Quarterstaff: The Infamous Puzzle   1 comment

In a curious way, even though I just started, I’ve been playing Quarterstaff for four years.

It’s long been one of the two Infocom games I’ve never tried (Shogun is the other one) and at one point when I was organizing my files I wanted to make a directory so I could play Quarterstaff when the time was right. I set up a Macintosh emulator (a bit of a ritual in itself) and gathered the documentation files I knew I would need. According to my file dates, this happened in 2014.

I had heard that in particular there was a puzzle reliant on the documentation that was quite nasty to solve.

The most significant “real” puzzle is that of deciphering a set of magic words using a parchment and wooden coin included in the game package. (Apparently quite a few players were stumped by this — Infocom actually gave away the entire solution in the very last issue of “The Status Line,” which is included in manual download below).
Home of the Underdogs

The documentation included the “parchment” on the top of this post, as well as a wooden coin.

Knowing about the puzzle’s reputation, intermittently I would take a glance at the image files in my directory, idly trying to solve the puzzle. Was there an acrostic or something of that sort in the poem? What did the difference between the coin and the parchment pictures mean? Do the animals to the side have a meaning?

Fast-forwarding to now:

This is the way to the second level, but this is also the location of the identify wand, which seems to be critical to the game, because examining it says “The glowing identify wand is in the gouged hole. A wand that looks to be used for copy protection. You had better read the documentation to figure out how to use it.”

The manual states the format for wand use is [MAGIC WORD] [TARGET OF MAGIC]. The mystery seemed to be what magic words could be used, and thus the puzzle boiled down to finding “magic verbs” the game would recognize. The four mini-poems at the bottom seemed to be applicable.

To glean the secret of a Wand,
Spy the rising sun, and pace
Southward six.

Here I was stumped, likely as stumped as the poor Status Line readers, until I had a lateral insight. Let’s clip an image from the game as a bit of spoiler space …

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(don’t go on unless you want the puzzle completely spoiled)
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… before mentioning I remembered that the coin was a physical object, and while it was not certain from the pictures, it appeared to fit inside the compass circle on top of the parchment itself.

Additionally, I noticed there was an arrow on the coin; I originally assumed it pointed to north, but then realized because of it being physical the coin itself could be rotated to match whatever the poem wanted. That is, if we “spy the rising sun” (start pointing east) the arrow on the coin can can be rotated to face east. Then from the eastmost point we can read off six letters rotating clockwise (“pacing southward”).

This gets ODEEPS which is indeed recognized by the game!

>Odeeps identify wand.
The identify wand glows faintly and suddenly Titus clearly understands exactly what it can be used for: Using this wand will allow the wielder to identify scrolls, wands, potions, and keys. They key words necessary for using the wand can be deciphered from the scroll and coin included in the game packaging.

I know I promised I would get to combat this time, but I’m going to wait a little longer while I explore Level 2; the game makes some very extended claims about artificial intelligence and I’m trying to verify if any of the claims hold out.

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Posted April 20, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quarterstaff: Great in Concept, Painful in Execution   Leave a comment

The back of the Infocom box, via an Etsy auction.

It’s been a while! (You might want to reread my first post about Quarterstaff and then come back here. TLDR version: Quarterstaff is a Macintosh-only hybrid text adventure RPG with multiple characters.) While I’ve been busy with other projects, to be fair Quarterstaff itself is trying really hard to be unplayable.

1. The multiple characters sound good in principle but are painful in practice. Members of a group can act separately, so you get a series of prompts like:

L Titus? DRINK POTION
F Bruno? Z
F Eolene? EXAMINE BELT

so while one character is trying to do something finicky like adjust their inventory, you have to control the other characters at the same time. (“L” stands for leader and “F” stands for follower. You can change who is the leader and also separate groups.)

This gets really bad with something like DROP ALL or TAKE ALL because each item is considered a separate action, so if someone is dropping three items, your other party members are prompted multiple times for actions in between each item getting dropped. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds:

Fortunately (although I only found this out about 2 hours in) it’s possible to turn off this feature by deselecting a character name from one of the menus (it just has the “clover” symbol, no name). Multiple character control is still needed for things like combat, though.

2. There are lots of circumstances (at least early on) where a character is too heavily weighted down to enter a particular area. This not only requires the aforementioned inventory shuffle, but if somone who gets stuck is a follower, whoops! — your regular party goes ahead and your follower stays behind in the dark.

3. The interface uses multiple windows for player control and messages, map, and graphics. This doesn’t sound bad at first, but if a character gets separated from their group it pops up a new window, and the graphics are wildly inconsistent in size so that particular window grows or shrinks on every turn.

Note I’ve left the top left free because the picture sometimes takes up the entire area I have allocated. If I accidentally click in that blank space with no picture I get sent to the desktop.

