abundantly clear by now, there is much about this game that makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re wondering how a sundae and a cherry have survived for more than 70 years on the ocean floor, I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you.

Still, much the same sense of giddy possibility clings to R.M.S. Titanic as to The Adventure Begins, combined with more sophisticated programming. The underwater scenes are almost unnervingly atmospheric despite — or because of? — the low resolution of the graphics, all flickering light peering into the eerie gloom. I remember being quite captivated by this game for several weeks as a young teenager, even though I never got very far in it.

For its difficulty is its real Achilles heel. As you move deeper and deeper into the ship, the object combinations you must divine grow more and more esoteric and the sheer quantity of objects and geography to reckon with grows more and more daunting. The first documented instance of anyone solving this game dates from after the millennium, when a patient German named Stefan Schönfelder finally accomplished the feat by making extensive use of emulator save states. The ending sequence proved predictably underwhelming; in this era of gaming, the journey had to be its own reward.

(You can download R.M.S. Titanic from this site. Note that you’ll need a Commodore 64 emulator such as VICE to run it.)


By the late 1980s, the shift to more powerful computers made a credible full-on simulation of marine archaeology seem like an increasingly realizable possibility. This would prove a mixed blessing, for all of the reasons listed by Daniel Stone above.

Search for the Titanic was released in 1989 by the American budget software house Capstone, who were best known for casino simulations. There were a flagship version for MS-DOS and a heavily redacted one for the trusty old Commodore 64. Despite or because of having been “reviewed for authenticity by the staff of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute,” it’s one of the most brutally boring computer games ever made. The broad strokes are familiar: you have to deal with the business aspects of an expedition to the Titanic alongside the seaborne bits. This time out, however, you have to build up your reputation and financing by exploring a dozen or so less famous wrecks before you get a crack at the Titanic.

The actual dives are almost totally beyond your control; the game is primarily a simulation of finding the location of the wrecks from the surface. In this and much else, the designers’ guiding principal seems to have been, “Implement all the boring stuff, but be sure to leave out all the fun stuff.” If this is what you get when you do the research and take marine archaeology seriously, give me scuba divers swimming around at 12,500 feet and doors with ham-sandwich-activated locks any day.

There are two things that I find hilarious about this game. The first is that your reward for slogging through this simulation that has less pizazz than your average Excel spreadsheet is a set of digitized photographs of the wreck; it reminds me of those awful games of computerized strip poker I used to play as a sexually frustrated teenager, giving a whole new dimension to the neologism “disaster porn.” The other is that someone recently saw fit to dredge this stinker of a game up off the bottom and put it up for sale on a digital storefront for a fiver. To call that an audacious move is the understatement of the year. For, as Trent Nickson wrote in his 2005 review of Search for the Titanic for the Lemon 64 website, “I don’t really know how you could tart this game up to make it fun.” Suffice to say that the designers never even tried.

(The truly dedicated gaming historians among you can buy this game from GOG.com.)


Thankfully, someone else did try very hard to make marine archaeology fun. Sea Rogue was the first game by a small San Diego studio called Software Sorcery, and was published by Microprose for MS-DOS on their Microplay budget label in 1992. It was created with the assistance of a retired Navy captain whose expertise was underwater salvage, and was billed as a simulation. None of this sounds overly promising in light of the previous game in this survey.

But when you start to play the thing, it quickly becomes clear that Software Sorcery has made an aesthetic rather than a literal simulation — a game which endeavors to give you a taste of its real-world subject matter, but which never overwhelms you with boring detail, which understands that games need to be fun first and foremost. The Titanic is pushed somewhat into the background here; it’s just one of about 150 different wrecks you can find and explore, from the Spanish treasure galleons that litter the floor of the Caribbean to such other legendary modern wrecks as the World War II German battleship Bismarck. Sea Rogue is by far the most ambitious game on this list; there are a lot of moving parts here. I want to say that it’s the best game here as well.

The older game which Sea Rogue immediately brings to mind, even before any of the ones above, is the Sid Meier classic Pirates!. You start out in Norfolk with an old trawler, eager to make your fortune as a wreck hunter. So, you sail up and down the east coast of the United States and into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, seeking clues to wreck sites at each port of call. As you find and dive the wrecks and sell off the loot you acquire thereby back on land, you gradually improve your boat and your equipment. Eventually, you’ll have enough dosh to replace your rusty old tub entirely, first with a state-of-the-art research vessel and then with a beyond-state-of-the-art submarine, the Sea Rogue from which the game takes it name. These vessels make it practical to travel much farther — all the way to Britain, Europe, Africa, and into the Mediterranean, another veritable watery junkyard. And the Sea Rogue allows you to reach deep-water wrecks like the Titanic.

As I said, there’s a lot going on here. You have a crew to manage, who have CRPG-style statistics that improve with experience, assuming you invest in shore-based training every time they level up. Your relationships with different countries are affected by how much respect — or lack thereof — you show to their ships’ wreck sites; aggravate them too much and they’ll send their navies after you. You can hire research assistants, take on salvage contracts, even detect undersea mineral deposits and earn a finder’s fee.

Meanwhile up to five computer-managed competitors are doing the same things you are. One of them, the fellow named Evil Eddie, is particularly nasty, and will sometimes attack your vessel at sea or ambush your divers underwater. This means you need to make provisions for defending yourself, need to have some guns of your own available.

