Quondam: Irreversible Damage   3 comments

Since last time, I had managed to apply the mysterious message in a sandwich (see details in the comments) to break into a demonic restraurant:

You are in the kitchen of Beelzebub’s restaurant, full of imps preparing revolting food. The smell of sulfur and roast flesh catch at your throat.
A roast ox is turning on a spit.
A goblin is coming, the light gleaming off its many eyes and claws!
A ring is set in the floor.

Unfortunately, I spent many fruitless hours afterwards with no progress at all, and I decided it was time to break open the hints. In the commercial version, they were provided with the game itself as an envelope meant to be broken open in time of emergency.

It’s time.

Immediately I found my “stopping point” puzzle; it was Yet Another Visualization Problem, but I don’t blame myself here because the text suggests contradictory things.

You are lost in a trackless forest.
A little bird sings nearby.

You grab the bird, but it expires and you drop its remains.

Being able to grab the bird suggests that is literally “nearby” enough that one can reach out and grab it, not that it is perched a few trees over or anything like that. Consequently, it never occurred to me I could do this:

You struggle through briars you thought impassable to get to the bird which then flies to another branch.

You struggle through briars you thought impassable to get to the bird which then flies to another branch.

The bird finally flutters off.
You are on the shore of a wild sea surrounded by forest. There is a misty isle out to sea, which seems to move as you watch it.
An antique brooch lies here!

Compare: the bird is close by and far away at the same time. It’s like the adventure game version of a continuity mistake in a movie.

I’m going to be somewhat forgiving because solving this puzzle is followed by a section which I found breathtaking, enough so that I’m going to give a spoiler warning — this is likely the best part of the game.

Let’s pause with another horror vacui picture. This is the Sarcofago Grande Ludovisi.

I fortunately had my broken blade and my hilt with me (from the “reject sword” gag):

You strum – what else – ‘The minstrel boy’.
The waters carry you off to a strange isle in an eternal twilight. You lose track of time watching its helpful craftsmen.
They mend the sword for you.
You are on the strange timeless isle.

Escape required my “half of a ticket marked ‘Faery'”. Quick question here: is half a ticket normal for transport that uses tickets? Is this some sort of reference? Is it something like “one way is half the ticket, going back again is the other half”?

A swarm of creatures take the ticket.
There is a Ching! and they carry you back to the beach which has changed subtly. You feel weak, your hands wrinkle and your hair turns white. You have been long on the isle and are paying back the time!
You’re on the shore.

It occurred to me briefly that this was permanent — that you were meant to play the rest of the game as a very aged person — but this always happened on the next turn:

You decay to bones.
Your life is over.

However, you may remember I had an elixir which seemed to be a “shrinking potion”. Not really; that was just a side effect of the true nature:

You drink the elixir. Its youth spell balances your ageing and your health returns.

Aha! The “shrinking” was getting younger, and “vanishing” was simply due to going into negative years.

However, this didn’t turn back the flow of time. This is permanent time travel, on the order of something like 100 years.

Consequently, all parts of the map visited so far changed. The spider web with many small spiders turns into having three large spiders (which you can evade to grab some bones in the center of the web). The knight that has been blocking your way is … still blocking your way.

You’re on a path between two banks. An aged knight in gleaming armour is ready to contest the way.

Think about all the obstacles in generic fantasy worlds you’ve seen, where something / someone is guarding a single room. When you leave, do they still guard that room? Even after 100 years?

You slosh the water at the knight, whose armour immediately goes rusty! His movements get slower.

The rusty armour slows the knight and you slip past him.
You are in a forest clearing.
There is a large climbable tree here.
An elderly dragon puffs smoke rings here.

The “large climbable tree” was previously a “sapling” planted before the magical isle visit occurred.

Note that if you’ve had items lying around, they’ve all disappeared. The way to protect them is to “deposit” them in a bank. There happens to be a bank right where the knight is “You’re on a path between two banks.” (Beware of puns!)

The key is now in your account.

You can get them back again in a “branch office” of the bank in a branch of the tree. (Groan.)

The branch office mentions interest, which suggests if I deposit a treasure before the time travel it might yield some more riches. The only treasure I have to deposit is a “platinum medal” which I can only get I’ve already bribed the knight (meaning I can’t return to the knight’s location until later), so I’m not sure how I would make a deposit yet.

Anyway, as usual, still stuck. The aged dragon is fortunately now easy to get by, but I don’t know what to do in the part beyond:

You are standing in a forest glade, full of trees except for a road south. There is a small cave nearby, boarded up, with a sign saying ‘Emergency only’.
There is a red and white striped pole standing vertically here.