4. The parser is on shaky ground at times.

Once I tried to >OPEN CLOSET and the game just picked it up instead.

5. Party death results in this ignominious screen (and the famous “Macintosh beep”) and then a summary exit to desktop.

6. While this is not the game’s fault, I’ve had my emulator crash on me multiple times. I’m going to switch software and see if that helps. Fingers crossed!

I’ll try to get into combat next time; I haven’t seen enough of it to really write about it properly.

Posted April 19, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Some updates   Leave a comment

Sorry for being quieter than usual, but I’ve been busy with something that has a deadline. (It’s also all-or-nothing; I’ll find out soon if I have a follow-up announcement worth making.)

I certainly hope to be back to Quarterstaff and the lurking 1980 games soon!

In the meantime, I wanted to mention that Gareth Damian Martin — who entered Salt in last year’s IFComp — is trying to Kickstart a new game called In Other Waters. “Guide a stranded xenobiologist as they explore and study the secrets of an alien ocean.”

Also, I don’t believe the creators here have any particular past in interactive fiction, but the trailer just looks rad. Genesis Noir: “A noir adventure game set before, during, and after the Big Bang. To save your love, you must stop the expansion of the universe.”

The new-ish blog Comparative Creation has a series on Wander. It mentions the possibility that work started on Aldebaran III before Castle. This feels likely to me; the former certainly feels more “made from the void” than the latter. (Also, the character Retief was already in full swing in 1974.) Given the potential faultiness of author memory I think the only way to be certain would be to unearth the early BASIC version, which still might be lurking in an archive somewhere.

Posted February 8, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Quarterstaff (1987)   Leave a comment

I was going to get back to my regular sequence from 1980, when I found out The CRPG Addict was about to start Quarterstaff. Quarterstaff was originally written by Scott Schmitz and Ken Updike for Macintosh and published in 1987, but picked up by Infocom in 1988 and republished (with new color graphics and extra writing by Amy Briggs of Plundered Hearts fame). It remains one of the few Infocom games I’ve never beaten, so the opportunity seemed too good to miss.

I tried this sort of simultaneous blogging before once when The CRPG Addict embarked on Fallthru, but that game turned out to be far more RPG than adventure, and I only squeezed out two entries before my body gave out. (“The numbers represent actual numbers of steps, so reaching Biclif to the north by walking requires typing N for north 250 times.”) I can safely toss that game on the “not an adventure” pile and move on.

Quarterstaff, on the other hand, looks to be more adventure than RPG. The plot premise at least is typical RPG; find evil, go slay it. (Or make friends with it, or join forces and become evil yourself, or teach it scrapbooking and then slay it because it used too many sparkles, or …?)

However, during the last six months, the usually-stable Tree Druids have begun to act unnaturally. Their attendance at the Druid Council has become oddly erratic, and the sect’s communication with other Druidic colonies has mysteriously dwindled to nothing . . . Three months ago, all traces of the sect vanished entirely. Three scouts – famed warriors named Bruno, Jaroo, and Eolene – were sent by nearby colonies to find out what had happened. Several weeks have passed without word from them, however, and once again the people of Rhea have grown restless for news of the sect. Casting about for another warrior to send, the Druid Council has called on you to journey forth and discover what unspeakable terror has destroyed the once-prosperous people.

Despite the plot, Quarterstaff manages to squeeze off its own supply of uniqueness:

1.) There are multiple game windows that can be rearranged however you like. I remember seeing this in the Magnetic Scrolls Collection but even now this isn’t that common a thing in text adventures.

2.) You start out, alone, as this guy:

TITUS may look muscle-bound, but he’s got brains to match his enormous muscles. Titus used to be a blacksmith, but then again, he used to be a lot of things. The Druid Council chose Titus for this mission because he was the toughest looking and talking person around and also because he was just drunk enough to accept the mission.

However, you can control multiple characters. From the manual: “Some creatures may find it beneficial to join forces with you, and so, while you begin the game alone, you may quickly become the leader of a sizable party. Of course, as your party grows, you gain control over the actions of its individual members; you may wish to split up into several groups, or even to elect a new leader.”

The very first party member you get (Bruno) is just a few steps away, and all you need to do is >GREET BRUNO to get him to join the group. This game isn’t much for conversation menus.

Once you have more than one party member, if your lead character does an action other than movement, you set commands for all the characters in your group simultaneously. (That is, Titus can examine an item at the same time Bruno is busy unlocking a door.)

3.) The game keeps track of stats, which qualifies it for RPG-status:

4.) There’s a macro system, a built in verb list, and the ability to pick any item in the room or in one of your character’s inventory straight off the menu. The interface would be considered awesomely advanced by the text adventure community if it was in a current game.