I absolutely love the premise, love the way it blends the unabashedly fantastic with the real-world subculture of wreck hunting. Half of the thick manual is given over to a list of every single one of those 150 ships that are waiting to be found, each and every one of them a real, documented wreck, ranging from Viking longboats to modern Soviet submarines. In order to earn full value for any treasures you recover, you have to ferret out the name of any ship you find from clues at the site, cross-referenced with the descriptions in the manual. The Titanic and Bismarck aren’t the only ships in this game that you’ve heard of before: there are also vessels like the Hunley, the Andrea Doria, the Lusitania, and much of the Spanish Armada to be found. If you approach your endeavors in the right imaginative spirit, you’ll feel a genuine shiver go up your spine when you discover one of these storied ships, and may just go scurrying off to Wikipedia to learn more about it.

Still, it’s possible that my love for the premise makes me more kindly disposed toward the game than it deserves. For it lacks the compulsive playability of Pirates!. The interface is clunky, and, while the big manual does a reasonably good job of telling which keys to press and where to click the mouse, it often fails to explain why you’re doing so; I must confess that I still don’t completely understand the sonar-scanning screen even after playing the game for a considerable number of hours. And then, for all that the developers strained mightily to give you lots of different things to do, from decoding radio messages to chasing down Pirates!-style treasure maps, it never quite gels into a cohesive whole. The competition aspect of the affair never feels all that urgent even when Evil Eddie starts shooting at you. It all becomes a bit samey sooner than it ought to, sorely lacking Pirates!‘s addictive kinetic quality; in the older game, you actually sail your ship from place to place with the joystick, where here you just plot a course on a map, hit a key, and jump instantly to your destination. Perhaps the game’s biggest weakness is the wreck-diving mini-game, which consumes far more time than anything else you do but plays like a not especially exciting board game, complete with an ocean floor made up of discrete squares. Again, the developers plainly tried to spice it up, by introducing roaming sharks that occasionally attack your divers. But there’s no variety from wreck to wreck to keep your interest up; you’ll quickly develop a rote approach to the task that works every time, one that is about as exciting as cutting your lawn (a task with which it has much in common).

In the end, then, Sea Rogue is more of a game that I want to love — that I sometimes manage to convince myself that I at least like — than one I really can enjoy over the longer haul. Call it a brilliant concept, imperfectly realized. In all the years since its release, there’s been nothing else quite like it. I remain convinced that there’s a great game in there somewhere, and I’d be thrilled to see the idea revived with richer and more varied content, ideally spanning all of the world’s oceans, with the sense of atmosphere that Sea Rogue‘s workmanlike graphics and sound struggle to inculcate. We have hugely successful games today in which you do nothing but drive a truck around a continent’s highways and byways. Why not one where you travel its seaways in search of treasures from the past?

(I’ve prepared a Sea Rogue download for you which should be fairly simple to get running under your platform’s version of DOSBox.)


Whatever else one can say about Capstone, someone there clearly had a real interest in marine archaeology. For in 1993, four years after Search for the Titanic, they returned to the scene of that crime with Discoveries of the Deep for MS-DOS. It’s a vastly better effort. Then again, how could it not be?

Discoveries of the Deep is an edutational product aimed at youngsters, and sports the sense of whimsy that Search for the Titanic so sorely lacked, including a credible darts game and a shoot-em-up arcade game in your boat’s galley, ready to play when all of this oceanography business starts to become too much. The main game is structured around seven missions which you may undertake in any order. Only one of them involves the Titanic; the others range from investigating airplane crashes in the Bermuda Triangle to disposing of underwater toxic waste. It plays as a simplified version of the premise we’ve been seeing over and over: sail out to the general vicinity of your goal, search from the surface until you pinpoint it precisely, then get into your submersible to complete your mission. Only the economic element is lacking, replaced with a refreshing focus on environmental science; you definitely won’t be looting the Titanic this time out. Although there’s not overmuch to the experience in the final analysis, what there is is colorful and good-hearted. One can easily imagine this game going down a treat in a classroom back in the day, and it still wouldn’t be a bad choice for a kid of the right age — about ten years old is probably the sweet spot — with an interest in the ocean and the things that lie beneath it. Chalk it up as a partial atonement for Search for the Titanic.

(Like Search for the Titanic, Discoveries of the Deep is available on GOG.com as a digital purchase.)


The last wreck-hunting game of this lineage to date appeared in 1998, the year after James Cameron’s film about the disaster rejiggered all of the pop culture surrounding the Titanic in a way which we’ll examine in my next two articles. Titanic: Challenge of Discovery is simultaneously one of a number of cash-in products made in response to the film’s enormous success and a throwback to an earlier era, when the ship existed in the public’s imagination primarily as a wreck. The game’s box copy would have one believe that Robert Ballard himself made it, declaring it “a dramatic game of deep-sea exploration from the man who discovered the Titanic.” This only serves as grist for the mill of Ballard’s critics, who have been muttering behind the scenes for decades now that he is a bit too eager for the limelight and the money that comes with it, having by now lent his name to a jumble of slapdash products like this one that’s about as large as the sunken Titanic‘s debris field.

Challenge of Discovery was created by a “multimedia” studio rather than a games studio, an outfit called Maris Multimedia to be exact, and was published by Panasonic Interactive for Windows. It came rather late in the day of the multimedia boom, but otherwise bears all the hallmarks of its checkered lineage: a surfeit of video clips, including some featuring Ballard himself, and a paucity of worthwhile gameplay. I’ve written about the problems which plagued creations of this sort at some length elsewhere, so I won’t belabor those points here.

In this game, you’re expected to explore three shipwrecks: a man-of-war from the Spanish Armada, the Bismarck (whose wreck was discovered by Ballard in 1989), and finally the Titanic. But it’s painfully clear that far more attention was lavished on the video clips than the gameplay, which is slow, dull, and buggy, to the point that parts of the game are outright broken. Neither the traditional hardcore gamer demographic nor the different, more casual audience whom Panasonic was presumably trying to attract had anywhere near enough patience for this exercise in tedium. All told, it makes for a dispiriting capstone to a strand of games that had a lot of potential in their individual ingredients, but that no one ever quite managed to bake into a comprehensively delicious cake.