You are perched on a pole (and look VERY silly)!

Let me backtrack to my moment of thinking the unnatural aging was irreversible damage. That’s not a common thing in any game of any genre. In general, games seem to be deeply uncomfortable with permanent consequences that affect the physical aspects of the main character(s). Choices can have major plot effects and change the actions of other characters, sure, but with the exception of certain roguelikes (like UnReal World and Darkest Dungeon) every injury seems to have a cure potion around the next corner. Characters might be killed off, but never disabled. This is curious when you consider the amount of danger and trauma a typical video game character goes through.


Posted September 22, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quondam: Three Objects   17 comments

I have only made small bits of progress, finding new uses for items.

Jim at the Sandwich Tribunal found instructions and recreated all the British Rail sandwiches. The sandwich depicted is marmite. A test eater (one of his children) described the taste as “fermented bouillon cube”.

Object #1: The British Rail Sandwich

I know, I thought I was done with this one too. Just as a reminder, the sandwich gave me strength, but also nausea and death, until I did:

You tear the transparent wrapper off the sandwich.

It turns out that the sandwich hasn’t yielded all its secrets, yet:

You find a note, reading: I am a captive food taster for B.R. Help me by saying the password near the restaurant and I will help you.

There’s a place where a “password” might work:

You are in a room with an obvious exit east and a sign dangling from the roof reading ‘K.TC..N’ and pointing north.

I haven’t had any luck with any words I’ve tested so far, though.

Object #2: The Mirror

Holding the mirror too long is dangerous:

You see yourself in the mirror and, not looking, fall down a hole.
You’ve passed away.

I had come up with a convoluted way of transporting the mirror via rucksack. The issue had a simpler fix:


Now the item description (when seen in a room) is

A small face down mirror lies here.

and the mirror is perfectly harmless.

Object #3: The Harp

There is a harp made from rare woods here!

A perfectly natural attempt at PLAY HARP led to

You make an awful jangle.

Which in many games is just a signal that “your character can’t play this musical instruments, cut it out”. But no:


You strum – what else – ‘The minstrel boy’.

If I play the harp now for the dragon, the dragon is “pleased”, but still eats me if I try to walk by. I’ll have to experiment some more.

Posted September 19, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quondam: Beware of Puns   10 comments

I’ve made more progress and still managed to resist the lure of the walkthrough. My main breakthrough was simply finding I could go northwest from the desert and enter a new section.

Included in that area is a place where I can retrieve the items I deposited in “Customs” (the place that had me stuck last time). I also reached what I’ll call an “accidental solve” — if you try to leave the room where you can rescue your treasures, a hermit looks at your inventory disapprovingly and slams the door, trapping you inside. Let me backtrack a little:

You are in a small town square full of churches and monuments. The Spanish Inquisition are here, debating your future.

The crows bars your way.

The throng draws back and leaves a way free.

I had the luck of being stuck at this part (again, just not finding the northwest passage from the desert) and in an attempt to try everything, did this again after the first PRAY in the same location:

A cardinal lays a cross before you.

Eeeeeeeevil. In any case, if you’re carrying the cross (and I was, by luck) the hermit doesn’t shut you away.

I was also able to store treasures permanently.

This is a sunny but cool area. There is a pool of water here, with mud banks by it, and a holiday cottage to the nowrthwest. A path leads west, and all southward directions lead to desert.

You find a plate set in the mud, reading ‘Mud bank – alluvial section. Deposits only’ The mud seeps back.

The diamond is now in your account.

Unlike the Customs area I mentioned (where you can retrieve your deposits nearby), this officially “scores” the treasure. This moment is worth a little discussion.

I’ve always thought of puns as a deeply British thing, possibly because of the British crossword. They have the rule that every clue hints at its word (or phrase) twice, except one of the hints is likely some manner of wordplay.

Puzzle jumbled in game (6)

In any case, this section makes clear we’re not in a world-environment in the typical sense; rather, we are in a world of symbols where items can mean things on multiple levels, where signifiers are detached from the things they signify, and the computer-narrator which is supposedly the “eyes and ears” of the player is out to deceive and trick. (The sandwich from last time is a good instance of this — the whole segment is one that could not reasonably happen in real life, but was instead a challenge to extract a hidden layer of meaning.)

The game at least set the player up to think in terms of “deposit”, but the “allevial deposit” of a mud bank is still an outrageous pun on the level of a particularly fiendish crossword in The Guardian.

I feel like I’m not conveying everything by just talking about it, so here’s an opportunity for you, the readers, to solve a puzzle from the game. This didn’t require resolving a “pun” exactly but I did have to re-contextualize my visualization of an object in the game. Everything you need is in the text. How do you get by the invisible barriers?