There’s also some physical materials that came with the game that match in-universe items (as was standard with Infocom). I’ll show them off next time. In the meantime, I’ll wander and see what trouble I can get into.

The Tree Druids, world-renowned for their acumen in the healing arts, disappeared without a trace, leaving this empty complex. Where could the two score inhabitants have gone, so suddenly? This thought haunts you as you travel down the damp, cool passage.

Posted November 28, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: Summary and Mini-Reviews   2 comments

Voting has closed although as of this writing results have not been released for the 23rd running of the Interactive Fiction Competition.

I did “full” reviews of 18 games, which I’ve linked to below. I have added 6 more games to the list which I didn’t do a full review of (mainly because I didn’t finish the game or at least didn’t feel like I was “done” yet) and I’ve put mini-reviews of those games below.

Highly Recommended

10pm by by litrouke
Guttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous by Bitter Karella
Harmonia by Liza Daly
Unit 322 (Disambiguation) by Jonny Muir
The Wand by Arthur DiBianca

Recommended

AND WHEN I SQUINT IT LOOKS LIKE CHRISTMAS by Norbez
A Beauty Cold and Austere by Mike Spivey
Black Marker by Michael Kielstra
Bookmoss by Devon Guinn
The Cube in the Cavern by Andrew Schultz
Day of the Djinn by paperyowl
Deshaun Steven’s Ship Log by Marie L. Vibbert
Queer In Public: A Brief Essay by Naomi Norbez
Salt by Gareth Damian Martin

Not Recommended

1958: Dancing With Fear by Victor Ojuel
A Castle of Thread by Marshal Tenner Winter
The Fifth Sunday by Tom Broccoli
Haunted P by Chad Rocketman
a partial list of things for which i am grateful by Deon Guinn
The Richard Mines by Evan C. Wright
Run of the place by WD\x{1F479}K
TextCraft: Alpha Island by Fabrizio Polo
Ultimate Escape Room: IF City by Mark Stahl

Mini-Reviews

1958: Dancing With Fear by Victor Ojuel: Possibly the greatest setting / premise of the entire competition (you’re in a Caribbean country during a revolution, the game is framed around it being a 50s era movie) but I got bogged down by the parser and had to use a walk-through for nearly every action. There’s a “THINK” command which is essentially a built-in walk-through but I think the main game could use some more nudges. Probably the one most likely to bump up a level if the technical issues are resolved.

AND WHEN I SQUINT IT LOOKS LIKE CHRISTMAS by Norbez: The closest I played to a straight CYOA-book style experience. Written for children; maybe a little too much on that end for adults to completely enjoy. (“Wizards are real?! I think to myself, trying not to say it out loud. Just like in my fairy-tale books?!”) Still a solid yarn in general, although I want to stop for a brief rant about the font. It uses OpenDyslexic. I know people try to be well-meaning, but the idea that OpenDyslexic helps with dyslexic readers is not backed up by science: see this 2013 study, or this more recent one from 2016. Dyslexia is not in the eyes, but in the brain. The best thing you can do for a dyslexic reader is maximize readability in general; as a bonus, this will make things easier on all your other players too.

Bookmoss by Devon Guinn: A story about entering books through magic moss. I kept worried there would be some horror element but everything stayed pretty light. Good with afternoon tea. Could probably use some more substantial characterization.

Day of the Djinn by paperyowl: Your sister has left you a curse, and your goal is to break it. This is an adventure game in Twine and it suffers the typical-to-Twine issue of reducing what should be gleeful discovery into Just Clicking Stuff. Still, this is very solidly made and has potential to bump up to Highly Recommended once I check more of the endings.

Deshaun Steven’s Ship Log by Marie L. Vibbert: You steer an underachiever on a space ship; the story is told through his diary entries after the action happens. I felt like I was bouncing around at random like one of the crazier choose-your-own-adventure books even though there clearly was some undercurrent of agency, but I was never able to figure things out. It was funny enough that this didn’t really matter to me, though.

Guttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous by Bitter Karella: Super sharp characterization, as “Lil’ Ragamuffin, the roughest toughest urchin” tries to escape a brainwashing asylum. I love the companion sewer rat Percy (who went to Oxford, who in addition to being a fun conversationalist can read things for the illiterate main character). Unfortunately I also got very stuck with the puzzles once things opened up, and I’m worried the design might have some flaws later.

Posted November 16, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: A Castle of Thread   3 comments

By Marshal Tenner Winter. Finished on desktop using Gargoyle.

This parser game is technically standard-issue fantasy, but still has a cool premise: you are one of the few people who speak the obscure language Ixteesh, and due to your talents you have been invited (for mysterious regions) to the distant town of Badushizd.