(You can find CD images for Challenge of Discovery by searching on archive.org. But, like a lot of shoddily programmed early Windows software, this game is a nightmare to get running on modern systems. I was finally able to succeed by using a Windows 95 — not Windows 98, mind you — installation running through Oracle VirtualBox. If you’re determined to try out this terrible game for yourself, this YouTube video will show you how to get your Windows 95 virtual machine going.)



Next time, then, we’ll turn to a very different way of approaching the Titanic as a gaming subject, and find out whether anyone had more luck there…

(Sources: the books Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone, Into the Deep by Robert Ballard and Christopher Drew, The Discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard and Ken Marschall, Raise the Titanic! by Clive Cussler, Beyond Reach: The Search for the Titanic by William Hoffman and Jack Grimm, and Titanic and the Making of James Cameron by Paula Parisi; Crash! of June 1984 and October 1984; Your Computer of July 1984; Zzap! of June 1986; Ahoy! of April 1987; Games Machine of April 1990; Computer Gaming World of July 1992 and December 1993; National Geographic of December 1986.)

Thursday, 22. September 2022

Renga in Blue

Lost Island (1982)

Lost Island is related to both Katakombs and Super Spy which both made recent appearances here, insofar as it was distributed by a British company that spawned up in 1981 only to go poof a few years later. JRS Software started with a ZX-80 “Programmable Moving Display”, which describes itself in terms of extreme programming. […]

From zx81stuff.

Lost Island is related to both Katakombs and Super Spy which both made recent appearances here, insofar as it was distributed by a British company that spawned up in 1981 only to go poof a few years later.

JRS Software started with a ZX-80 “Programmable Moving Display”, which describes itself in terms of extreme programming.

Great care has been taken so that the processing of your codes can always be interrupted to return to the display routine at the precise microsecond that is required to ensure that your T.V. picture remains completely rock-steady.

Synch Magazine, October 1981. Based on the flashing that happens on every single keystroke in Planet of Death, this is perhaps an impressive feat.

They’re located in yet another completely new spot on England, and so far throughout 1982 I feel like we’re throwing darts at random.

By ’82 in the United States you had the software market started to get centered around a few locations (especially in California) but the UK not only was behind a little in timing but also by my reckoning had a longer period of amateur publishing, especially given the prevalence of tape. So companies could still be nearly anywhere on the map. (But also, to be fair: smaller country.) To emphasize what I mean by amateur, in 1983 JRS Software published a gambling game originally by “E. Smith Software” entitled Roulette. Here is what the outer tape packaging looked like:

From ZXArt. I mean, maybe the hand-drawn marker was done later by the owner of the tape, but even without that this is very bespoke packaging. (ADD: According to Gareth in the comments, the website ZXArt which I was using likely linked JRS to E. Smith in error. This is still a sterling example of amateur publishing practice.)

Circling back to 1982, JRS produced a random grab-bag of utilities and games, but for our purposes we are interested in their single adventure published, Lost Island.

Sinclair User, May 1983.

Yes, only one, just like Golem with Katakombs! I was recently listening to the They Create Worlds podcast about Rogue, and learned that both Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman wrote text adventures (that no longer exist) before Rogue. I have the suspicion that a lot of programmers of the time wrote personal text adventures projects now consigned to oblivion. Given the prevalence of low-budget tape publishing in the UK some of these projects which normally might have ended in the bit bin could end up on tape instead. Here, the project is by a “M. Holman” who makes their only appearance in gaming history.

The premise is simply to escape the island you are shipwrecked on. Escape is the second most common plot in this era after Treasure Hunt. What’s curious is (as I’ll explain later) that approaching the game with a Treasure Hunt style mindset can actually hinder one’s progress!

I’m pretty sure the parser here is entirely of the author’s design because it has some oddities particular to this game. Verbs must be typed in full (so no INV instead of INVENTORY) but nouns can be shortened, so you GET COC in order to get a coconut.

Objects are not described in the room description unless you LOOK. At least it isn’t a Omotesando situation where the objects don’t even exist beforehand, but this still makes for an erratic and confusing UI experience and there’s no compelling reason to make the player type LOOK in every room.

Notice the room description repeat; this is where I typed the command LOOK in order to see the spear.

The spear above is interesting insofar as the game tries to stick with “on a real island” objects — that is, no magic wands — but also takes this a bit farther and includes objects that don’t get any use in the game. You can tote the spear above if you want but it serves no purpose, as does a musket you find later. Red herrings wouldn’t normally interfere too much with gameplay, but the inventory limit of 6 ends up popping up more than once so there’s some genuine consideration of “what do I really need?” This gives a different gameplay aura than inventory limits on most games of the time; discarding a gun as useless has a narrative sense of someone desperate for escape. When a game’s narrative instead involves dragging every item on the map into organized piles, it doesn’t come off as a narrative at all as much as the player pretending to be a pack mule.

In some cases, the game inadvertently lets you know what’s useful, because it will have an object described by LOOK that still can’t be referred to even it is there. I suppose this cuts down on the herrings while still allowing a secret cave with a telescope and a hat (you only need the telescope).

You only need one of these things. Neither “RUM” nor “CASK” is a word that is recognized by the game.

The main objective, although it isn’t clear at first, is to set a signal fire and then wait for a ship to arrive. I have it located on the map below at (END).

For the start of the sequence, you take a sword at (1) to some nettles at (2) and chop them away.