You’re within a circle of stones. There are triliths to the northwest, southwest, and southeast; a pair of monoliths flanks the northeast path.

An invisible force stops you.

An invisible force stops you.

You are on top of a pillar. Nearby is another.

You are holding:
A harp!
A rock
Half a ticket
A metal rod
Some mushrooms
A stone slab
A sapling
A rope

From The Fall of Babylon (1555) by Jean Duvet.

Posted September 18, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quondam: Structural Solving   11 comments

Progress! (Also, outright puzzle spoilers follow.)

From the Book of Kells again. Horror vacui still remains an appropriate metaphor,
as solving one puzzle just tightens the game’s net leading to another. I feel a palpable pressure while playing.

One of the puzzles I was stuck on last time involved this object:

There is a B.R. takeaway sandwich here.

Eating it invoked a solution, but also a problem:

You eat the sandwich and its crunchy outside. Your stomach rumbles but you feel a new surge of strength.
You have stomach ache.

You have bad stomach ache.

You are in agony.

You are in agony
Your life is over.

There are some textual clues in retrospect, but the way I solved this was looking at the structure of the game. The sandwich is in a short underground section with many items that seemed necessary to continue, but it also was a one way trip — after exiting and leaving, there didn’t seem to be a way back. I needed to eat the sandwich while still underground to rescue a sword (well, part of one) from a stone, so I knew it was unlikely resolving the sandwich involved some future item. I focused just on what I had, and went through a verb list I had made trying everything reasonable I could think of on the sandwich.

You tear the transparent wrapper off the sandwich.

Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ok, that one is resolved.

I also managed to escape the spiders that attacked me after visiting the center of a “spider web” area and getting a bottle with an elixir.

A horde of spiders swarms over you and eats you.

I discovered, quite by accident (I was testing out a different theory) that heading west after picking up the elixir did not lead to immediate death. On a hunch, I tried circling the outer portion of the “web” and found the entire route was safe (see the map for some crude MS Paint action):

However, by doing this, it closed off the entire web area — I couldn’t go back without dying. This meant, structurally, that another puzzle in the same area needed to be resolved before the elixir:

You are on a ledge by a cliff. A strand leads northeast to the web and a tunnel leads southeast into the cliff.
A curtain of fire blocks the tunnel!

You stride into the flames, which don’t burn you – it must be an illusion! You hear a curse and various tinkering noises.
You are in a short cave, where nothing seems to have changed for ages. The only exit is a tunnel northwest.
A curtain of fire blocks the tunnel!
A small mirror lies here.
There is a harp made from rare woods here!


As you leave, you look at the face-up mirror while the flames lick about you. There is a cry of triumph as the flames reach furance heat.
Your life is over.

I had another item (the rucksack) that the mirror can be stuffed into for safety. However, this led to another issue: the rucksack has a hole. (It took a while for me to realize this). Essentially, every step you take unloads an item onto the ground. This is bad with the mirror because you have to then pick it up while standing on the spider web, and this happens:

You see yourself in the mirror and, not looking, fall down a hole.
Your life is over.

Since the bottle was necessary for another part, I figured I must had everything I needed for the puzzle; necessity forced me to focus. I realized, after some more experimentation, that the rucksack holds 3 items and most, and is first-in-last-out — that is, if I put the mirror in, and then kept refilling it as I was dripping items, I could cart the mirror to safety.

(Well, mostly safe — the falling into a hole business actually can happen outside the spider web, so I still can’t carry the mirror far without it being in the rucksack.)

In any case, I’m out of things to do, other than getting by a dragon (which eats me as soon as it sees me) and the weird “Customs” area I wrote about last time; specifically, leaving Customs leads me to a town square …

You are in a small town square full of churches and monuments. The Spanish Inquisition are here, debating your future.
There is a coil of rope here

The crowd bars your way.

The throng draws back and leaves a way free.

… and a desert …

You are thirsty.
You are in an expanse of featureless sand under a burning sun.

… but I haven’t found a way out of the area past this point. However, handling the burning sun requires emptying the bottle’s elixir and filling it with water. This suggests another structural solving consideration: if the elixir isn’t just a trap to be avoided (drinking it makes you shrink and disappear) then it needs to be used *before* reaching the Customs area.

Posted September 15, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quondam: Horror Vacui   12 comments

So: you’re a budding author determined to produce the most difficult text adventure ever made. How do you proceed?

If you’re Rod Underwood, by horror vacui.

Horror vacui (“fear of empty space”) refers to the artistic practice of filling every nook and cranny on a page or painting, most famously exemplified by the Book of Kells above.