Polt-
Don’t be a damn fool while you are away from the village. Remember, you are representing House Kober. Also, be sure to stay near Venkath Mock. He is there to protect you on this errand.
As for that, when you reach Badushizd, seek Deviah at the Vulgar Unicorn tavern. She is the go-between and will take you where you need to be.
Be swift in this task and return home safe, son.
-Headman Phandaal Kober

The opening has you on board a vessel bound for your destination when you find a note slipped under your door that says you are in danger.

This is ambitious: there’s all sorts of NPCs to interact with, including major action scenes where they try to kill you. Unfortunately, the technical demands here exceed the author’s capability; each NPC has only two or three things to say, and it’s fairly easy to run into issues that break the solidity of the world. (Get used to seeing “There is no reply.” quite a bit if you’re not using the walkthrough.) The puzzles are difficult enough that it’s unlikely a player will simply zero in on the right solutions, but there is very little helpful feedback when taking the wrong approach to things.

Even when you have the right solution the parser can be a struggle. Here’s two examples:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted November 6, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: Salt, a partial list of things for which i am grateful, Run of the place   2 comments

Salt by Gareth Damian Martin. Finished on desktop.

a partial list of things for which i am grateful by Deon Guinn. Finished on desktop.

Run of the place by WD\x{1F479}K. Not finished.

A triple review! These happen to share a minimalist vibe, although they don’t share the same levels of quality.

Salt places you in the water, swimming to the sea, in a lightly-defined fantasy universe (lightly defined enough everything might be going on in the player character’s head).

Text is displayed in short spurts of 12 words or so at most. You start “above the water”, where there is no interativity other than to wait as messages slowly go by.

The beach is a strip of heat.

You stand knee deep in the water, facing out to sea.

Familiar voices shimmer behind your head.

You take a breath, and then begin.

The main interactivity after is to “swim”, which involves hitting the space bar. The space bar needs to be timed, however; there’s a meter that moves inward, and to get maximum swim distance you should hit the button the moment the meter goes away. Wait too long and the swimming ends.

Turquoise…

…impossibly tuquoise…

…and warm, like no sea you’ve known.

Every once in a while you can make a choice by picking “up” or “down” but for the most part these are for flavor. The fact you can end swimming at any moment does lend itself to more agency than it initially appears. (I have a suspicion there are at least three endings and possibly more.)

The atmosphere (and music) are solid enough this is definitely worth the 15 minutes or so it takes to play through once, but of course I have a few quibbles:

a.) Even 15 minutes is possibly too long, given the interface; I went from interested to immersed to irritated from having to press the space bar every second in order to keep reading the underwater text. I could easily see a player having trouble altogether and quitting early. Perhaps an “accessibility mode” would help (one where you can just switch swimming on or off at will)?

b.) There’s a high pitched whine when going from underwater to above-water. For people with sensitive ears it is painful. The game recommends headphones; I recommend not using headphones.

c.) There’s not enough clues to really get a handle on who the PC is, who the other figures are, where this sea is located, and what’s really happening to the PC. This is clearly Intentional, but that’s also literally the entirety of the Plot, so I found it too vague to be fully pleasing.

d.) The above-water message speed was slow enough that I found myself doing chores while the game was playing, which is a definite sign the message speed could be bumped up a little.

a partial list of things for which i am grateful is a quite literal title. This isn’t some story where a list is included, or an ironic work where no such list exists. This is just a list of things.

You navigate from one thing to another by clicking one of the letters of the previous thing. The links are essentially at random so there is no agency. This isn’t even like one of the McSweeny’s lists where there’s humor or a story arc involved; this is just stuff the author likes, given in random order. Entered into an interactive fiction contest.

>> deep breaths << I guess I can, er, write about how it holds up as a list?

I've done this before with non-fiction entered into the contest, and what was essentially static fiction, but I have no idea what sort of aesthetic values to even use here. I guess, as an activity, it’s nice to reflect on good things. I get the “private game” vibe and I gather there might be lots of meaning here for the author and people who know the author. This doesn’t do anything for me, though.

In Run of the place, you pick one of 6 vague options (shown above) and then are treated to a random cavalcade of text by holding down the space bar.

That’s it. You hold the space bar, text keeps going. You let go, text stops.

I never ran into any “racist language” but I easily believe there might be some. The text appears to be scraped from somewhere and mixed up in a random generative sense. I’m curious what the source was; it reads like Twitter filtered through a madman-crazy writing style like The Time Cube.

I guess if you’re into that sort of thing, you can put on some space music, set the window to full screen, put a rock on your space bar, and zone out for a while. However, I don’t think free-form political ramblings are the healthiest thing to do this to.

There is a timer that goes for 2 hours exactly. I have no idea if something special happens at the end. I’m not curious enough to know.

Part of the now-gone Time Cube website. Via Know Your Meme.

Posted November 3, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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