Here, the noun “nettles” is not a separate object but part of the room description that you have to assume is able to be targeted. There’s also a random palm tree you can climb (with a rope on top) with a similar issue nearby.

This reveals a cave (3) you can reach with rope that lets you get a telescope, and a cave at (4) that is blocked by rubble. It is possible to remove the rubble but more items are required.

Here I was stuck for while, although I hadn’t quite realized EXAMINE was a verb that occasionally worked yet. At a “large idol” (5) near a village with “skulls” (and yes, they eat you if you try to go in, sigh) I found a “LEDGE IN THE ROCK FACE DIRECTLY ABOVE THE IDOL” by using EXAMINE IDOL. This (via re-use of rope) let me get into a cave area with a tinderbox (6) and a snake (7).

You can KILL SNAKE as long as you have the sword with you. (If you are holding the spear the game just claims you can’t kill the snake with your bare hands.) This gives you access to a spade (8) which lets you take it back to the beach at (9) and dig up a chest, as shown in the earlier screenshot, with GUNPOWDER, GOLD, and a RUM CASK.

Remember, this isn’t a treasure hunt! The useful item is GUNPOWDER. (I mean, you can take the gold with you. It just makes the inventory more annoying to juggle.)

The gunpowder can be dropped off at the cave with rubble (the right verb is LEAVE, DROP isn’t even recognized!) and then lit using the tinderbox. (Not a torch that you can light with the tinderbox. The game may have realistic objects but it is wobbly about realistic alternate uses.)

With the cave blasted open you can find some lamp-oil (10). This lamp-oil can be poured on the signal fire (END) and the fire then lit with a tinderbox. Then you need to use the telescope to SEARCH SEA. This last bit would have likely caused me enormous trouble but I ran into it by accident earlier — I was standing at the signal fire testing out verbs and objects, and realized that if I tried the SEARCH there the game said “I CAN”T SEE FAR ENOUGH”, and that was the only location where that message happened. This made me realize it had to be the spot where the telescope was useful, so once I got the fire going I just started to use SEARCH on every noun.

With the ship’s arrival, you can then just take a couple more steps to victory. No treasure is required.

This game emphasized for me the varying-talents hodge-podge that authors at the time had. Some authors could pull off a relative sturdy parser but had questionable design choices; some had good idea but had trouble conveying them. This game falls into the latter, insofar as communicating was a consistent struggle (and remembering to always LOOK, and to check EXAMINE and SEARCH on nouns that might not even exist) but having a “realistic” series of obstacles and having treasures that should be ignored in favor of the overall goal was a refreshing idea.

If you’re interesting in testing the game out, it is playable online at zx81stuff.

Ok, this is mostly irrelevant, but I have to show this. Here’s the actual tape of Roulette, with everything hand-done in marker. I’m fairly sure this is a case where the author genuinely only published 30 tapes or so (dropped at a local computer outlet or taken to a show) and drew on all of them by hand.


Choice of Games LLC

Out now! Vampire: The Masquerade—Parliament of Knives—What Stares Back

Choice of Games is proud to announce new content for Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app.  Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives — What Stares Back adds the option to play as clan Malkavian or Lasombra, and 160,000 words of new story content. Unravel the mysteries of Vampire: The Masquerade


Choice of Games is proud to announce new content for Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app.  Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives — What Stares Back adds the option to play as clan Malkavian or Lasombra, and 160,000 words of new story content. Unravel the mysteries of Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives from a fresh perspective, opening pathways and relationships once forbidden. Master the stygian Abyss with new options and abilities. Discover the secrets of Primogen Ophelia and the powerful Magister diplomat Michalis Basaras. Explore a new relationship with Lucca, your mistress’s estranged childe, or feed the unbridled passion for bloodlust of the Banu Haqim Anarch, Sevinc.

Clan Malkavian: A Hallucinatory Accomplice

It has been said that a Malkavian is never truly alone—their visions and prophesy are a constant companion—but in your case, the concept of solitude has lost all meaning. An accomplice stalks your footsteps, often out of sight but never far away. It clouds your mind with fractured perception and insight, but not always in equal parts.

  • As a vampire of clan Malkavian, an eternal companion accompanies you. None but you can see it or hear its words of wisdom and delusion.
  • The unseen companion is yours to interpret as you see fit—name, gender, appearance, and demeanor.
  • Others too are afflicted by Malkav’s gifts. Your sire Eden Corliss and her childe Lucca are each changed in unique ways, with new twists waiting to be discovered.

Clan Lasombra: A Keeper of Shadows

Clan Lasombra has ruled from the shadows for centuries, leaders among the savage packs of Sabbat vampires at constant odds with the Camarilla and their Masquerade. Until recent nights, that is. The Lasombra have chosen to meet the constant threat of the Second Inquisition by joining with the Camarilla, but old grudges are not easily forgiven.

  • Control the otherworldly forces of Oblivion as a vampire of clan Lasombra.
  • Hide in plain sight or emerge from the shadows. Many in the Council believe that you and your sire belong to clan Ventrue. A necessary deception. But now that the Lasombra are integrating with the Camarilla, is it time to reveal your true nature at last?

Monday, 19. September 2022

Choice of Games LLC

Author Interview: Jeffrey Dean, Vampire: The Masquerade—Parliament of Knives — What Stares Back

Coming Thursday, a new expansion to Vampire: The Masquerade—Parliament of Knives! What Stares Back allows you to play as a vampire of the insightful clan Malkavian or the manipulative clan Lasombra! New powers, new secrets, and new romance options await within. I sat down with author Jeffrey Dean to hear more about What Stares Back. You can get this in-app purchase on all platforms this Thursday, S

Coming Thursday, a new expansion to Vampire: The Masquerade—Parliament of Knives! What Stares Back allows you to play as a vampire of the insightful clan Malkavian or the manipulative clan Lasombra! New powers, new secrets, and new romance options await within. I sat down with author Jeffrey Dean to hear more about What Stares Back. You can get this in-app purchase on all platforms this Thursday, September 22nd. 