In the sense of this game, it’s filling every space possible with a puzzle. Nearly every location and object has some aspect that can either a.) kill you outright or b.) cause you to make the game unwinnable.

Like this item from the very first room:

The star snaps out on a chain. The morningstar is a tricky weapon and you bash your brains out.
Your life is over.

Nearby, you find an elixir on a spider web. While you are predictably killed by the spiders …

A horde of spiders swarms over you and eats you.
You are very dead.

… you are also killed by the elixir itself.

You drink the elixir. You start to shrink… you’re changing .. Hey, where did you go?
You’ve passed away.

So far, this feels like the Philosopher’s Quest strategy, but that map was sprawling compared to this one.

The right half of the map that I have so far. The left half has an arrangement of hexagons making a spider web, but most of the rooms aren’t useful.

I’ve found 13 locations of significance, and I count 11 open puzzles. Here are all of them:

1. There is a sword in a stone (the REJECT one I quoted in my last post). I can eat a sandwich to gain strength and pull out the sword, although it breaks off at the hilt (I have no idea if the breaking is a puzzle, but the hilt counts as a treasure). However, the sandwich causes nausea and death shortly afterwards.

2. There is a “fungi room” with a “rapidly growing vegetable being”. You can JUMP to avoid immediate death (“You leap over the creature’s limbs just before they close over your legs!”) but after a few turns the being grows too large and kills you.

3. I found (via use of magic word) a customs room.

You are at the customs. The only exit is a portal pulsing red-green to the north. There is a notice here: Any goods left here are stored and will be restored when you leave. Items needed for survival are allowed. Duty is charged.
A fanged customs official waits for you to declare your goods.

Saving your game is safe here. I presumed storing treasures might work as well, but if I try to “declare” one it just disappears. I don’t know what that business about things being “restored when you leave” is. Also, if you’re carrying a rucksack with items inside and you try to leave the room all the items in the rucksack disappear.

4. There’s a desert area where you quickly die of thirst. You have a flask which presumably contains water, but it just breaks and gets you wet if you try to open it.

5. There’s the previously mentioned spiders, which trigger when you try to leave the center of a large spider web.

6. There’s a dragon that outright fries you if you try to go by.

7. There’s a knight that “challenges” you and blocks your way. You can distract by handing him your morningstar (see the first excerpt in this post). If you go back to the same room he returns to his normal behavior, and you can’t get the morningstar back.

8. There’s a cave blocked by an illusion of fire. I was able to pass through and rescue a harp, but there’s also a mirror in there that I can’t take out (if I do, I spot an image of the fire in the mirror that causes the character to pause, and the fire becomes real).

9. There’s a bird in a forest that I don’t know what to do with; if I try to pick the bird up it dies immediately.

10. The forest itself is a maze, and I am unclear if there’s a way to navigate it or if you’re just supposed to stumble at random.

11. It’s unclear how to drink the elixir while surviving it, or if you’re even supposed to (I’m guessing either you get rid of the inside and just use the bottle it came in, or you give it to someone else to drink).

I won’t count it as a #12, but I may or may not have incorrectly gotten past a lock. I was able to BREAK LOCK with ease but knowing this game you need to keep the lock for something later. Strangely, the same room had a key, but no verb that resembled UNLOCK LOCK or PUT KEY or the like was even recognized. This game is so unnerving that even after solving a puzzle I wonder if I’ve really solved the puzzle.

Posted September 13, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quondam (1980)   3 comments

Let’s take a break from light TRS-80 games and bring the pain instead.

From IFDB.

Quondam is the third game written for the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge University. If you’re a regular reader, you might recall the first was Acheton, which was somewhat intended as a more challenging version of the original Crowther and Woods Adventure.

Philosopher’s Quest followed and was even harder than Acheton. Philosopher’s Quest is one of the hardest games I’ve ever played.

Rod Underwood must have taken a look at both games, decided they just weren’t hard enough, and wrote Quondam.

The original mainframe version has been lost, but a port by Peter Killworth survives for the BBC Computer, so that’s the version I’m playing. To give you a sense of what I’m up against, here is my attempt to “save” at the start of the game:

This marks the first and possibly last time a save game feature ever killed me. (At least you get some cool shades to die with.)

Quondam is otherwise (so far) bog-standard fantasy, although it’s clear the tone is tending to the silly:

There’s treasure collection (again) but the manual is enigmatic about what to do with the treasures:

During the game you can display your score by typing SCORE and pressing RETURN. You can earn points by visiting risky areas, but most points are scored by depositing treasures in the ‘safe place’. This place is accessible at various times, but needs thought. Beware of puns!