For readers who are fairly new to the World of Darkness and might not know about all the spicy and exciting details about Malkavians and Lasombra, what does this new clan expansion hold in store for them?

Well, things are about to get darker–sometimes quite literally!
Lasombra are masters of the shadow powers of Oblivion. If you like the idea of summoning shadow arms to constrict your enemies, terrifying your foes with a glance, or spying by extending your senses out into the gloom, the Lasombra are the clan for you! Up until recently, they were members of the vicious cult of vampires known as the Sabbat, but now they’re slowly integrating into the modern sect of the Camarilla ‘Kindred.’ The main character and their sire have been living among the Camarilla for decades now, masquerading as members of the Ventrue clan, but the time is fast approaching when the proud clan Lasombra can rule openly, proving once and for all that power belongs in the hands of vampires with the savvy to survive and win at all costs.

Malkavians are always a challenging clan to write and I wanted to pay homage to the Clan of the Moon in a way that was exciting without going completely off the rails. Every vampire embraced into clan Malkavian has a unique way of looking at the world that can manifest as conduits to chaotic insights. Their strange behavior and eccentricities have other clans calling them “Lunatics,” but the truth is that most detractors are intimidated by the unpredictable power that Malkavians represent.

In Parliament of Knives, the Malkavian main character’s fractured perception presents itself in the form of a traveler who follows your every footstep, invisible to everyone but you! This ‘imaginary friend’ provides insights and commentary throughout the story, but something far more sinister is at work than what the reader might expect. The Primogen, Ophelia, wants in on your secrets, and you’ll soon find out that a Malkavian main character’s background is significantly different from members of other clans in the game.

As you were writing, was it fun to review your own work, looking at
different moments of Parliament of Knives with an eye to clan
experiences?

I’m not gonna lie, it was hard work! I combed through every word of
what’s already a massive tome of a game and added thousands of lines
of additional content. I couldn’t just make these new clans ‘palette
swaps’ like you’d expect in a lot of video games–they each had to
have their own unique flavor, dialogue, and scenes. The Malkavian
parts were particularly challenging, because I essentially had to add a new character that appears in almost every scene, all while being careful not to break the flow of the original narrative. Try doing that to a game already the length of six novels!

My favorite parts were when I got to flesh out certain characters who never got their proper time to shine in the base game. Trevor Haidt, the Tremere envoy was particularly fun to write, as was the new romance with Lucca that readers have been asking for!

Of our growing list of World of Darkness games, Parliament is
especially exciting to see an expansion on because the politics lend
themselves especially well to the lens of different clans. Do you have a favorite clan?

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Brujah, the often brutish but
misunderstood clan of hardcore rebels and philosopher kings. Robert Ward from the base game is one of my favorite characters and I channeled a lot of love into him!

After them my favorite is definitely the Lasombra. I knew I had to
find a way to fit the Night Clan into the story, and I think I found a sweet spot after a lot of care and consideration. This was a lot
easier said than done, especially when adding Lucca as a romanceable
character since she’s canonically of the same clan as the main
character, but also has a massive hatred for Lasombra that I had no
intent to retcon. What I ended up creating is a tale of secrets,
mind-control, and mayhem! I’ve been very happy with how the Lasombra
fit into the world of Parliament of Knives and can’t wait to hear how readers respond.

What else are you working on these days?

Werewolves 3: Evolution’s End will finally have my full, undivided attention once this expansion is released. Don’t worry, werewolf fans! I’m not going to leave you out in the cold! Bly, Jolon, Dena, Tiva, and all my other favorite fluff-balls will be back! (Even Williams, curse his hide!)

Sunday, 18. September 2022

Zarf Updates

Recent narrative games: summer 2022 edition

House of Da Vinci 3Citizen SleeperStrayI Was a Teenage ExocolonistHouse of Da Vinci 3by Blue Brain Games -- game siteThe review is mostly to say "Hey, this exists!" I wasn't expecting it. Happened to look at the iOS store one day, which I don't always, but there it was. (iOS only right now; Steam says Mac/PC is coming.) If you're not up on these, House of Da Vinci is what you play when you run out
  • House of Da Vinci 3
  • Citizen Sleeper
  • Stray
  • I Was a Teenage Exocolonist

House of Da Vinci 3

The review is mostly to say "Hey, this exists!" I wasn't expecting it. Happened to look at the iOS store one day, which I don't always, but there it was. (iOS only right now; Steam says Mac/PC is coming.)
If you're not up on these, House of Da Vinci is what you play when you run out of The Room sequels. Or if you don't want to follow Fireproof down their current VR-only alley. Yes, the Da Vinci games started as straight imitation of The Room formula, but so what? It's a good formula. Gizmos you can push, pull, twist, tweak, slide, and peer at through various magical lenses. Wish there were more of them.
(Quite a few games have tried to imitate this form, but not many nail the lush tactility and visual flair that makes it work. Machinika Museum is the closest I've run across. There was also one called Luna Strange but the publisher seems to have busted after the first chapter.)
Anyhow, Da Vinci 3 is an ambitious wrap-up for the series. It's considerably bigger than the first two chapters, with several (five? I lost count) puzzle-packed areas plus interstitial cut scenes. Lots to fiddle with. Nifty time-viewer gimmick. Cesare Borgia, history's favorite masked villain. (Just search that link for "Wa ha ha!") Also, the game exists, which was a nice surprise.

Citizen Sleeper

A delightful little RPG. Well, "little" compared to Disco Elysium, which people inevitably will. It's not really the same thing at all except the theme of people living in the ruins of somebody else's utopia.
You're a knock-off mind-clone, copied into indentured servitude in a cheap robot body. Someone dug you out of a spaceship in a scrapyard on a space-station that's falling to pieces. So are you. Wanna make something of it?
The themes (and the mushrooms) may remind you of Voyageur, but Citizen Sleeper is a traditional RPG with a tidy bundle of branching plots. What sets it off is its thoughtful setting and its sweet little game-mechanical engine.
The standard RPG setup is a forest of skill checks. You pick your goals, level up your skills, and take your best shot. In CS, you can tackle up to five challenges per day; the innovation is that you roll your dice first and then decide what checks to apply them to. (An iteration of the old "Fortune In The Middle" idea.) The result is that you have quite a bit of narrative control without ever losing the narrative tension of a rag-tag chancer buffeted by fate.
It's a simple system, and nicely transparent too. You can see the dice. If a task will become available in N days, or has to be completed within N days, you can see those timers tick down. Most of the big story goals require several successes to complete, and those counters are visible too. Turns out that's all you need to rig up short- and long-term goals -- a daily struggle for survival and slow-growing blooms of hope for the future. Hyphae. Whatever.

Stray

I didn't even have to mention the title. I just told people "I'm playing the kitty game" and everybody said yay! The kitty game was great! It was pretty great.
Mechanically, this is Tomb Raider but you're a cat. Except you never slip or fall or miss a jump, because you're a cat. You can die -- there's some levels where slimes or killer robots chase you -- but then there's levels where you just explore or talk to hapless robots.
(You don't talk to robots; your drone buddy does.)
The story is pleasant without being particularly memorable. Really the point is the background setting of gentle goofball robots who have constructed themselves in the shape of (even more background) vanished humanity, without particularly understanding what they are doing, but so what. It's a robot world now. Also you (the cat) are poking through the shape of an adventure game without particularly understanding what you are doing, because you are a cat, but that's okay, you (the player) can drive that bus. Cat-bus. Whatever. It's a nice parallel.
Stray might be a bit game-y. You don't have to be good at jumping puzzles -- those are unfailable. But you do have to be half-decent at running-from-monsters scenes and hiding-from-guards scenes. Those aren't hard from a gamer's perspective, but I bet some players are just here for the cat and will get frustrated on those levels.
Also it was too easy to forget where you last saw a given robot. Needs scent traces or something.
But generally I tooled around on my little cat feet and jumped up on things and knocked stuff over and found secrets and had a great time. Recommended.

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist

A delightful little RPG, I would have said at first. After a few sessions I realized it's a large RPG. Character-focused; the writing is really good; the setting is interesting and you can take the story in a lot of directions. But it's not as compelling as Citizen Sleeper. I had to sit around for a while thinking about why.
The structure is laid out explicitly: you choose an activity to do every month for ten years of your life, age ten to age twenty. A year has 13 months, so you get 130 turns. This feels rather regimented. Well, fair: the life of a ten-year-old kid is pretty regimented. You can decide what class to take, or do sports, or help out in various kid-accessible jobs around the colony. Thus your life advances.
You can also talk to other kids; that's a free action. So, to be mechanical about it, you've got a personal progression track and a separate bunch of friend storylines you can advance, dating-sim-style. (Which of course turns into an actual dating sim once puberty strikes.)
Naturally, plenty of stuff gets added onto this framework. As you get older, you find ways to do more things: better jobs, sneaking out of the colony, then (later) legitimately exploring outside the colony. An emergency or two overturns your life. The basic rhythm of "what to do this month" is just a stat-bumping platform for the meat of the game.
The problem, I think, is that the game doesn't really try to convey what you're building stats towards. You know that you need Toughness 40 to get the next story bit with Anemone, or Empathy 20 to get a story bit in the creche. But you never know what the consequences of those story bits will be -- new jobs, or new colony events, or what? It's always "I guess I'll bump that stat and see."
The clocks in Citizen Sleeper, in contrast, are extremely explicit. You need to push your connection to this person ten ticks in four days in order to get your next dose of medicine. You need to push twenty ticks to repair this ship. There's consequences there, too -- some jobs will go wrong or take you somewhere unexpected -- but you always have your eyes on a specific prize.
Disco Elysium (sorry, gotta go there) also gives you explicit goals. You need to bump your Rhetoric for this challenge, your Endurance for that one. The challenges are all in-your-face -- you've failed each one at least once, so it's personal. Bumping a stat doesn't guarantee you success, but it gives you another chance to try and that's what keeps you going.
Teenage Exocolonist is missing that bit of visibility. Until you get into the explorable maps; then you have a nice clear progression towards a (physical) destination. But you can't spend the whole game out there. You wind up back at school for most of your turns, if not most of your play time, and after a while it feels more like an idle clicker than an RPG.
The game challenges themselves are a card-game system. Straights and flushes score points; you need a given score to beat the challenge. This is simple but effective -- it's just thinky enough without distracting you from the story.
The comparison here is Signs of the Sojourner, where the card-games were conversations. That felt unfocused to me; was it a dialogue system or a challenge system? Am I making choices by playing particular cards? Teenage Exocolonist makes it simple: you are trying to reach <N> points to succeed at <X>. This works way better.
It's almost too simple, except for the clever bit: the cards are all rewards from earlier story events. Not only does this give you an implicit "power-up" advancement model, but the game is constantly reflecting your character's story. This card is when I made friends with a lizard! This card is when I got mad at my dad! This card is when I won the trivia contest, and that kicks ass! Triumphant outcomes give great cards; ambivalent story outcomes give cards with drawbacks (but they're still useful). Even your weak starting cards (...when I learned to crawl...) have story value, so you're not entirely annoyed to see them.
So I was into some parts of the game, and somewhat bored by other parts, and I got through my ten years to a... somewhat inconclusive ending. "Life goes on. It's not perfect." Is that satisfying? I mean, it's honest! The reward for surviving your teen years is the rest of your life.
Also, to be fair, I deliberately bypassed at least two story options that would have ended the game in more science-fictional (world-saving, transcendent, apocalyptic...) ways. So I got the ending I chose. I smooched the girl I had a crush on. She didn't want to date and that was honest too.
Recommended, but I want the next generation of story-RPGs to be more goal-directed.