Posted September 12, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Atlantean Odyssey (1979)   3 comments

Via on old eBay auction.

The obsession to find the first instance of something can occasionally make sense. We can trace patterns that stem all the way to the beginning. For example, the first Sierra game (Mystery House) established a penchant for instant-death that became nearly a Sierra trademark for a decade and a half, and the attitude was one that their competitor Lucasarts specifically was in opposition to.

As a rule, adventure games should be able to be played from beginning to end without “dying” or saving the game if the player is very careful and very observant. It is bad design to put puzzles and situations into a game that require a player to die in order to learn what not to do next time.
— Ron Gilbert, Why Adventure Games Suck And What We Can Do About It (1989)

Even in the case where the first instance of something was never followed as an example (due to obscurity of the work itself, the idea being too far ahead of its time, or random luck), it’s interesting to see as a proto-concept free from outside influence. A good example of this would be how Mystery Fun House manages participatory comedy even when the text is typical 1979-level sparseness.

Alternately, we can see early ideas that die as object lessons, getting a good notion of why nobody desired to copy a particular concept and if those conditions still hold now. The lack of compass directions in Empire of the Over-Mind come to mind; we can see the concept doesn’t mesh well with large-scale maps, and this also suggests that a map without much traversal (like some modern interactive fiction) would fare a lot better.

However, I don’t think it’s useful to think of being first as some sort of trophy, a historical totem to claim person Q’s biography is superior to person R’s, or to insinuate group X is better than group Y. First, this suggests history itself is some sort of competition. Also, convergent evolution can lead to entirely separate people coming up with the same thing (see how Wander did adventures before Adventure) and just because something made it to market in July rather than August doesn’t mean it is a superior. In fact, due to the factors of obscurity/luck the second or third to arrive at an idea can be much more influential than the first.

This is my rather long-winded way of introducing Atlantean Odyssey as likely the first full graphical adventure game, ahead of Mystery House.

Some caveats:

“Likely the first”: We have the source code above, solely credited to Teri Li (which includes lots of POKE statements to make the graphics, basically making assembly language in BASIC source) although I haven’t been able to find it published anywhere except The Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures which came two years later. Based on the history of how Spider Mountain was written, there is strong reason to suspect this version had a 1979 release in stores. However, the only extent tape copy I have been able to find (see eBay picture above) is a machine language version released a year later which adds Mark Robinson to the credits. It’s still possible with a 1980 release it came first, but I haven’t been able to dig up any records.

“Full”: One could reasonably point out that earlier mainframe work like Zork and Stuga had the occasional ASCII art, which arguably counts as “graphics.” However, the use was intermittent; it’s not like every room had an illustration.

In any case, with the fussy details out of the way, how does Atlantean Odyssey play?

The goal, as usual, is to find all the treasures (6 of them).

The very first room has a sailboat you can board with a knapsack, a speargun, a flashlight, and scuba gear. All of these items are entirely unnecessary. The scuba gear does let you dive underwater, but the capacity runs out fast enough I believe it won’t last the whole game (there’s a magical solution the game gives you right away that lets you avoid the issue). The flashlight is rusted and broken. The speargun can be used on a nearby shark but the shark just kicks the player to “Davy Jones Locker” (aka death).

Nearby you find a medallion:


and a hint on a temple wall:


By typing “PUSH RUBY” you are able to dive underwater, finding a second temple.

There’s another mural, which hints that “PUSH OPAL” will be useful; it takes you to another portion of the ocean where the game continues.

I’m not going to walk through every event that follows (it’s straightforward looking at everything in the environment, and further use of the medallion) but I did want to point out the main difference between this game and Mystery House: the game is entirely self-sustaining without the graphics (there’s even a later C64 version which doesn’t have graphics). Items are described in the text, rather than drawn in the room, so you don’t have the Mystery House situation of trying to guess what sort of object a squiggle is indicating. When there’s a door, the “open door” and “closed door” variations of the room look exactly the same.

Atlantean Odyssey’s method became the mainstream for text adventures; Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls, and Legend games generally had all the necessary content in the text, and even allowed for turning the graphics off if desired. (Zork Zero is the only exception from those companies I can think of, and that’s simply on particular puzzles like a peg-jumping one where graphics are needed.)

Mystery House’s method, on the other hand, led directly to the thread of interactivity directly dealing with with graphics instead of text, resulting in 1984’s King’s Quest I and all those games that followed.

My usual online-Javascript site doesn’t do well with this game, so if you’d like to try it out, you’ll need an emulator and a download. It’s a little less ambitious / revolutionary than Mystery House and consequently a little more playable.

Posted September 11, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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