Saturday, 17. September 2022

Renga in Blue

Omotesando Adventure (1982)

How can I say it? I can’t say ‘I can remember the graphics,’ because there weren’t any graphics. But I remember what I imagined it being, because you entered all the commands yourself: ‘Go up elevator.’ ‘Move ashtray.’ There were no graphics on the screen, so you had to imagine everything yourself. The quote-unquote graphics […]

How can I say it? I can’t say ‘I can remember the graphics,’ because there weren’t any graphics. But I remember what I imagined it being, because you entered all the commands yourself: ‘Go up elevator.’ ‘Move ashtray.’ There were no graphics on the screen, so you had to imagine everything yourself. The quote-unquote graphics that I imagined for the game I essentially created myself, because I had to imagine everything.

I got to thinking that it was very interesting that you had to visualize your own graphics. But what would a text adventure look like if it actually had graphics? I thought it would sell very well.

quoted from Koichi Nakamura, executive producer for Spike Chunsoft, who worked on the first Dragon Warrior games, Shiren the Wanderer, and visual novels like Danganronpa and Zero Time Dilemma

Omotesando Street in Tokyo. [Source.]

This game is a nexus. While arguably, all games, even the most obscure ones, have threads leading to them and out of them, with Omotesando Adventure these threads are very bright. This is the first (as we currently know) Japanese adventure game, although it was written in English.

It showed up in ASCII Magazine, a hobbyist computer magazine that had been running successfully since 1977. They were the ones that translated and printed Ahl’s 101 Basic Computer Games in Japan, and printed quite a lot of source code in each issue. Sometimes the source code was given in specialized languages GAME (General Algorithmic Micro Expressions) and later PL/1; sometimes they were straightforward BASIC; sometimes they were raw machine code.

The code was displayed on TRS-80 or PET screens and then the editor, Susumu Furukawa, took pictures with a Polaroid camera and mashed them together.

Our selection today was in raw machine code, in the April 1982 issue; in particular, in a “parody insert” called Ah-SKI! (“An Annual Magazine for Tired & Histerical Computer Scientist”) tucked inside was Omotesando Adventure, a game named after the street ASCII’s headquarters were on.

This issue we are introducing the Adventure Game. It’s an entirely new genre, the like of which was never seen on a computer. We may even call it a “New Type” of computer games.

The goal, as an employee of a rival company, is to sneak into the ASCII offices and sabotage their next issue. Before I get into gameplay details, I want to discuss those bright threads. According to Susumu Furukawa the game was coded with Adven-80, a “general purpose” adventure writing code base published in Dr. Dobbs Journal, in an article by Peter D. Scargill. (Dr. Dobbs was one of the offshoots of the People’s Computer Company, and lasted long after the PCC was dead.)

The system is slightly less flexible than the Scott Adams one; that one allowed for arbitrary timers to allow complex timed object and location effects, like a tide that moves in or out. ADVEN-80 instead hardcodes in a lamp timer and seems to have variable storage but doesn’t seem to allow multiple timers (unless I’m missing some complex hack) so has a relatively static world.

What’s most fascinating about ADVEN-80 is it cites other prior systems as sources:

– Scott Adams games in general

– The GROW system (the node-based system which I’ve written about here)

– Ken Reed’s article for Practical Computing published in the UK from 1980 (that I’ve written about here)

– Blank and Galley describing the system of storage for Zork on home computer

– Greg Hassett’s article on How to Write Adventure games (which I’ve mentioned here)

So, to summarize, the first Japanese adventure game (that we know of) pulls a system from an US publication, which itself was influenced by both US and UK writing about how adventure systems work. This is essentially a synthesis of the early years of adventure history.

Sadly, that doesn’t mean Omotesando is well-coded; perhaps it is understandable as the first adventure from the country and also not being written in Japanese. As the instructions mention, Japanese is hard to parse (it doesn’t really lend itself to “VERB NOUN” style commands without feeling broken and awkward).

Adventure games were developed in America, and so at this point in time both the descriptions and the input are set in English. (Because of that our English has improved considerably. When we play adventure games here at the office, a Japanese-English-Japanese dictionary is an essential accessory).

Furthermore, while outputting text isn’t a problem, formatting a request for action in Japanese is difficult and so is analyzing the input. We think even home-grown adventure games are going to use English for a while.

This prophecy was a little true; the next two adventure games from Japan (both from 1982) use English commands but have text and responses in Japanese, and there were also 1983 games with the same arrangement.

The computer emulated here is a NEC PC-8001 from 1979, essentially exclusive to Japan. It did later make it to the US as the PC-8001A although it remains very obscure outside of its home country.

So, back to the game itself: it is set at ASCII’s own offices, where your goal is sabotage.

You start at the entrance of the ASCII building and eventually find keys to unlock the three floors it is housed on (which I have marked in three different colors on the map above).

I admit being highly stuck for a while at first due to a number of oddities in the system:

1.) You can only see room exits by using LOOK in a particular room. This is relatively normal. However, this also applies to objects, which is slightly odd, and the objects don’t even exist until you’ve done LOOK which is staggeringly odd. That means if you die (and you will die) and restart, it is quite easy to casually try to OPEN DOOR and have the game tell you it doesn’t see one, but that’s because you never materialized the door yet with a LOOK command. Phew.

One of the early GAME OVERs.

2.) You can both LOOK at items and SEARCH them. One, either, or both can reveal differing information, but even more importantly, they do nothing on an item being held. The first set of keys I found I was unable to look at, which is unfortunate because I would have seen they went to the fourth floor and to the security box. The security box helps disable the alarm, as shown above; you need to just UNLOCK SECURITY while holding the right key.

3.) The offices are full of extraneous desks and items that you can’t pick up, except the game is unclear in its parser messages so it took me a while to realize it was trying to give the modern “that’s just scenery”. That applies, for instance, to the computer above, playing the game that you are currently playing.

4.) Sometimes the parser is just regular finicky in all the traditional ways, like the guess-the-verb fest above. I had a spray gun that the game described as for cockroach removal (as long as it was on the floor) but it turns out the right command is KILL COCKROACHES.

The gameplay essentially travels through a series of keys before landing on a gold one. The gold one can be used to open a safe with a “magnetic monopole bomb”.

I placed the bomb at what the game described as the “central zone of ASCII”, ran outside, typed DONE like the game commanded me and:

Oof. That’s not good. Fortunately, a helpful Youtube video by くしかつ Kushikatsu goes through a complete walkthrough, whereupon I found I was missing two things.

First, an umbrella and a raincoat. I actually had grabbed the umbrella already but not the raincoat, because GET RAINCOAT didn’t work when I found it. You’re supposed to just WEAR RAINCOAT upon finding it. I’m not sure if this is really needed at all, but the outside is described as rainy, so I’m fine with the roleplaying.

I’m not sure what is going on with the Klingon reference. Japan did like Star Trek and Ahl’s book includes the famous Star Trek mainframe game.

Second, more importantly: Kushikatsu closed and locked the safe and all the doors. Very unusual! Leave no trace. The only other game with a comparable trick from the Project I’ve run into is Gargoyle Castle where you had to pick up all the trash.

So despite it being caught in a murky fog of dodgy parser choices, and despite the game not giving enough feedback for the reason of failure, Omotesando Adventure has a genuinely clever gameplay trick up its sleeve.

(There’s one more trick, supposedly, based on Jimmy Maher’s writeup. There is a way to save your game based on doing some in-game trick. I never did find it, and the walkthrough I mentioned doesn’t bother. Anyone who knows what’s going on feel free to drop a note in the comments.)

Friday, 16. September 2022

Strand Games

Strand Games Design, Roger the Pirate, Part 3

♦ Welcome to part three of the "Roger the Pirate" series, detailing the Strand Games design and build process. We'll be designing the game, along with the source code and illustrations. If you haven't already read: Part 1 Part 2 Design Our hero, Roger Bland, has gone to the Smuggler's Cove Tavern to get recruited as a pirate. Hopefully. Roger asks Cahira, the barmaid, to

Welcome to part three of the "Roger the Pirate" series, detailing the Strand Games design and build process. We'll be designing the game, along with the source code and illustrations.

If you haven't already read:


Design

Our hero, Roger Bland, has gone to the Smuggler's Cove Tavern to get recruited as a pirate. Hopefully.

Roger asks Cahira, the barmaid, to point the pirate regulars to him. She tells him; these guys are all losers and he's wasting his time and money. But when he insists, she shrugs and says, Pirate Pete is here right now, over there sat in the corner drinking his beer.

Pirate Pete


Pirate Pete

Roger approaches Pirate Pete.

Pirate Pete

Pete, initially is not interested to talk to Roger, until Roger buys him a beer. After which Pete starts a conversation and begins to tell Roger about his amazing pirate adventures. Pete tells Roger tall, exaggerated stories of sea monsters, desert islands, cannibals and all sorts of sea-faring, salty tales.

Roger must buy Pete another beer to hear each story. It must be the best ale, and he doesn't do halves.

Story 1

Pete swigs his beer, and looks pensive.

"I was lost in the middle of the ocean, on a small raft. I'd lost my ship in a storm, and woke up to find myself floating on a piece of the destroyed hull. All around me I could see nothing but water for miles. After a few hours I spotted a giant sea monster swimming toward me. I knew that I was going to die, but I wasn't ready to give up just yet. I got lucky dodging the tentacles and the rocks it spat at me. Suddenly an idea came to my head, and I remembered my trusty penknife!

I thrust the penknife into the monster's throat, it made a horrible gurgling sound and sunk beneath the waves. After that, I collapsed, totally exhausted. Miraculously, I woke up on land and was rescued."

Story 2

Pete takes a long draft of beer and looks serious.

"I was shipwrecked on a desert island, surrounded by nothing but sand and palm trees. I got up and looked around, trying to find some sign of life. But there was nobody, no animals, no birds in the sky; absolutely nothing. I was completely alone on this island.

'What should I do?' I asked myself aloud. 'How will I survive here?'

As I walked along in my bare feet, I noticed something strange: there were footprints in the sand leading away from where I landed. At first they looked like normal footprints, but then they changed shape! They were no longer human at all! And they were coming towards me.

And then, suddenly, something moved in the distance! It was coming towards me: a giant monster! The creature's mouth opened wide as it approached, revealing rows upon rows of sharp teeth that glinted in the sun. It had three eyes! And its body was covered in...